Illustration by Sunaina Mehrotra

The Ambivalences of Fashion

and its impact

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?  

Illustration 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.

Illustration 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.

Written by Malini Mathur