The Ambivalence of Fashion

The Ambivalence of Fashion

dualisms in industrial practices

The increasingly central role of fashion in contemporary culture has made it a defining feature in our lives. Fashion’s influence upon one reflects not only in its expansion as a (profitable) culture industry but also in its compound inter-connections with prosaic structures, social and political movements, and identity formations. From the development of fashion as an industry with its foundation in exclusivity, to the democratisation of its systemic principles, the dynamic of fashion has changed dramatically over the last century. The prominence of fashion as dress, image, art, practice and industry has fortified its position within visual culture, and the concept of what ‘fashion’ is and what constitutes the fashionable has sustained continuous advancements. 

Despite notable shifts in notions and practices however, fashion remains an enterprise muddled with tensions. Concurrent with its rise in popularity has been the rise of more critical issues. At one end, fashion functions as a medium of creativity, imagination, art, beauty, and expression. At the other end, unconscious practices associated with its pursuit (have) give(n) rise to a myriad of environmental, socio-economic and psychological issues. Due to the dualistic experiences and effects that it subjects one to, fashion has progressively gained ground as a field of critical analysis – as well as one subject to critical analysis – across disciplines and popular media.

While changes in the fashion system are concomitant with fashion’s own identity as an ephemeral and protean system, it has been difficult to estimate whether the democratisation of fashion can be credited to be a truly intentional change in perception, or to be a result of an industry contending itself with the shifting pace of design and of the world. It is equally complex to conclude what such democratisation has essentially meant in this context – is it the action of making fashion accessible to everyone as part of being inclusive or a shift from being impelled by profit, thrust upon by the changing digital landscape?  

Artwork by Sunaina Mehrotra

Media technologies – fashion images, advertisements, videos and networked communications in particular – have also come to play a crucial role in the forms that fashion takes in contemporary relations and the experiences it makes possible. Fashion industries and entrepreneurs promptly offer the public (aesthetic) experiences premised upon the performance of interpersonal connection through simulation and social media, such that they often become a site of reflection, creativity and expression for its participants. The digital mediation that has supported the expansion and diversification of commercialized fashion has further transformed the ways in which cultural identities and meanings are formed. The utilization of fashion on social media platforms now suffice as a space for the convergence of simulation and reality, and embody inter-cultural experiences and identities through the medium. The fashion media has thereby not only promoted developments in fashion that have shaped mainstream culture and its machines, but have also structured the manner in which fashion conventions prevalent in the contemporary era are embedded in our lives. But this (changing) landscape of fashion also exposes intimate intersections between desire, fear, shame and consumption. The desire to ‘stand out, yet belong’ – both in fashion discourses and related cultural and digital practices – induce feelings of inadequacy (shame) and separation (fear), and influence competitive consumption patterns between peer groups. The institutional obsession in fashion with newness, distinction and originality and its hyperbolic display on social media often engender amongst people an image of their identity in these ideals, and therefore in conspicuous consumption of what is fashionable.

Similar polarities exist in other domains. Though historically it is the fashion industry that has championed the LGBTQIA+ movement and community – through representation and dialogue in music, film, documentary, media, mass-movements as well as operations within the (fashion) industry – the question of how far (and how successfully) this movement and representation has penetrated through our social relations remains debatable. The continual ‘changes’ that fashion is guilty of perpetuating would have allowed the fashion industry to spearhead (for) ‘inclusivity’ prior to other industries and precipitate greater force toward it. But even through these movements, it has become imperative for us to ask if fashion practices a lack of awareness and empathy, and if that has always been the way of operation for the industry. For, the cultural dismissal and minimal representation in fashion of all that may be “old”, “large”, “queer”, “short”, “dark” and “disabled” – or in other words, of all that may be normatively ridiculed – still trails one into following a shadow that cannot be assimilated with their self.

Over the decades, people have repeatedly opposed the industry normatives and several designers (Stella McCartney, Erika Varga), brands (Otherwild, Chromat), artists (Jameela Jamil, Rihanna) and alternate fashion movements (sustainable, ethical, and slow-fashion) have been uncovering such issues within the fashion system – demonstrating, that fashion can (and needs to be) an authentic form of art, expression, agency and social change that is truly inclusive of diversity. Yet, industry practices are inundated with euro-centric beauty standards, cultural appropriation, tone-deaf articles, celebrity deification and retouched images. At the same time, the reports of abuse and sexual assault in the industry that came to light during the Me Too movement express that the industry remains shrouded in virulances in spite of structural shifts. Parallelly however, fashion has also become one of the primary industries through which this movement has gained strength over the last year.

