Doctoral research on khadi and contemporary Indian fashion
I gained my PhD from University College London and was privileged to be supervised by Professor Christopher Pinney, anthropologist, art historian and international authority on public visual culture in India. In 2013 he was awarded the Padma Shri for his distinguished record of work on Indian culture, art and photography.
Beginning in 2009 I conducted five years of PhD research and writing-up of my thesis to gain a PhD in anthropology (I also spent an interim where I deepened my expertise in the Indian fashion industry whilst working as luxury editor for an national business newspaper in Delhi).
My doctoral research set out to understand the connections between fashion, luxury, sustainability and identity in India today. I focused on khadi, the hand spun/hand woven cloth made iconic by Mahatma Gandhi’s movement for Swadeshi as part of the struggle for freedom from British colonial rule.
Often in my conversations whilst conducting research in urban Delhi, people recalled how even as recently as the 1990s, when new clothes were required, they bought cloth to be stitched by local tailors. Today, for India’s burgeoning middle class the picture is quite different. Ready-to-wear clothing is now readily available in urban metros and smaller cities and towns, in a variety of retail formats, from malls, street markets, small family owned shops, luxury multi-designer boutiques and a growing number of on-line stores. India’s exploding fashion market is very much a metaphor for its economic optimism and rapid socio-cultural shifts under globalisation. In addition, foreign apparel brands that were once accessible to only the most elite few, are now expanding their presence across a variety of market segments in India. At the top end of this wave are the European luxury brands whose cachet lays in a complicated dynamic between exclusivity and accessibility, with the idea of hand crafted by the individual skilled artisan increasingly demarcating what is most exclusive (and expensive) in European luxury fashion and accessories.
Against this backdrop of rapid change and both local and global flows of goods, what is the relevance of Gandhi’s historic struggle for independence waged on the ideal of Swadeshi (Indian-produced goods)? Gandhi envisioned hand spun and hand woven khadi as the ‘fabric of freedom’ through which India could become a self-sufficient economy free from colonial rule. Numerous historical studies have focused on khadi’s history and role in clothing and constituting a pan-Indian Nation that underpinned the movement for Indian independence. Yet for the post colonial era, despite clothing’s central importance to questions of modernity and social transformation, few studies have addressed India’s thriving fashion industry and none have explored the legacy of Gandhian thought where it continues to frame a vast infrastructure for khadi’s production.
In India today the state-run Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) employs around 1.5 million craftspeople who depend on spinning and weaving khadi for their livelihoods, their products sold in over 15,000 sales outlets across India. Yet khadi’s commercial fortunes have waxed and waned even whilst it remains a powerful symbol of nationhood and Indian identity. In the corporate realm phenomenally successful retail business Fabindia (over 167 stores across India) has transformed khadi into fashionable ethnic clothing. Fabindia works with 40,000 artisans, promoting sustainable livelihoods and craft heritage ostensibly through the Gandhian ideal of village economy.
In turn the market for designer wear has flourished. Where Indian fashion is dominated by highly ornamented bridal and ethnic formal wear, a corpus of designers create a dynamic dialogue with these aesthetics by centring khadi at the heart of their creative process and brand positioning. This high-end fashion has to negotiate ideas of craft revival, preservation, heritage and rural livelihoods. In-depth ethnography reveals how designers work with khadi’s unique symbolism. This is contextualised within broader issues of nationhood, Indian design, sustainable luxury and the dynamics of non-Western fashion.