Issue 22

The Runway of Inclusivity And Diversity In Indian Fashion

Like most other industries, the fashion industry came out of the  COVID-19 pandemic with impacted functioning and the need to champion new trends. Inclusivity and diversity are a few trends that stand out, especially at Fashion Week showcases, which dictate trends for current and upcoming seasons. The pandemic forced everyone to reassess their priorities and values, with consumers becoming more aware of what they were purchasing, what the brands they shopped from stood for and tried to shift towards more sustainable ways of living. Consumer demands forced brands to reevaluate their strategies to retain their target markets, and inclusivity and diversity went from being trends to a necessity in the face of crisis. 

The fashion industry has been called out for racism and its lack of representation for decades. In a 2021 U.K. study, 90% of respondents believed that fashion industry images did not show a range of bodies and identities, and 87.5% felt they were not represented in fashion industry advertisements or on the catwalk. The reemergence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the west in the early pandemic days served as a final wake up call for fashion. The Spring 2022 Fashion Month was the most racially diverse fashion season yet, with 48% of appearances made by models of colour. Yet, behind the scenes, people of colour remain temporarily employed, with not enough non-white designers, proving that the illusion of diversity doesn’t equal a diverse industry. In terms of size inclusivity, body positivity seems to be a trend that oscillates back and forth, with the number of plus-size models fluctuating each season.

While the west continues to move forward with conversations of inclusivity and diversity, it is vital to keep track of where India’s fashion industry stands. With the end of FDCI X Lakmé Fashion Week 2022, several designers attempted to move toward these trends suggesting that India is moving towards a more progressive fashion industry. It is also essential to identify what inclusivity looks like in India. With such a diverse culture and heritage, India’s need for diversity should be necessary. Whether it’s celebrating Indian ethnic textiles and handweaving or showcasing real Indian women of all shapes and ethnicities, emerging into our roots will pave the way for diversity and inclusivity. Ritu Kumar’s photo series ‘Equally Beautiful’ features ethnically diverse models to highlight India’s diverse cultural landscape and champion the notion of plurality. 

aLL: The Plus Size Store is India’s first plus-size brand. Their ‘The Big Bold Fashion‘ showcase at fashion week celebrated plus size ready-to-wear women’s and men’s clothing on the runway. One saw models that weren’t just the typical lean body type. Ashutosh Sharma, one of India’s first plus-size models with hearing and speech impairments, was a model for the show. Despite the few plus-size models who walked at fashion week, our size chart is our biggest disservice in size inclusivity. The Ministry of Textiles had promised an Indian specific standardised size chart by 2021, which has still not come. National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), New Delhi, has taken on the project under the ministry to conduct a national sizing survey to create a database of Indian measurements that genuinely represent our population. Designers such as Manish Malhotra and Leena Singh expressed their support for the project, explaining how they are forced to look at international sizing charts such as EU, UK or US measurements in the absence of such a sizing chart instead. According to Statista, on average, Indian women are bigger-bodied, with approximately half the consumers fitting into the plus-size category, yet this size-inclusive clothing segment remains largely ignored. Using a sizing chart based on our proportions allows for more inclusive clothing and solves the problems Indian women face when finding their sizes.

Designer Gaurav Gupta, who has styled many Bollywood celebrities, says post-pandemic fashion will be more inclusive and accessible. He also said that the fashion community would have to change course and adapt with new buzzwords such as “vocal for local” and “sustainable”. Gupta has been a frontrunner in the creation of inclusive clothing. He launched his ‘Name is Love’ campaign and held a seminar on inclusivity called the ‘The Love Festival’ to share the stories of a diverse group of models and their struggles and triumphs with their different gender identities. The show featured trans, non-binary, and plus-sized models and same-sex couples wearing clothes with non-traditional embroidery and voluminous ruffles to show the fluidity of the couture. The narrative emphasised love for oneself and inclusivity and all genders, body types, ethnicities, and sexualities.

Shubhika Davda, founder of the brand Papa Don’t Preach, says that inclusivity exists in twofold in the Indian fashion industry, with queerness at the forefront behind the scenes but a lacking inclusive image in front of the camera with brands sticking to standards that commercially sell. Her ‘Zsa Zsa Zsa’ campaign launched with a truly inclusive cast of real Indian women and a queer couple. Her label also dropped the word ‘womenswear’ to make it open for all to wear. For years, androgynous clothing has been a staple in the west, and it is now dominating the Indian runway. Many brands such as Heumn, The Pot Plant, Bloni, and Chola the Label made successful attempts at gender fluid clothing. If one is to look back at Indian history, Indian men have always worn gender-neutral clothing, from kings who sported dhotis and layered jewellery to salwar-kurtas worn at weddings. In response to being asked if gender-fluid clothing is a trend, Shyma Shetty, the co-founder of Huemn, says that fashion imagery is much more inclusive now, with open conversations about body diversity, identity, and self-acceptance reflecting her generation’s mindset. 

