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Making Designs on Fashion: Producing Contemporary Indian Aesthetics

  • Author(s): Varma, Meher
  • Advisor(s): Ortner, Sherry B
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation is about the making of the Indian fashion designer and highlights how the birth of the industry has fashioned new subjects and subjectivities. It traces constitutive shifts and tensions in the fashion industry over the last three decades, including the rise of bridal wear or couture, the appropriation of craft and resistances to it, and the return of ready-to-wear production via e-commerce. I argue that the professional identity of the fashion designer was crafted in opposition to the low-skilled darzi (tailor) and distinct from the ‘traditional’ craftsman with low cultural capital. However, while the designer’s identity was originally celebrated as modern, creative, and entrepreneurial, paradoxically, the most successful designers are those who appropriate and prioritize craft above his or her own skill. To make this argument, this dissertation engages with, and contributes to, scholarship on class and caste in India, anthropological literature on fashion and other creative industries, as well as work on kinship and family.

Despite efforts to mark fashion as a distinct, new professional field with the creation of a national institute of fashion (NIFT), I argue that relations of inequality that marked the industry from the outset continue to persist in new ways. While Indian fashion presents itself as good for the new middle class, this project continues to serve historically and culturally elite designers. For many new, professionally trained, middle-class designers, this signals the failure of fashion as a liberatory project for the middle class. While historical structures of power continue to remain important, I explore the emergence of self-reflexive actors who can navigate the industry while critiquing it. I suggest that these subjectivities provide new ways to think about how middle-class Indians understand and maneuver the multiple effects of economic liberalization.

The structure of the dissertation enacts the trajectory of producing a fashion collection. Each chapter highlights discrepancies between what is imagined and what ends up being produced.

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