The craze to be bracketed as “fashionable” influences innumerable small and big decisions of our life – from choosing the furniture of our house to selecting our marriage partner or even the books we read or the tones and accent we use to talk to others.
Western societies take enormous pride in the fact that they place the highest importance on individualism. As per this ideology every person has the freedom to make free choices in every domain of their lives. This emphasis on “freedom of choice” is assumed to make them a superior species – a more highly evolved specimen of the human race on earth. The westernized elite even in India have mesmerized themselves into believing that once they imbibe “individualism” in a large enough dose, they too become part of this superior species.
But very few people recognize that the fashion industry which has made inroads into every domain of life is systematically cutting at the roots of “freedom of choice”, “freedom of thought”, “freedom of self expression”.
Take the example of clothes: Despite the façade of free choice, in most western and now even westernized sections of Asian and African countries, what people wear is not anymore a matter of personal choice. It is largely pre-decided by the fashion industry.
It is a master stroke of the fashion industry that women and men, old and young, as well as little children, whether from rich or poor families – all sport denim with a sense of pride as if it is a statement of having ‘arrived’ in life. At one time, it was the uniform of the poor dock workers in America. But the fashion industry has made it a style statement of the elite. Its absurdity can be gauged by the fact that torn, frayed and patched jeans are more expensive than a new outfit! To my unfashionable eyes, there can be no worse garment than a pair of jeans. They are not easy to wash or dry if you don't have a washer/dryer set and people wear the same pair of dirty, sweaty and smelly garment with impunity for days on end.
Even though it is fashion moguls sitting in London, Paris and New York decide what is to be labeled the “in thing” that particular season, people gleefully imagine they are making “free choices” when buying clothes. In fact fashions change faster and more erratically than Mother Nature’s largely predictable seasons. If they declare purple to be the fashionable colour for that season, then one will find virtually every single store displaying purple dresses that season. The appeal of fashionable purple doesn’t last beyond a few months. It is a sure thing that in the coming season, another colour as arbitrarily picked as the first one is declared the happening colour. And yet all those women who wore purple outfits influenced by the status attached to it in shop display windows would like to imagine that they went for that particular dress out of free choice.
Likewise, very few women are left with gumption to decide on the basis of personal preference or convenience about how tight or how loose her garment will be. This is decided by a set of fashion designers whose faces she has never seen and whose name she may not have heard. It is only a rare woman who will use her own mind to decide for herself how long or short her skirt or kurta will be, whether she will wear a maxi or a mini. These decisions have been appropriated by the doyens of fashion. Similarly, for ages, it was considered an embarrassment if a woman’s undergarment peeped through her clothes or if her brassiere strap peeked through her blouse. But today, it is considered trendy to show off your bra even more aggressively as the outer garment.
On the one hand, mavens of fashion based in distant London and New York decide how much flesh a woman should expose, how much of her she is going to reveal, whether she wears halter neck or full sleeves; on the other hand even ordinary tailors are no less quick in persuading their clients to copy the fashion trends from Bollywood movies and TV shows to adjust the length of kurtas and cuts of blouses. But those who hypnotically copy the sharara of Aishwarya Rai or a mini skirt worn by Kareena Kapoor don’t think there is any need to look at their shape or the form of their own bodies in the mirror to judge honestly whether what looks good on Aishwarya or Kareena will also look good on them. It is only when a person assesses his or her own physique and picks out her clothes accordingly, gives primacy to comfort and body fit, that the person can be said to have made an individual choice. But fashion enslaved people lose such judiciousness.
If it was just a matter of wearing inappropriate clothes, one could ignore it as foolish behaviour. But when women wear six inch long pencil heels which are proven to be harmful and can cause permanent damage to one’s feet, then you know that the disease called fashion has the ability to impair rational thinking.
The matter is not limited to external trappings. Today, men and women are spending lakhs of rupees to change the colour of their hair, reshape and inflate their breasts to firm up their bottoms or reduce their waistlines. In the process, they inflict untold misery on their bodies- sometimes causing permanent damage. Ever since fashion monarchs declared size zero as the desirable form for the female body, millions of women have gone on crash diets at the cost of ruining their health and undergoing self harming operations like liposuctions to refashion their bodies into unrealistic forms and shapes.
But even more harmful are those who dare not step out of their laxman rekha of intellectual fashions. On every social issue they not only have pre set answers based on what is considered politically fashionable at that time but also appropriate physical gestures to go with each response. Because these intellectual fashions are manufactured in the universities of North America and Europe and backed by the financial clout of western donor agencies, therefore, even in India these fashions are remote controlled from the West. All these NGOs and academics that strut around mouthing fashionable jargon consider it a great intellectual achievement to shape their views and research findings according to the political requirement of their donors.
This is an important reason why most of our NGOs indulge in export quality activism based on imported ideas. Similarly most of the elite academics produce only export worthy treatises which have very little worth at home. For instance, most of our “eminent” social scientists don’t care to write books which can be read and used by students in Meerut or Bhagalpur universities. They feel they have arrived only when Harvard and Oxford recognize their books – never mind if few in India can make sense of them.
Likewise our internationally networked social activists don’t care one bit if their own neighbours or relatives heed their prescriptions. They are happy if they get applauded in conferences organized in Los Angeles, Berlin or Melbourne. The day the elite sections of our society stop chasing fashions unleashed in the West and instead learn to take decisions on the basis of the ground reality in this country and the aspirations of the people of India, we will acquire the capability of solving many of our big and small problems.