Clothes & Fashion, Feminism & Other -isms by Tara Kaushal

December 2013: Exploring the impact fashion has on women across the world, and the question of striking balancing dynamics in personal style.

Conceptual photograph courtesy Sahil Mane.

Conceptual photograph courtesy Sahil Mane.

That clothes and, by extension, fashion, are a feminist, gender, class, financial, social, political, psychological, cultural, historical, ageist, religious, lookist, etc issue is a given. Our ability and reasons to wear, or not, the clothes we do is charged with individual choice rooted in environmental dynamics, and is remarkably telling of our who, what, where, when and why. Though Abraham Maslow does refer to “differences in style of hair-dress, clothes” in his important hierarchy of needs theory as “superficial differences in specific desires from one culture to another”, clothes themselves would probably rate from basic needs all the way up the pyramid to self-actualisation.  

So I start with a few caveats: I’m not talking about the sartorial ‘choices’ of women living in places of the world where religion and/or laws determine what to wear—the burka is beyond the scope of this column. I talk of sociocultural environments where people can wear what they choose for the most part, despite traditionalists expressing varying degrees of disapproval, though even here I leave out those who, in Maslow’s words, “live by bread alone”.

My premise is that this demographic of people the world over taps in to and is influenced by global fashion culture rooted in Western styles in various ways and degrees, consciously or sub—either directly on the internet or through more traditional media feeding off the internet, either fresh off the international runways or through its influence on their country’s own fashion convention. And these Western styles continue to incorporate global influences, making for a hotbed dynamic with exponential possibilities.

Clothes, Models & Visual Imagery

In the very fact it presumes that women have the choice to wear everything—and nothing—they want to, the fashion industry owes a huge debt to feminism and other equal rights movements. In turn, the clothes, models and visual imagery put out by the Western fashion industry combine to have a series of repercussions and change the norms of what is acceptable.

Pretty much all the haute couture clothes on the international runway are over-sexualised to a fault. Of course, one can choose to see this as a celebration of a woman’s body, empowerment to show skin and be lauded and paid millions, let alone stoned to death, for it on a mainstream platform, etc.… Or, dig past the dermis, in to the discourse on pornification, new enslaving expectations and the male gaze. This inherent contradiction, that also conditions the feminist arguments for and against the mainstreamisation of pornography and the issue of the participants’ choices, runs through my piece.

Haute couture is made for a one-size-fits-all, and that size is a homogenous, inhumanly skinny and impossibly tall woman with a beautiful face. It’s made for the aesthetically perfect—or at least what the fashion industry believes is ‘perfect’—and fabulously wealthy, and remain in the realm of the highly aspirational for most of us mere mortals. The inspiration trickles down to ready-to-wear ranges, from the high-end designers to the humble departmental store, from boutiques to flea markets. Take here, for instance, how couture and prêt, high-street and low, traditional, modern/Western and fusion fashion in India has embraced the fluorescent-neon trend wholeheartedly. And the interesting story of Ikat, a handcrafted textile technique seen in many native cultures, that galloped across runways and reentered our fabric and fashion markets digitised and refreshed, passing through the likes of Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger.

Us multisized women and our wobbly, scarred, well-lived bodies are left with pedestrian concerns of adapting these often flimsy, impractical, unflattering runway trends to our own personal style in a meaningful way. We must negotiate the context, what looks good on our bodies and skins, what works within our cultures, what image we’d like to project about ourselves. We must commit to consuming our time, effort, money, space and mindspace—I mean, if one of us was to wear a straight-from-runway look without these thoughts, we’d end up on People of Walmart. One can choose to make a statement through fashion; choosing not to is a statement in itself, though fashion seeps in to the clothes chosen even by the most uninterested. Love it, hate it, you can’t ignore it.

Not as a woman, at least. A while ago, I was helping my mother organise her wardrobe. We both use a space- and time-optimising system I learnt from her, and were segregating her clothes in to ‘party’, ‘office’, ‘daytime out’, ‘home casual’ in to ‘tops’, ‘bottoms’, ‘dresses’, plus ‘gymwear’ and ‘sleepwear’. (Lurking somewhere in this system is a colour parameter.) Accessories: belts, hats, stoles, bags, other knickknacks were being rearranged; jewellery was being checked and sorted; shoes were being put away in boxes. The bras (regular, sexy, cross-back, strapless, nude, black, white, coloured) and panties (dailies, frillies, tummy control, seamless), garters, pantyhose, etc. were finding their homes in a few large drawers. The sarees, which she rarely wears as an Indian in Australia, and their associated paraphernalia, were being tucked away. There was also winterwear and swimwear, resortwear and Derbywear (and I’m sure I’m missing more). My mother caught my eye over the bed piled high with this jumble of clothes. “I wish I was a man,” she said, “this is so exhausting.” It’s no surprise that the scenario of a man waiting as a woman gets ready is a joke across cultures. For men, it seems, groomed and ‘decent’ is all anyone asks for, though sharp dressers with individual style are always welcome.

