When I was a little girl, my mum’s mother used to stay with us in our small town, Bokaro, in eastern India, every December. On these trips, she would always come with a bag full of differently coloured balls of wool and her knitting needles, and she would knit, knit, knit away all winter. I watched straight lines of yarn being formed into patterns which would later become jumpers and sweaters for me, my brother, my aunt, uncle, dad, grandfather, or a cousin. Knitting was a second habit for my grandmother- it would carry on in the background even when she would spend post-lunch siesta time chatting with my mum.
“Will you teach me how to knit?” I once asked my mum.
“I don’t know to knit,” she said. I recalled then that my mother didn’t sew either, like other mums in the neighbourhood, many of whom made dresses for their kids. But then, my mother had always been different. Unlike other mums, most of who stayed at home to raise their kids and run the household, my mother taught at the local school and was fiercely independent. This, in spite of skepticism from some members of the family who reasoned that being a working mother meant that your children were neglected.
But looking back, I think I sensed a mixture of doubt and defiance in my mother’s admission that she couldn’t knit. Defiance, of course, because her employment in a field other than manufacturing apparel was symbolic of her status as a “progressive woman.” By emphasizing that she couldn’t sew or knit, she was rising above the historical baggage of “female” occupations. But on the other hand, there was also, doubt. On some occasions, my mother had flaunted, not without pride, little works of embroidery which she had worked on as a kid herself, or handkerchiefs she had patterned.
I grew into a teenager who denied that she wanted to dress up, paint her nails, shop for clothes, and flaunt about in new styles in front of the mirror. I didn’t want to be dismissed as the “typical girl”, but rather, wanted to be taken seriously as a modern, progressive women.
At 18, when I went to stay with an aunt who ran a tiny boutique in a larger town, Bangalore, I was both (secretly) excited to be spending most of my day around clothes, but also looked at the venture with much skepticism. For one, her story confirmed my socialized belief that the pursuit of fashion was a way out only for women with fewer opportunities. This aunt’s marriage had been arranged when she had been just 18 herself, now she was twice that. Unlike my mother, she had not had the opportunity to go to university or pursue higher education. After her marriage, she decided that she nevertheless wanted to contribute monetarily to her household.
To begin her business, she started taking up hemming, embroidery and clothes refitting assignments from neighbouring households, in spite of pressure from her husband’s family that a woman vending her labour in a public setting was not the most honorable tag for them. I think the lens I saw her though then was mostly of pity. To my mind, she was the victim of a society which did not allow her opportunities to do more “serious” things. What I was not realising at the time was that my own lens was the product of the modern, progressive woman’s contradictions about fashion.
She related her story to me with much pride. She talked about how much she loved sorting through clothes, and how eventually she had managed to save enough from her assignments to start a small retail business and employ another tailor, as well as buy more sewing machines so that now she had much more time to think up new designs. I asked her if she had never wanted to do something else - what if she had had an opportunity to study further? Didn’t she ever feel wronged? - I asked with the gleeful glint of a saviour feminist. But she talked about her good fortune which allowed her the opportunity to start something like this in difficult circumstances and about the futility of wishful thinking.
Meanwhile, her husband’s business was dwindling, and my aunt’s financial contributions to the household mattered more. My aunt said that this meant that the family should invest more in her business, and focus on growing it. But to most people in the family did not seem like a serious proposition. What is the future of a tailoring enterprise, really? it was asked. It’s not serious business, it was answered. Even though hers was the business that was growing and supporting the family, it was not seen as worthy of investment.
Back at home, a friend of my mum’s was a fashion retailer who had started her business out of a spare bedroom where she would curate tasteful styles at prices lower than the larger commercial market. As her business expanded, her husband who was a “serious” engineer decided to devote more time to helping her out. The neighbourhood discussions which followed this move, however, were not the kindest. “Hmmm…so the guy is more interested in clothes than real work eh…” … “It’s all about the money dontyouknow?”…. “Pussywhipped much?”…
It was weird to hear well-educated folks that comprised the neighbourhood lament about a man’s interest in a fashion business. The subtext appeared in the form of a baffled question: Why would a “well-qualified” man pursue something as floozy as fashion? I think it was about then that I realized my own repressed thinking - about my love for fashion and about my perception that its women with fewer opportunities who go into fashion as a career. Because here was a man with all the opportunities in the world being victimized for his interest in fashion! Could one reconcile that fact to my saviour feminist position? Hardly!
Each of these women had the creativity and ingenuity to start and build businesses that supported their families, and yet each of them was criticized because those businesses were in the fashion/apparel industry.
Instead of breaking gender stereotypes, are we just creating new stereotypes about what it means to be a feminist when we deny respect to women who work in the fashion and apparel manufacturing industry? Because progress comes from freedom- the ability to be who we are and pursue what we care about, rather than being trapped in the box of assigned gender roles. In that scenario, fashion manages to puncture into the seemingly smooth fabric of social relationships and reveal the true nature of the gendered world we live in.
by Smarika Kraye
Bio: Smarika Kraye can be found on Instagram at @velourisnot.