The Indian fashion industry is attempting to create diverse visual imagery and moving away from standard or European notions of beauty. While every effort counts, true inclusivity means ensuring diversity and representation offstage, such as by ensuring that larger sizes are available on the floor shop itself and bigger bodies are used to showcase clothing on websites. Consumers must note how brands interact with them in real-time to ensure that their inclusivity is not just a gimmick. Modelling agencies should also bring in more diverse models to ensure that they are not a minority. The ultimate goal is that size, inclusivity and diversity are so inherently a part of a brand that the conversations around their work don’t revolve around these topics. There is still a long way to go, and a lot of education is left to ensure that inclusivity permeates the industry at every level, rather than just at a few catwalks, but those conversations have been started.  

Reya Daya is a third-year student studying psychology and media studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include writing, photography and music.

Picture credits: Heumn

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 10

Women in STEM: Nipped in the Bud.

The gender imbalance in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related jobs in India is apparent even without examining statistics. A quick look at historical leadership positions in organizations allied with STEM such as CEOs of Biotech companies, Chairman of the Indian Space research Organization (ISRO), Director General of the Indian Council of Medical research (ICMR), Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Presidents of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), Aeronautics Society of India (AeSI) and Indian Mathematical Society (IMS)  to name a few, additionally highlights how stark this gap is among the higher ranks. 40% STEM graduates are women but they share only 14% STEM-associated jobs (PIB, January 2021) and this begs the question of why there is a disproportion between women choosing STEM education but not employment.

Government programs supporting the education of the girl child have had a substantial impact in increasing the numbers of primary and middle school educated girls. Incentives at the level of higher education in the form of reservations or financial support have vastly improved but not equalized the gender imbalance. Studying the gender composition of various disciplines in STEM education reveals intrinsic biases and perceptions of what constitutes a suitable job for a woman. Women receive tacit signals to condition their career choices not based on their own aptitude or interest but the convenience of a work schedule that allows them to fulfil their obligatory duties as care-givers. Thus, teaching-focused careers which usually have fixed and predictable hours are encouraged by parents over research-oriented careers within science. With respect to engineering, computer science is considered eminently more ‘suitable’ and only a few women graduate with degrees in fields like aeronautics, mechanical engineering or civil engineering with this number reducing even further when representation in core engineering jobs is considered.

Are we raising future daughters, sisters, or mothers and not future individuals?

Higher STEM education is often seen as an additional qualification to increase marriage prospects for girls rather than a means to make them financially secure individuals with the ability to make independent, informed choices. Learned behavioral traits that are important for developing STEM career goals in children such as decision making, critical thinking, curiosity and making independent choices outside of care-giving duties are either neglected or actively discouraged in a girl child from a young age. Family chores and activities such as assisting adults with minor electrical repairs, finance-associated tasks, playing computer games, household science experiments, help in the kitchen, cleaning and sewing are segregated based on gender. This fails to nurture interest and even leads to lack of awareness of certain STEM career options in young women. Preconceived notions, archaic attitudes (“girls are bad at mathematics”; “boys are better at engineering”, “biology needs a lot of memorization which suits girls”, “girls are caring so should become nurses”, “women can’t be surgeons, they are too delicate/emotional”) condition and limit a certain STEM expertise or profession with a gender. This conditioning may not always be obvious even to the most educated among us and may unintentionally trickle down to those we have influence over.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and not diamonds are a girl’s best friend!

Encouraging gender equity in STEM careers needs diverse approaches at various levels but the foundation has to be laid early on. The thinking that gender is not a limiting factor for a career choice should be encouraged from a young age in all children using real-life role models and literature centered on the idea. Awareness about the current existence of implicit or obvious situations of gender bias and discussions about specific situations should be a part of education at all levels. Women from all socio-economic backgrounds should have free, accessible avenues to learn about the various career options in STEM through workshops, community initiatives and CSR endeavors. The latter will ensure that they themselves can either be inspired, bring awareness to people under their influence, not participate in gender bias themselves and help create a support system that bridges the gender gap in STEM careers.  

Rama Akondy is an Associate professor of Biology in the Trivedi school of Biosciences. She received her PhD from the National Institute of Immunology (New Delhi, India) and worked at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) first as a post-doctoral researcher and then as junior faculty. Her primary area of interest is understanding immunological memory in humans by observing how our immune system reacts to viruses, vaccines and tutors. Her proudest moment has been when a figure from her paper made it to a textbook! (Plotkin’s Vaccines). 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).