Because the standards women look to, and are held to, in the fashion and beauty departments are the genetic anomalies on the runway, and the absolute flawlessness of made up and Photoshopped models and actors in the media, with a little plastic surgery thrown in to the mix. Photoshop has also allowed celebrities, those famous for things other than their looks, to grace magazine covers, as they can be youthened and beautified. It appears that, whatever else they may have achieved, they are also gorgeous.

Jean Killbourne's Killing Us Softly series, Naomi Wolf’s iconic ‘The Beauty Myth’, etc focus on the impact such media imagery has on the way women view ourselves and the way men view us. It is almost as though the ‘norm’—women who don’t look ‘perfect’—is no longer the ‘normal’.

If fashion is the most glamorous of all creative pursuits, the visual imagery of the fashion industry is also cutting edge, and leads the way in pushing creative and cultural boundaries. Be it the runway stage, adverting or editorial, creators of fashion imagery work at cutting through the clutter with newer ideas, influencing and being influenced by media and culture. Nestled in the pages of a high-end glossy, already full of beautiful women, made up and Photoshopped to perfection, in the best and skimpiest clothing, what could Tom Ford do but nestle his perfume in a vagina to draw attention to his ad, right? And Vogue has stirred other -isms with fashion shoots inspired by oil spills and dressing up Indian poor in high fashion.

In this clamour to stand out, imagery is getting more sexual and ads are getting more outrageous. Today, our eyebrows rarely rise over increasingly pornified images that sexualise and objectify women. Killbourne notes that since women's body language in ads is usually passive and vulnerable, it propagates an unhealthy idea of 'normal', and the objectification and dismemberment of women's bodies, like in photographer Bela Bordosi’s work, and passive body language creates an increasingly "toxic cultural environment" that propagates violence.

Of course, there are those standing out by creating inclusive imagery, against the grain, like Gap’s new campaign with a Sikh model, Benetton historically and little voices like the plus-size lingerie store Curvy Girl, whose Regular Women campaign has been well-received. Every day, I see one photo/art/advocacy project or another addressing the Photoshop-body image issue, like the recent one with mannequins of disabled people in Zurich. Campaigns for media literacy, pictorial comparisons before-and-after makeup and Photoshop, uncensored celebrities' candids (wrinkles, panty lines, et al), all work towards correcting this balance—which is great, although this mindfulness is slow to enter the mainstream. Though calls for realistic portrayals of women are getting louder, few magazines are willing to institute a no-Photoshop policy the way Verily has done.

(I’ve written more extensively about photography and the media in my piece for The Sunday Guardian.)

Where Do You Draw the Hemline?

Apart from having to evaluate whether fashion does or doesn’t imprison us in a sparkly new golden cage by the same ol’ masters, there is another essential dichotomy that colours feminists’ relationships with our personal fashion choices. On the one hand, feminism encourages us to escape the dictates of our bodies and gender, and explore our talents, minds and careers beyond being ‘pretty’ and consumed with female frivolities, the stereotype of the bra burner. On the other, it urges one to be the best one can be, enjoy everything one wants, irrespective of whether they were ascribed to your gender or not, more in line with Alice Walker’s ‘womanism’ and newer age feminist theory that prioritises choice. This is the same ‘different but equal’ tightrope I see in many women authors struggle with: at once wanting to be celebrated as women but troubled with the pigeonholing. Ask 10 feminists what they thought of Miley Cyrus’s twerking (I did) and same thing: let her do what she wants to do, it’s empowering that she can vs she’s pandering to patriarchy and male sexuality, pressurised in to over-sexualising to stand out.

The answer to personal style lies in a balance, and that is for each woman to strike for herself. My own journey has been complex, starting with an Indian military upbringing that could be described as ‘genteel poor’. Unlike my peers in my cultural environment, I had strong Western influences from my mother and family abroad and female modesty wasn’t part of the gender discourse at home, so, in shorts, tees, tights and skirts, I stood out for my sartorial choices. Taller and bustier than most girls my age, and pretty and unabashed, in retrospect I realise I was over-sexualised by my environment before I was even 13. Negotiating the attention was complicated: I enjoyed it and let it define me and my relationships, but felt trapped by the constant judgement by the kids, their parents and our teachers.

