Updated: Jun 14
Indian fashion brands are still fighting oppressive colonial systems 76 years after independence.
Today is the 74th commemoration of the gain of India’s sovereignty – Independence Day. Every 15th August, we celebrate our diverse and united nation and all those who dedicated or even sacrificed their lives for our freedom from tyrannical rule. We honour their courage and hope to do justice to our nation as citizens of this vast, beautiful mess of a nation.
Part of what makes our country so beautiful is the way we dress. Each corner of the nation has a unique print, fabric, weave or kind of clothing, and this is something we learn in our general knowledge textbooks, from the tender age of 5 or 6. Despite this representation, these textbooks are unable to do justice to the diversity of attire in India because every tribe, every community, every state and every religion has a unique way of presenting themselves. How we dress is an essential part of our identity; each piece of jewellery, all kinds of apparel and every type of footwear says something about our cultural heritage, personal identity, the languages we speak, and the gods we worship.
Alas, it is not only textbooks that fail to do justice to our diverse identities. We enforce strange rules on ourselves to suppress our cultural identities. Children are expected to dress in Western-style uniforms in any so-called reputed school. Employers have strict codes of dressing enforcing Western clothing on men (who make up 76% of India’s workforce). And those with a choice have been severely brainwashed by an exploitative, mass production-oriented fashion industry that Western clothing is a sign of prosperity, modernity and trendiness. In essence, we have been convinced beyond doubt that what’s ours is reserved for when we want to be ‘Indian’ or ‘ethnic’, and we can tuck this part of ourselves away in the back of our closets once we go back to our ‘normal life’.
This compartmentalization is hurtful not only to our collective psyche, but we are also actively putting Indian handicrafts and artisanal garment workers out of jobs by refusing to buy from them. Instead, we are pouring all our money into clothing produced out of pollution, exploitation and profit-maximising systems from foreign brands, who also source their garments from countries like India and Bangladesh. The last straw was perhaps when fashion label Sabyasachi - which stood for ethical fashion - has now backpedalled and released a clothing line with H&M.
While the H&M x Sabyasachi line is deeply problematic, there are some observations to be made from the designs. The clothing is mostly Western in style, it is heavily influenced by Indian clothing such as sarees and kurtas, and utilizes Indian prints on cheap fabrics. The fact that clothing giant H&M took notice of the growing trend of ‘desi-fying’ Western clothing and went ahead to launch a mass-produced line like the H&M x Sabyasachi collection is a sign that the efforts of Indian fashion labels are taking the country by storm. Desi-fying Western clothing is not something that H&M or Sabyasachi have pioneered but has taken notice of and mainstreamed. Numerous Indian brands have piloted this technique and bombarded Indian markets with this style of clothing.
Desi-fication of Western clothing in the Indian fashion industry has been around for years, but it has picked up a monumental pace in recent years. On one level, one can consider the increased visibility of our heritage styles in the mainstream as protesting the dominant and engrained Western style of clothing in India. It is a statement, one that makes visible a culture that the British so forcefully tried to but could not destroy. We are wearing our culture this way with pride, in styles that may be more suited for our contemporary, industrialized lifestyles. But at the same time, we are not totally rejecting the paradigm that the Western lifestyle is the best lifestyle, which is a shame. Perhaps embracing tradition is too radical of a change to expect in such a recent revolution, but we should keep this larger goal in sight while decolonizing ourselves.
Putting the nuances of decolonization aside, one thing is crystal clear. Brands like H&M and Sabyasachi are no better than the colonizers that saw us as savages. They take the parts of our culture that they like, such as the prints, but leave behind the artisans that carried on this culture and pollute the earth that enabled us to create the stunning works of art that we adorn our bodies with. We shouldn’t tolerate such actions or their glorification, and we should actively work towards being vocal for locals and wearing our culture with pride.
August 15th, 1947 was the day that the British left – healing the wounds they left behind takes longer. Independence is not something we earned once and can take for granted. It is something to keep fighting for.