The Met Gala matters to Indians. Here’s why
For a country where the hijab debate is still raging and where girls’ choice of attire on metro trains is a matter of agitated discussions, clothes matter
Why should the Met Gala matter? Or, why should the Met Gala matter to India and Indians? Should it matter because it generates click-and-like powered revenue streams for publishers and influencers? Or is there a bigger, larger-than-paparazzi significance to the annual fundraising event that sees the global elite — new and old — dressed extravagantly for an evening of style and statement?
Clothes are important. Because bodies are. In The Language of Dress, Steeve O Buckridge demonstrates that clothes become a means of humiliating and culturally annihilating people, such as enslaved people forced to wear osnaburg linen clothes. Clothes are also an important tool of resistance. The khadi of Mahatma Gandhi, the traditional Yoruba attire of Nigerian women, and more recently, the intifada dress of the women of Palestine, are all about resistance to colonial authoritarianism.
For a country where the hijab debate is still raging and where girls’ choice of attire on metro trains is a matter of agitated discussions, clothes matter. In a country with one of the richest textile and technique repertoires in sartorial traditions, clothes matter.
This year’s Met Gala saw India’s Priyanka Chopra, Isha Ambani Piramal, Alia Bhatt and Natasha Poonawala in attendance, with their interpretation of the theme Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty. Lagerfeld’s controversial legacy — much of it carefully crafted by him for shock and awe — involves resistance to body positivity, superfluous understanding of non-eurocentric cultural ethos, and denial of #MeToo.
It matters, therefore, that a dusky and buxom Chopra, towering — literally and metaphorically — over her white husband breezed in wearing a Valentino gown. Bhatt’s pearl gajra mattered more than her diaphanous bridal-inspired Prabal Gurung gown. Isha Ambani Piramal’s saree gown mattered as did the saree-inspired dress worn by Naomi Campbell.
But it’s not just about the representation of the other. It is about overcoming this “otherness” that sticks, despite generations of hard work on the inside. Clothing is dissent in a way that no other political agitation is. In Fashion as Communication, Malcolm Bernard proposes that “refusal” and “reversal” are the two key forms of effecting sartorial resistance. In refusal, the dissenter uses clothing to separate herself from offensive power structures. In reversal, clothes are used to reverse the ostensible symbols of power and privilege. This kind of resistance is disarmingly dangerous in its routineness. It rattles those at the top of hierarchical power structures. Hence the prohibition on the use of certain colours and fabrics by hoi polloi, such as in medieval Germany. Hence the outlawing of black-coloured attire or black armbands during high-profile political visits, such as in India. Hence the lines, “Tere māthe pe ye āñchal bahut hī ḳhuub hai lekin/Tu is āñchal ko parcham bana leti to acha tha (The cloth that covers your head is beautiful but would have been better had you fashioned a flag out of it) written by the legendary Urdu poet Asrar-ul-Haq “Majaz” Lakhnavi.
It also matters that Indianness — beyond the peacocks and Taj Mahal — has become a commercial strategy. Reliance’s growing imprint in the world of fashion and lifestyle is the other side of this looking glass. India, both as a market and a source country, matters for the global fashion industry. According to the government’s data, India has a share of 5% of the global trade in textiles and apparel. Indian textile exports were the highest-ever in the financial year 2021-22, crossing $44 billion. Experts peg India’s fashion market at a staggering $50 billion.
And, of course, there is an element of fun at the Met Gala that should matter to Indians. In an increasingly shrill, adversarial socio-political space, fun is the first casualty. The art and tradition of communal fun are slowly, ubiquitously getting replaced with communal outrage. Glimpses of sartorial and performing arts not only undercut the existential gloom but also build cross-cultural bridges. Jessie Lynn McMains once wrote, “Maybe art won’t save the world, but it makes the world worth saving.” Replace art with fashion, and it still holds true.
Nishtha Gautam is an author, academic and journalist. She’s the co-editor of In Hard Times, a Bloomsbury book on national securityThe views expressed are personal