Breaking the dress code

FASHION MAGAZINE Vogue India’s August issue had appeared and disappeared on the stands. It was not until the September issue was out and about that a wave of high-pitched outrage emerged from the Western world. Everyone from the New York Times to the Sydney Morning Herald has now condemned Vogue’s fashion spread for being insensitive to poverty; but the controversy is revealing for what affluent societies think about poverty.

The 16-page spread was shot in Jodhpur by Jean François Campos. It opens with a family on a motorcycle, a young mother riding pillion. She seems unimpressed that dangling from her arm is a Birkin bag, an accessory immortalised in popular culture by the novel Bergdorf Blondes and the television show Sex and the City. Starting at Rs 4,40,000, the Birkin bag is a luxury made even more desirable by its reputation of having a two-year waiting list.

One international newspaper’s headline calls the Vogue shoot obscene. No one finds the deployment of professional models in exotic and/or impoverished locations offensive.What most foreign critics are objecting to here is the juxtaposition of the world’s most expensive apparel with people who can never afford them. But a closer look makes you wonder whether it is actually poverty that has been found obscene — excessive and offensive. The objects of such graphic description in these angry articles are the people who posed for the shoot, not the fetishised accessories.

The people in this spread are not identified, as professional models usually are. The anonymity that Vogue gives them and the kneejerk anger in sections of the media on their behalf are not dissimilar in motive. These are common responses to the use of ‘real people’ in fashion, real being a euphemism for someone who is not a model. Sue Tilley, British painter Lucien Freud’s enormously fat muse, subject of Freud’s most famous painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, remarked in 2007 that her size and workingclass origins made most people behave as if she were unworldly and simple-minded. The Vogue controversy is a similiar phenomenon.

The Vogue spread has ordinary-seeming people, young and old, wearing accessories by Fendi, Burberry, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen, names we are all learning to roll deliciously in our mouths. Some models look passive and disinterested, others plainly enthused. A young woman in a ghagra choli stands in her courtyard with an older man, her head thrown back and eyes closed in laughter. A teenager stands demurely, but with a distinct comehither in her eyes; a leopard-print clutch purse, someone’s notion of the outré, barely visible in the extravagant textures of her traditional clothing.

But this range of response has been flattened by moral outrage. A photograph of a cheerful old woman holding a baby in a Fendi bib, for instance, inspired this speculation from a foreign correspondent. “They could be roadside beggars; a gaunt toothless old woman thrusting her hungry toddler towards the camera, while her ragged, sad older daughter looks on with matted hair and dark circles around her eyes.” Most Indians would recognise that the baby in his lace-up shoes and his family warmly kitted out in layers of clothes are not the abject victims that the foreign dailies imagine.

“Perhaps they are unable to see nuance. I looked at the images and thought they were lower-middleclass people, definitely well-fed and certainly not living on the streets,” says Clare Arni, a Bangalore- based photographer. But who is to tell this to foreign media that uses astonishing archaeisms like ‘peasants’ in its articles.

As much as the West’s liberal media is ready to be unshocked by art, it is braced to be offended by fashion — a teenaged sibling — which regularly flouts political correctness and hopefully pursues the edgy. This shoot’s coffee-table book prettiness barely qualifies as shocking. Unless you come from societies where the poor and the relatively poor are just not as visible as they are in India. India’s best known photographer, Raghu Rai, says that the images were “only average photography” but not offensive. “I am in the process of shooting a group of acrobats and craftspeople in various settings, including malls. You have to ensure your subjects’ dignity, that’s all.”

Vogue is currently declining to comment, though earlier in the week its editor Priya Tanna blithely told critics to “lighten up”. Prahlad Kakkar, ad filmmaker, agrees. “Why are we being oversensitive and intolerant? We do have poor people. It’s not as if we don’t. And I don’t like all this moral policing. If you don’t like the magazine, don’t buy it. I would suggest you use it as toilet paper but it is too stiff.”

TANNA HAS been quoted as saying that the spread was meant to “showcase beautiful objects of fashion in an interesting and engaging context”. In this she may have failed. Kakkar says the concept behind the shoot was boring. “I myself would have not done the shoot. I think it’s stretched and does not make enough of a statement.”

Talk of this controversy makes the usually gentle fashion photographer Tarun Khiwal rage. “Who are these people in the West to decide that the shoot is exploitative? They can’t see because of their sick, materialistic minds. Why can’t they see that those bags are overshadowed by the people? They can’t see human beings in the pictures, only poverty and expensive bags. To me, these people are rich. They have colour and happiness and dignity.”

“The people look happy and if you didn’t read the caption how would you know anything about that bag?” Rai asks. To those who commonly buy these accessories, poverty is invisible. To those who posed with them, they are not fetishised yet. They have many levels of envy to scale before they begin coveting a Birkin bag.


The title of your piece is exquisitely pertinent.

I haven't been able to form an intelligible opinion on the Vogue spread, though I find myself siding with Raghu Rai's thoughts. I would say that Tarun Khiwal's rage at the sick, materialistic minds of the West is no different from the high-pitched outrage of the West at Vogue's spread. These are examples of how locked we are in our pet (& specious) perceptions.

September 17, 2008 at 4:47 PM  

Great article, very interesting. Not being much for fashion, I hadn't heard about this but it doesn't surprise me. When people hear that I visit India often their first reaction is almost always: "But isn't the poverty disturbing? How can you stand it?"

I find it more disturbing that we in the west banish our poverty to areas where we can ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist.

September 20, 2008 at 7:58 PM  

yeah i am still a little confused about the whole thing. have you noticed the grumbling about the spreaad is still on. Everyday a new newspaper seems to cover it.

September 21, 2008 at 10:10 AM  

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