Artwork by Sunaina Mehrotra

The character of these power dynamics and dualisms in the fashion industry beseech the question of the extent to which social change, representation and practices have been equitable, and to which they suggest ornamental pragmatism within the system. Even so, the recurrent ambivalence and oscillation of progress and decline in industrial matters are not peculiar to the fashion system, but are manifestations and extensions of a wider set of institutional and cultural beliefs and practices. The correspondence of fashion with events as political revolutions, technological innovation, avant-garde art signifies that we can employ the medium (and its various interpretations) to understand more closely the (global) cultural apparatus within which it is situated. Contradictorily though, the opposing effects of fashion are such that though an authoritative force, in several instances, it fails to transcend the institutional patterns that it has inherited and created. To understand the trajectory that fashion is taking, and its consequent relation(s) to the individual, the body, and (self) perception, it becomes crucial then to critically reflect on ideologies that govern its industrial and cultural forms. As fashion is not merely a material or artistic product but also an intangible system of signification that conveys a number of different social meanings, deploying its power as an institution and artistic form can usher further reformative and creative change; change beyond its material and industrial aspects – through the dialogues it initiates, the shift in narratives it occasions, and the representation and debate it fosters – to impact the lives of those who consume it and its content (both materially and digitally).

We collaborated with illustrator Sunaina Mehrotra for the illustration in this thought piece.

These illustrations are part of a series called ‘Warped’. Here, she explores the imperfections and impurities associated with handmade textiles and how procuring them from remote regions always poses a challenge.


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With Karuna Ezara Parikh

With Karuna Ezara Parikh

Conversations on The Profundity of Language & her book The Heart Asks Pleasure First

Along with being an artistic and expressive channel, writing is a medium that represents our meaning(s) and structure(s) of thinking in a given piece of work. Encompassing multiple perspectives and forms, writing has been a prime ideal through which to explore the human condition in all of its complexity, and simplicity. Reflecting on the profundity of language and the power of writing, we at IKKIVI had the pleasure of speaking with Karuna Ezara Parikh on the influence of books in her early life, their lasting impact on her present work and approach to writing, her creative process(es), as well as her upcoming book ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First.’ She also shares with us her experiences during the CAA/ NCR protests and in isolation. Parikh employs writing in an artistic capacity to express her views and vision, and offers varied and important insights on broader creative and social matters through her work.


What was your relationship with books and art as a child like?

 I grew up in a house full of books, so I think that helped bring them into my everyday existence from a very young age. Some of the titles I saw around the house as I was growing up, imprinted on my memory and I still remember their spines today… particularly my mother’s volumes of poetry, old Hollywood coffee table books, and early texts on feminism. I think when a child grows up with books, they are no longer separate, or something to strive to incorporate in a life. Instead they’re everyday magic, existing as friends do. It wasn’t long before I was saving up pocket money to have my own. 

Are there any artists/ writers whose work you personally came to identify with as a child, and still continue to?

Enid Blyton’s ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ and Kenneth Williams’ ‘I Only Have To Close My Eyes’ come to mind. The latter is now sadly out of print, but I reference it in my novel – that’s how much I loved it! Even today I find them utterly transporting.

You often utilize writing as a means of expressing dissent. Are there any particular experiences or times you recount where you saw language and writing as powerful tools (of change)?

 When I wrote my Paris poem and saw the global response to it – on a personal level, nothing has come close in showing me how much power the written word possesses. To write a poem and two hours later have a hundred thousand people to share it. To have the BBC calling 24 hours later, Paolo Coelho rewriting it 48 hours later… That was shocking for me. I realised that I can use my words for so much better. 

 On a greater level, the things I have learnt about the world from reading, remind me of that power constantly. Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy and Jonathon Safran Foer’s non-fiction come to mind. 

Writing is a different experience for everyone. Is getting to the actual exercise of writing simple for you, or does it require you to be more disciplined?

I wait. An idea appears as a seed. I don’t begin to write immediately. I let it lay in the mud of my mind, I water it with thought, I turn the soil, maybe take a bit of sun to it. And then when I feel I cannot resist the pen, I begin putting down words.

I think most artists struggle with discipline, and there is this romantic idea that it is part of the art itself. I too have thought that way in the past, but after writing my book, I see how it is simply bringing yourself to the page, the table, the pen, the idea, day after day, that results in fruition. 

What is the most difficult aspect of writing for you?

Not being as good as I want to. I want to write better and better. I sometimes pause while reading a phrase or a paragraph in a book and think ‘Wow, now that is something!’ and I am in such awe of the different ways people practice approaching this craft, and it inspires me to be better but it is hard to hold yourself to a certain perhaps impossible standard.

Editing is a tough process – letting go of things you’ve written. Writers are so in love with their own words, I think it’s necessary to alert a very cold side of your heart before editing. My editor Teesta Guha Sarkar gently pointed out many places in my book where I had rambled on…and despite my attachment to those lines, I knew, with cold clarity eventually, that she was right. Letting go is hard – but important. 