In a serious fall from grace, I grappled with weight and acne through my teenage years, and our family moved from liberal Mumbai to conservative, patriarchal North India. It took my mother and me a while to internalise that the clothes I was used to wearing were not flattering on my new (but not improved) body. Where once my clothes, and the ability to choose them, were liberating, in Delhi they only meant being molested all the time. Cringe-worthy photographs evidence that I worked the large tent look as well as an unguided teenager could! For their social acceptability and cover, Indian clothes made an appearance in my wardrobe. Looking unmemorable if not actively unattractive, I missed the attention I had grown accustomed to.

I lost weight and started developing a personal style from pickings at roadside stalls and departmental stores in college and through my early 20s, a dumpy-Indian-fusion-meets-culture-defying-sexy look I have completely evolved away from. But there were more serious issues, like square meals and a career, a dying father and complicated romances, to prioritise. It was at 25, a big year in my journey on all fronts, editing a magazine, making more money than I had ever seen and in a empowering relationship, that I had the luxury and confidence to become an active participant in fashion culture, and not just a passive receptacle.

Today, I have a better-rounded equation with my clothes and body. Whatever my weight (I yo-yo), I will always be a big girl. It is hard, even for the most aware of us, not to be influenced by the fashion and media imaging of women, but I try not to let it affect the way I see myself. Beyond the skin-deep, my reasons for wanting to get in shape are health-related.

Perhaps it is the aftertaste of sour grapes, but I carry a disdain for exorbitant fashion brands. I’ve had a friend regale me with stories of battling limits on her three credit cards at the LV store on a foreign trip; I refuse to pander to blinding consumerism or have it determine my aspirations. I still shop cheap for the most part, though I can afford a lot more. It takes me 30 minutes from bed to ready-to-go, from bathing to wardrobe and makeup, on a normal morning; dressing for a party takes a full hour. I am willing to spend time and money on this, the monthly beauty saloon ritual and occasional shopping. Beyond a point, fashion and looking good is not a priority.

At 30, I have learnt to adopt fashion trends in to my wardrobe in a way that flatters me, brings out my legs and hides the bulges and cellulite. Looking my best, often on the more daring side of sexy on a night out, makes me feel confident. As a personality type, I like being heard, popular and famous, and I found these are harder to achieve as a wallflower in work, social and media milieus. As an intelligent woman writer who is also fashionable and unconventionally beautiful, I enjoy challenging the pretty-or-smart stereotype. Though I realise I will need to address the ageing issue in the future, I hope it is not all downhill from this fashion and beauty peak, as suggested by a survey in Allure magazine.

There’s this bumper sticker I once read: ‘Everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, everyone driving faster than you is a maniac’. While I do wonder at women who spend more time, money and effort than I do on the way they look, I also find myself cringing at those that don’t. Everyone’s equation with fashion and individual style is different, intensely personal and evolving—I have read accounts of some women finding the burka liberating. Do you find fashion fun, freeing or fatiguing? Are your body and beauty expectations realistic, or deeply coloured by the media? Do you look good for yourself, for the way dressing up makes you feel and what you project, or do you feel subjugated by stilettoes and Spanx? Till what point is it worth it? Where do YOU draw the hemline?

This column appeared on 3QD in December 2013.

Bravo Brassiere! by Tara Kaushal

August 2007: I love the feel of a sexy, lace bra against my skin. I think it is one of the greatest pick-me-ups in the world—and so do most men!

Though the humble brassiere has been around—in various and not-so-evolved forms—for some centuries now, it was in 1907 that it was first mentioned in the media, in the American edition of Vogue. So this year is the bra’s official 100th birthday. And all of us ladies have much to be thankful for—or not, actually, depending on the way you look at it!

Clothing is often laden with political and cultural overtones. In fact, it can be said that the changes in social perspectives on women, the female body and the feminine are reflected in, and indicated by fashion for the female body in general, and breasts in particular.

The precursor to the bra, the corset has been traced back to about 2000 BC. Recorded history indicates that the corset of those times was used to lift and expose breasts. As the Greek and Roman civilisations grew more male-dominated, breasts were flattened and large breasts were ‘constricted’. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, fashion in France had women in corsets that deemphasised breasts. In the 16th century, the breast was acceptable again and corsets made of whalebone and steel created cleavage while reducing the waist-size to less than 10”, expectedly causing many health problems. It was only in the late 19th century that traditional views of the ‘ideal’ woman began to be challenged and questions were raised about the unhealthy undergarments women were expected to wear.

Designs that resembled the modern-day bra began to appear in the 1850s. Marie Tucek patented the Breast Supporter in 1893 and socialite Mary Phelps Jacob patented her Backless Brassiere design in 1914. With World War 1 forcing women into the workforce, the corset, that was time-consuming and uncomfortable to wear, lost popularity and the bra began to gain widespread use in the 1920s. In 1928, Ida Rosenthal created cup size categories though it was in 1935 that bra manufacturer Warner came up with the cup sizing system—A to D—which continues to be in use today.

