The last few years in India have shown a welcome boom in good fashion journalism, even as fashion magazines have closed down. What has brought about this shift?
‘Curious Fashion’ is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series here.
It’s like someone is reading my mind. Every time I think of something exciting to write on for this column, it serendipitously appears in my social media timeline – because someone has written about it already. While this can get annoying, I am one for silver linings (silver anything, really). It is a relief to satisfy my curiosity without having to do the research myself for it, and has become a pleasure to read.
Take for instance, this excellent piece on caste identity and fashion by Supriya Nair. Through an exploration of why Babasaheb Ambedkar always chose to wear the Western suit (as contrasted often with Gandhi’s or Nehru’s Indian attire), Nair brings out how dressing elegantly defies social constrictions around what Dalits may or may not wear, and challenges Savarna assumptions of “looking like a Dalit*”.
Then, there was this cheeky look at fashion magazines by Meher Varma and Pia Alize Hazarika with reimagined covers that fondly highlight the hypocrisy and anxiety in these glossies. Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s charming column on authors and their clothing have taught me most pleasing trivia on Agatha Christie and her pearls, or Ismat Chugtai and the ambi or the paisley print. I’ve had insights into Good Earth’s processes and the music they play in their factory, a critical view of how the new “baggy dress” does more for patriarchy than challenging it (more work to signal class by maintaining nails, hair, skin!), and come upon a most unexpected history of Pierre Cardin through his association with Rajeev Sethi by Shefalee Vasudev. Nisha Susan’s lament on her monochrome cupboard and her mom’s warnings have made me smile on bleak mornings.
This is quite a stark difference from another time, where one went to fashion magazines for fashion journalism – but rarely found any. You had to look to Suzy Menkes in the Guardian or Robin Givhan in the Washington Post to find fashion-related features that were deep and wide, or brought a more sociological lens and a different kind of rigour and curiosity to something considered quite “frivolous”. (These too were very Western and “white” in their explorations.)
Instead, what one mostly encountered were advertisements in the guise of content, fashion show press releases, an obsession with celebrity, brand spiel and image-heavy content – as if text was just extra for fashion. There were, of course, the odd exceptions. In fact, good writing was often to be found in fashion magazines, except they lay in the features section: on all kinds of issues but fashion! Features and fashion seemed to be separated by a Chinese wall.
But the last few years in India have shown a welcome boom in good fashion journalism, even as fashion magazines have closed down. What has brought about this shift? First, the initiation of digital platforms (like The Voice of Fashion) with a more serious intent on capturing fashion and its intersection with other themes, has been at the heart of this rise.
Several commentators have noted that the platform makes all the difference, with social media being the new “capital of fashion journalism”. On print, you’re producing a beautiful stack of paper – “a beautiful artefact”. Online, you’re not. Online, you’re permitted, even encouraged to have an opinion. And so, a certain kind of freedom and honesty permeates online fashion writing.
Others say it’s not the platform that matters, it’s the story.
Fashion journalists are thinking outside the box and seeking novel stories in unusual places, from their own lives to the wider ecosystem of the industry.
Partly this is thanks to a discursive shift in the industry. With a return to handlooms, sustainability and production processes in fashion design, writers are in search of more grounded narratives of the Indian identity in fashion, discovering what is specific to the Indian sensibility or describing more fully and joyously its fusion with Western silhouettes and design.
If that’s a more “supply chain” approach, there is a clear demand too for this kind of information. The fashion industry globally is presented with a new wave consumer that is curious and present on social media. As a corollary to online shopping, people want to know more about what they are wearing. People want greater transparency so they can make more conscious choices. This in turn is pushing brands to reimagine their PR and weave an ethnographic element into their storytelling.
Perhaps the most important driver of this rise of fashion writing, however, is that the journalism has started coming before the fashion, rather than the other way round.
On the one hand, brilliant writers and journalists have become more comfortable with writing on fashion as much as on feminism or food. On the other, many fashion journalists have realised that they are journalists first, not fashionistas. Their mandate is no longer to be mouthpieces for certain designers and trends, or be one of a miscellaneous basket of “lifestyle features”, kowtowing to other agendas. The field has cleared to make the fashion journalist’s mission now distinct and legitimate: to inform, give insights and shine a light on different corners of the industry.
This trifecta – of honest platforms, more grounded stories, and a new mandate for the fashion journalist – bodes excellently for the industry as a whole, and comes as good news for readers like me, those who are curious about fashion.
*As one commenter on the satirical short film The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas says, “A Dalit person who is confident, kind hearted, skilled, intelligent, educated, (even slightly) fair skinned, wearing good clothes can appear as an eighth wonder of this world to a casteist person.”
Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)