What kind of differences do the mediums of poetry, prose and script writing allow you to express? Do the differences in these mediums converge at a certain point?

They each take care of a different aspect of me and allow me the liberty to explain my beliefs and my version of a perfect world, in various ways. I think they converge in style and in a value system. Both are consistent in all forms, or so I would hope.

How has your craft developed and evolved over the years? Have you taken a particular direction with it?

Intuitively. Though I always wanted to write books, I ended up working as a journalist in order to provide for myself financially. Poetry, a tighter medium, allowed me to continue to express my heart. Eventually when I have written a book, I feel like there are threads in it of the journalist I once was, and definitely my poetry writing affects the prose. So while I have not taken a particular direction, I would say my experiences of being a writer of these varied mediums allowed me to create one cumulative style. 

The Heart Asks Pleasure First Book Cover
Art by Shilo Shiv Suleman

Your book The Heart Asks Pleasure First was set to release this month, but is now pushed to September. Has this change affected you or your other/ future work(s)?

While it has been heart-breaking of course to further push the book release to Fall, considering the circumstances, I think this made sense and was better for everyone, the readers included. I do have a book of poetry releasing after the book and clearly this will affect that as well. The one thing I am hopeful about is seeing how many people have embraced reading again in this time at home. 

Could you tell us about the book and your journey in writing it? How did it come to be?

 Ah. So I began writing The Heart Asks Pleasure First about ten to twelve years ago but put it away for a number of years in the middle, finding myself unable to tap into something essential required to write it. In 2017 I moved to Calcutta. I was falling in love afresh at the time, and that, coupled with the peace and quiet I found in a new city, gave me the inspiration and space I needed to finally return to the work.

The story circles around a dancer, an Indian Hindu girl and her relationship with two Pakistani Muslim boys as she attends Dance School in Cardiff, Wales. It is set around the events of 2001 and the global turmoil that followed. I feel like I needed more years to fully comprehend the depth of those events, and to tie them more correctly to India and the communalism we battle with here even today.

What kind of research did you (have to) do before beginning this book? How did the process of developing the storyline and plot unfold?

Oh so much. If I had written a book based solely on what I knew when I began writing, it would have been a far shallower novel. I researched the entire time I wrote the book. Not all of it has gone into the pages, but it has gone into the story, if that makes sense. 

What do you hope for readers to take away from this book?

 Though I would want readers to decide that for themselves, in brief I guess I would say – hope. 

Karuna by her writing desk at home
Photographed by Nayantara Parikh

You have been an active voice through the CAA and NRC protests. When, amidst the tensions, did you become involved in the demonstrations?

From the very start. It was a matter of great sadness for me that our great country cannot find space in its massive beating heart for everyone. I simply don’t believe that. 

You faced a significant number of threats on social media as a result of your participation in the protests. Did you, at any time, have to alter your approach to the discourse on account of these difficulties?

 I took breaks from it when I needed to, but I think that is always the case with social media isn’t it? Whether I’m speaking out about the environment, women’s rights or civil rights, there are always some folk who will respond nastily. I try and tell myself that it clearly means I’m getting to them. 

Do you have any anticipations for how the NRC and CAA issue will unfold post the Covid-19 lockdown?

None whatsoever, but I do think every movement needs rest time, and no movement sees success overnight. Let’s not forget how long the Freedom movement took in India!

How has this period of social isolation been for you, both personally and professionally?

One of immense gratitude and minor frustrations. Realising how much I have, how little I need, and being given the space to ask the important question – where do I (we) go from here?

Apart from needing to work-from-home, are there any lifestyle changes you have had to incorporate since the lockdown? And have they revised your relationship to everyday life/ living in any way?

Washing my hands more?! 

On a more serious note – it has been an eye opener in the sense that, doing yoga every single day seemed like an exhausting task to me earlier. Cooking every day as well. Moving slower. Sleeping more was hard before. I have found joy in these things and hope to carry this into whatever life comes in the future. While I have other, larger observations from this time, I’m still doing the inner work on them, and feel it is too early to share or comment.

What would you like to say to fellow writers in lockdown?

I would like to share a quote from the incredible Ocean Vuong – “When you’re hitting a dead end…take it with you. Get away from the desk. It means something is not happening. It doesn’t mean you’re blocked. I don’t think writer’s block is real. I think it’s the mythos of capitalism…that you’re always supposed to be producing. This anxiety of being productive and quantifying your self-worth through page counts and word counts. You’re working…but you have to work differently now.”

Karuna was interviewed by IKKIVI. For updates on Karuna’s book launch and for more of her soulful writing, follow her here.


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