From Alia Bhatt to Anushka Sharma: Bollywood and Fashion Get Woke

When an Alia Bhatt wears an ‘F for Feminist’ tee, does it further the cause of feminism at all?

6 min read
(Photo: The Quint)

When an Alia Bhatt wears a T shirt with the slogan, “F for Feminist”, does it help further the cause of feminism at all, or does it result in nothing but the commodification of the movement?

Alia Bhatt wearing an F for Feminist shirt by designer Gaurav Gupta. (Photo: Gaurav Gupta)
Alia Bhatt wearing an F for Feminist shirt by designer Gaurav Gupta. (Photo: Gaurav Gupta)

Or when Vogue, the Bible of fashion, puts a cover with Anushka Sharma staring into the camera, wearing a sheer skirt with frills, and a T shirt that reads: “We Should All Be Feminists,” does it subvert patriarchy in any way?

The cover of the Vogue India March 2017 issue. (Photo Courtesy: Vogue India)
The cover of the Vogue India March 2017 issue. (Photo Courtesy: Vogue India)

Or when Sonakshi Sinha exudes power sporting a Stree Shakti tee designed by Abraham and Thakore for Elle, does it undo the years of oppression that Indian women have been subjected to?

Sonakshi SInha posing in a custom designed Abraham and Thakore tee for an Elle issue. (Photo Courtesy: Abraham and Thakore) 
Sonakshi SInha posing in a custom designed Abraham and Thakore tee for an Elle issue. (Photo Courtesy: Abraham and Thakore) 

The answer to the above may not quite be in the affirmative, but it would be dismissive to believe that feminist T-shirts won’t result in any political capital for the feminist movement in India.

Just like in the West, fashion designers, influenced by the Women’s March and a deeply divisive US President who has often been accused of misogyny, are aesthetically rebelling against the status quo, designers in India too are rallying against patriarchy and sexism and using the culturally significant real estate of tees to send out powerful feminist messages.

In case you thought fashion and pop culture have no bearing over society, let’s offer you some important case in points. In the early 2000s, shows like Modern Family helped normalise gay characters. And more recently, the Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why triggered a worldwide conversation on teen suicide.

Fashion too is a visual signifier to the important political and cultural movements of our times. As Priya Tanna, Editor of Vogue India, says, fashion has always been reflective of the current times.

Historically, fashion has been a very strong, important, and powerful tool and has always responded and reflected the times we live in. Why are we only talking about feminism? If you look at the happenings of the past, when the world went into war, it reflected instantly on the covers of fashion magazines. When the world sank into financial depression, magazines started showing happier, feminine clothes, to usher in a slightly more optimistic feeling. During the bra burning movement, and the Gloria Steinem movement, magazines started showing women in suits and power suits of the 80’s. What was all of that? The power suits of the 80s, the athleticness of the 90s, the bohemian vibe of the 70s, it has all been indicative of the times and the world we live in and what’s happening around us because fashion reacts to everything.

So will fashion’s current muse, the woke movement, register a revolution? But first, let’s go back to where it all began.

Dior Borrows From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For her first Spring-Summer 2017 ready-to-wear collection showcased in September last year, Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s first female artistic director, placed women centrestage.

As an inspiration, she borrowed the slogan, 'We Should All Be Feminists', the title of an essay by feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and paired it with luxurious Dior bags and accessories, teasingly flashing the feminist T-shirt as yet another status symbol to acquire.

...Feminist is a recurring word for #MariaGraziaChiuri. #DiorSS17 #PFWSS17

A post shared by Dior Official (@dior) on

The T Shirts were priced at a steep $710. However, Dior teamed up with Rihanna and her Clara Lionel Foundation to donate a portion of the proceeds to support effective education, health, and emergency response programs internationally.

The choice of displaying a powerful slogan on a humble tee deserves credit here. As Tanna says, the minute that T-shirt made its debut on the runway, every fashion editor knew that this was a powerful statement being sent out by Dior, and how everyone from Rihanna, to every other celebrity and influential blogger worth their salt, reacted to it.

I think it is brilliant that Maria Grazia of Dior picked the single most ubiquitous piece of clothing which is a T-shirt, because it is something everybody possesses and wears, to send out these powerful slogans. And the trickle down of it has been every high-street retailer is also now retailing slogan T-shirts. Fashion has always been the most creative, visually appealing, and exciting barometer of the times we live in. And this is once again a reflection of that.
Priya Tanna, Editor, Vogue India

About how she sees a youth icon like Alia Bhatt flash the F sign proudly, Tanna says when a successful, influential, confident woman like that wears a feminist T-shirt, knowingly or unknowingly, she’s endorsing the movement and is in some way inspiring other women to also strive for equal rights in today’s society.

Gaurav Gupta and Prabal Gurung Pay Ode to Fourth Wave Feminism

Back home in India, designer Gaurav Gupta’s woke collection for the Vogue Atelier show held on Women’s Day saw T-shirts and crop tops carefully synced with multi-layered cascading lehenga skirts, a signature of the designer’s sculpted look.

Gaurav Gupta’s feminist T-shirt paired with his signature lehengas. (Photo: Gaurav Gupta)
Gaurav Gupta’s feminist T-shirt paired with his signature lehengas. (Photo: Gaurav Gupta)

With slogans like, “F for feminist”, “I am a feminist, What’s your superpower”, “If you sexist me I will feminist you”, the design team made sure to give a sartorial tribute to fourth wave feminism.
The collection was made available in different sizes, from XS to XL, in line with the feminist-y idea of body positivity.

Meanwhile, at the New York Fashion Week this year, Nepal-born American designer Prabal Gurung showed us his political allegiance and displayed a veiled support for defeated US Presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, by sashaying his models down the ramp in T-shirts stamped with the slogan: “Nevertheless, she persisted”.

In a statement, Gurung had then said that now "more than ever, fashion and politics should mix."

But unlike Prabal Gurung’s collection which was a fitting response to Donald Trump’s misogyny, Gaurav Gupta’s collection wasn’t crafted with anger against women’s mistreatment.

None of the Indian designers displayed a political reason for their collections.

Woke Fashion: Yay or Nay?

Naysayers say this wave of woke fashion is just cashing in on a serious movement.

What about doing the real feminist thing, that is standing up to discriminatory practices in their own industry, asks Japleen Pasricha, feminist and Founder of Feminism In

Celebrities cash in on the feminist bandwagon, but how many actually stand up for women facing discrimination in their own sector? Case in point, how many female Bollywood celebrities who endorse such clothing stood up for Kangana Ranaut?
Japleen Pasricha, Feminist and Founder of Feminism In

Japleen also adds that such a trend trivialises the larger issue and converts it into a marketing gimmick to be consumed by the masses without explaining the nuances of the issue.

However, author and gender rights activist, Nishtha Gautam says that such design initiatives can become important tools for mainstreaming gender equality. But she adds a word of caution too:

Feminism needs to go beyond branding. For everyone involved: the producers, buyers and sellers.
Nishtha Gautam, Gender Rights Activist

Gimmick or not, one thing is for sure: that the fashion industry has a difficult relationship with women. While on one hand, it entices women to buy more through lucrative advertisements (after all, women dominate the market as consumers), on the other hand it also exploits low-paid female labour especially in countries like India, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. In order to be truly woke, the fashion industry must do better overall, which includes getting rid of its unreasonable beauty standards and taking care of its female workforce. In the meantime, if a T-shirt helps transport the idea of feminism to street markets and mall displays, and helps destroy its “scary” image, especially as it comes stamped with approvals of desirable actresses, it must be given a chance, and bought, perhaps.

After all, the personal is political.

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