Since then, many social, fashion and economic reasons and manufacturing processes have revolutionised the bra and the way it is worn.

In the 1950s, (fashion) necessity became the mother of the invention of the strapless bra. It is safe to say that the invention of Lycra in 1959 has been a defining moment in the history of the bra. As was the entry of the legendary Wonderbra in 1964. Those of you who aren’t familiar with what a Wonderbra can do, let me tell you this: it does a lot! Sangeeta, mosquito-bites-where-breasts-should-be, actually has people complimenting her ‘well-fitting clothes’ when she wears hers (reserved for special occasions, considering the Wonderbra’s price and lack of availability in India). She once remarked that the Wonderbra was uncomfortable. When I asked her why she continued to wear it then, she said, "Who cares about that! It makes me feel like the sexiest thing alive!"

It was in 1968 that the notorious ‘bra-burning’ incident occurred (or didn’t—the jury’s still out on that), though what is clear is that it didn’t happen quite the way it’s gone down in popular imagination. A group of women protesting the Miss America pageant threw ‘feminine’ items, which they felt hindered the liberation of women—including bras—into a rubbish bin, called Freedom Trash Can. Some say they set it alight, others say the media ‘misreported or invented’ the burning of the can and bras. Yet the bra is still here. And we’re as liberated as we’ve ever been.

The bra came out of the closet, as it were, during Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour in 1990. The Queen of Pop’s pointy golden bra is etched in public memory. "She looked beautiful," says Aman, "glorious and Princess Leia-eque, but not!"

Today, the bra is hard to ignore. From the Wonderbra to the minimiser; underwired and padded; the sports bra to the nursing bra; backless, strapless, seamless… now, there seems to be a bra for every shape, size, form, utility and sag of that beautiful piece of creation, the female breast. There are numerous books about the bra—Bras by Rosemary Hawthorne, Hoorah for the Bra by Cheree Berry and others, an interesting site called, and bra ads that are now in a league of their own. From the outright sexy (Eva Herzigova addressing her Wonderbra-clad breasts with a "Hello Boys") to the demure (Enamour: ‘No bra fits as beautifully’), they run the whole range.

Of late, many have begun to question the medical and practical need for the bra. Some believe that bras cause health problems that include backaches, shoulder aches, headaches, impairment of respiration and increased sagging due to decreased efficiency of the chest muscles. Socially too, aside from the feminist movement, many women are questioning the traditional values that propagate the use of bras.

Much has been said about the feminists’ take on bras. In the 1960s, the women’s liberation movement denounced the bra as a symbol of servitude and some radical feminists saw it as a tool to make what is naturally feminine conform to male desire and aesthetics. Radical feminist and writer Germaine Greer sees the bra as "oppressive". And the image of the ‘bra-burning feminist’ is an urban legend that refuses to die!

I think the decision to wear a bra is a matter of aesthetics and comfort. Mahima hates the bra and goes braless when she’s in the States, where she’s studying. As for me, well, I see nothing wrong with the bra. And I don’t see that as contradictory to my strong, strong feminist leanings. Bralessness, brafreedom or breast freedom (whatever you choose to call it) is not for me. I’m a 36 D. On a practical level, besides dealing with the natural sag of my breasts (that I have come to accept as normal, despite what porn and silicon-enhanced fashion icons will have me believe), bras also give me the freedom to run without a bounce, that often leads to breast pain. (You know what they say—one man’s food, another man’s poison? Some feminists believe a bra is oppressive. I’ve called it freeing!) I love the way a lacy bra makes me feel—and not solely for the benefit of my partner. A peeking bra strap doesn’t embarrass me and I like wearing my bra as an accessory through a sheer top, as and when.

Today, the bra straddles the worlds of functionality and wild fashion. To belong in either category though, it is important that a bra fits well. Here lies the catch. We’ve all seen what a bad bra can do. A badly fitted bra can result in double breasts (those funny, horrible-looking pouches of breast flesh above the bra area and/or under the underarms) and quite a bit of discomfort and pain. Unfortunately, cup sizes and fits vary between manufacturers and designs. And in India, large sizes are so difficult to find! Much like shoes, one has to try bras to get ones that fit just right and provide enough support.

So can someone please share this information—about the fit, fashion and functionality of the bra—with our actresses in Bollywood and Down South! The plain dirty white bra showing through clothes has been a Bollywood staple, while in the South, the double breast created by an ill-fitting bra is considered almost fashionable and alluring!

The bra. At the very least, it is a garment that supports the breasts. On a grander scale though, the bra is loaded with sociocultural significance that outweighs its actual, practical use. Bravo brassiere!

An edited version of this article appeared in Man's World in August 2007.