India fashion show

Credit: Jogesh S on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–Art has always been a part of political resistance, but fashion hardly so.

Just look at last week’s fashion week in New York, where the buzz was about which celebrities attended and what collection displayed the most skin. Politics never entered the equation, not even in an election season.

One place where that has been quickly changing is in India, where popular designers are turning their runway shows and collections into political forums.

Last month, during the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai, designer Abhishek Dutta used the runway to demonstrate his stance on environmental sustainability. "I wanted to promote the cause of anti-pollution though my collection," explains Dutta. "That is why all my models were wearing anti-pollution masks." The music also featured honking to convey an atmosphere of heavy traffic, a staple of Indian cities.

A few years back, Narendra Kumar Ahmed called a show of his menswear collection, The Rise of Fascism. One by one, the dapper male models walked down the runway–bloodied, bandaged and bruised–while equally beautiful men lay "dead" on the ramped stage. All were dressed to kill (pun intended) in skinny jeans and sporty jackets, showing off the designer’s new line.

Ahmed wanted to make a point about the carnage left in the wake of India’s growing regional strife and the increasing violence around the world. Six months later, Mumbai drew worldwide attention as the focal point of brutal attacks by Islamic terrorists.

Second Shocker

This was the second time Ahmed shocked India’s stylephiles. In 2006, to protest his collection’s exclusion from two fashion shows that had been supported by the Fashion Design Council of India, a membership-driven nonprofit that promises to "promote, nurture and represent the best of fashion design talent in the country," Ahmed nixed the traditional thumpa-thumpa walking music in favor of pindrop silence as his beautifully dressed, gagged–yes, actually gagged–models strutted his designs down the runway of the industry-sponsored Lakme Fashion Week that year. The symbolism of the show, aptly titled In Protest, pierced the scene and sent a loud message against censorship by omission.

Though perhaps the most controversial, Ahmed follows a well-worn path.

In ways both overt and subtle, artistic resistance is highly visible in Indian fashion. If you look slightly beyond the glitz and glamour of runway shows and magazine spreads you will find designer fashions reflecting social, cultural and religious struggles in the developing nation.

While a growing middle class has created a market in India for high fashion to adorn the body, designers are also trying to outfit the body politic.

In 2003, the frequently gender-bending New Delhi-based Rohit Bal had male models go down the runway wearing skirts and sindoor, the red vermillion powder worn in the parting of a married Hindu woman’s hair.

The next year, Rajesh Pratap Singh created clothing to reflect the somber darkness of a post-Sept. 11 world, covering his models’ faces to shield them from the horror of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Showcasing Grief, Fury

At the 2004 Lakme India Fashion Week, Delhi-based designer Nandita Basu demonstrated her grief and fury about the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat that claimed over 1,000 (mainly Muslim) lives by creating a T-shirt line with images of horrific events that lacked adequate governmental response. One of the shirts was an outright condemnation of Narendra Modi, now the longest running chief minister of the state. It depicted the leader dressed as Hitler.

Fellow designer Kiran Uttam Ghosh took Basu’s blatant gesture one step further by placing the national flag on each audience member’s seat in a sincere patriotic expression of nationalism.

Continuing the theme of Indian nationalism, Bengali designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee honors Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha (or nonviolent resistance) by using homespun khadi (cloth) to combine tradition with modernity in his designs.

Mukherjee’s winter 2009 collection, called Neela aur Bagardandi ki Kahani (The indigo and burgundy story), uses a combination of contemporary and rustic patterns blended into saris, salwar kameez and dupattas with chunky bangle accessories that give a nod to India’s colonial history and indigenous resistance.

Designers are making these political gestures through their art at a certain risk. They can be excluded from high-profile industry events and even punished by the police. In 2006, for example, police registered a complaint against a Mumbai-based fashion designer and two shops for "hurting religious sentiments" by designing and selling clothes with Hindu and Jain texts.

Mandy Van Deven ( is a writer, advocate and online media strategist. Her work exploring contemporary feminism, global activism and sexuality has been published in Salon, AlterNet, GlobalPost, RH Reality Check and Marie Claire.

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