Thursday, September 09, 2010

NY Times - In Old Societies, New Fashions Convey Power


In Old Societies, New Fashions Convey Power

From left to right: Anupama Dayal, Network18, MIFW & Sobol Fashion Productions.
From left to right: Anupama Dayal’s Bronze Begum collection; Suhasini Haidar, the deputy foreign editor of CNN-IBN; a model wearing a design by Rabia Z. during Miami fashion week in 2010.

NEW DELHI — Women in corporate India are opting for form-fitting business suits. In Sudan, a woman who dares to wear trousers is sent to jail. In the capitals of Europe, a Muslim head scarf becomes a political lightning rod. And across the Islamic world, a new crop of designers is nudging women to step out of fashion purdah with clothes that meld global catwalk trends with Muslim mores.
In old societies facing a flurry of Western goods and ideas, a woman often carries the competing demands of tradition and modernity on her back. How she dresses conveys a great deal more than her individual sense of style. She is sized up by what she does or does not wear, whether it is by her parents, in-laws, co-workers, loutish men on the bus, and even, as with the debate over the Islamic head scarf, by politicians.
Sometimes she conforms to tradition, sometimes she challenges it. Often she combines old and new in ways that can confuse or surprise.
Consider the case of India today, where a decade of roaring economic growth has been accompanied by new opportunities for the urban, educated woman — and in turn, offering her a vast menu of new looks.
“Almost every day I feel this country changes,” said Anupamaa Dayal, a designer based in New Delhi whose latest autumn collection is studded with short dresses and floppy tunics. “And who changes the fastest? It’s the woman.”
As a woman earns more money, power and freedom, it often engenders changes, both stark and subtle, in how she dresses. But more so than men, however, women find that their wardrobe choices are often calibrated by cultural expectations: modesty, authority, shifting ideals of femininity. What may connote tradition to a Westerner could telegraph a higher status to an Asian or African woman and her people.
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