The notion of being shocked by fashion seems quaint today, at least to those of us living in the United States. In the mid-1910s all it took was the raising of hems by an inch or two, and people got their knickers in a bunch, but by the 1990s our threshold had risen so dramatically that fashion's image-makers had to invent so-called heroin chic in order to invite some semblance of a public outcry. These days we're drugged up on an incessant multimedia drip of sex and violence that limits our ability to muster up righteous indignation. But in other corners of the world, where fashion is still a new phenomenon, it wields a singular power to stir both outrage and desire, two essential tools of the industry's marketing machine.
Take September's issue of Vogue India, the 17th edition of publishing house Conde Nast's premium brand, which features a 16-page reality-based editorial spread starring lower-income-bracket Indians decked out in high-fashion accessories. There's the old woman with missing teeth, cradling a baby decked out in a Fendi bib. There's a barefoot man holding a Burberry umbrella as a woman smiles joyously on his side, clad in a golden silk sari. Then the Hermès Birkin-toting woman sitting astride a motorbike, with her family. The issue ignited a fierce response from Indian media critics, such as Kanika Gahlaut, a columnist for the newspaper Mail Today, who insisted in a widely read New York Times story that "there's nothing 'fun or funny' about putting a poor person in a mud hut in clothing designed by Alexander McQueen." Pavan K. Varma, an author and former diplomat said in another interview, "To use people like this shows a complete callousness to genuine suffering. These people have been used as commodities to sell fashion." The critics' consensus seemed to be that the editorial team had exploited the subjects in the photos, to which editor Priya Tanna offered the following response to the Times reporter: "Lighten up," she said, "You have to remember with fashion, you can't take it that seriously. We weren't trying to make a political statement or save the world."
The issue of poverty is painfully real, and it's understandable how people could easily misconstrue the Vogue story as being insensitive to the plight of the majority of India's population, but all the noise surrounding its publication misses the greater point: that being "sensitive" to poor people, and taking care not to put them in Fendi gowns or under Burberry umbrellas isn't going to improve their lives. The situation calls for proactive measures, not protection from fashion editorials. In addition to telling critics to "lighten up," Tanna should them to get real.
Before I continue, a full disclosure: I used to be the features editor at Vogue India, and I'm currently a contributing editor. I know the staff well, and, while they almost all hail from the upper ranks of India's socioeconomic strata, they are not callous or cruel, they would not make a joke at a slum-dweller's expense. The reality is that, for Indians, poverty is a fact of life. The majority is mired in it, while a relative few have escaped its chokehold grip. For many Americans and Europeans, the experience of its devastating effect is limited to the occasional sighting of a homeless person on a city street, or the uncomfortable encounter with a beggar while on holiday (sometimes while staying in a five-star hotel in India). For well-to-do Indians, it's a daily occurrence that has largely lost its power to shock. This doesn't mean that they're OK with it—only that they've acclimated to its existence.
The reality is also that, for some Indians, the world has become a playground, and luxury goods that the West has coveted for generations are now within their grasp. Magazines like Vogue are simply reflections of the rising, natural desire to celebrate success. The images in its pages are open to interpretation, their meaning isn't set in stone. Perhaps this particular story could have been handled differently, but the idea that a fashion editorial, or the eager consumption of luxury products by extension, plays any serious part in the problem of Indian poverty is ridiculous; overpopulation, underdevelopment, caste stigma and lack of adequate education infrastructure are more like it.
The controversy illustrates the fact that complicated issues surrounding the country's recent "boom time" have not been successfully addressed—as the gap between the have and have-nots becomes more glaring, the stakes get higher for policy solutions that can head off a potential social breakdown. The country's crazy growth and full bloom of billionaires makes for great headlines in Western newspapers and magazines, but this "Bonfire of the Vanities"-inspired narrative thread leaves hundreds of millions of people out in the cold. Censoring the expression of the country's newfound pockets of affluence, or stifling its sense of aspiration and, indeed, entitlement, however, will not improve the toothless old woman's circumstances. What India needs is an open dialogue about what all this new money means, how to assimilate its benefits in a personally gratifying, but also socially responsible way. A more charitable or sensitive attitude on the part of the affluent could be part of the solution, but the cornerstones need to come from a combination of governmental and private-sector strategic initiatives.
Perhaps it didn't take the Vogue India's staff long to catch on to an editorial formula that has served its Western counterparts well for years, using scandal to sell magazines. Or maybe, as Tanna told the Times, the shoot was indeed saying that "fashion is no longer a rich man's privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful." Regardless of intentions, Vogue's story focused the public discourse on a critical issue and, hopefully, it might also prove a call to action. Because a conversation that begins and ends with a condemnation of the photographs alone is ultimately as superficial as the values and merchandise that are being critiqued. Whatever happens, the controversy provides more evidence that, beneath its skin-deep appeal, fashion is serious business.