©Tereza Kuldova, 2010, PhD Fellow, Department of Ethnography, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo
As the title of my paper suggests, we will explore the various relationships of the middle-class urban Indians to their clothes. I will look at the ways in which they use clothes as a part of impression management and as part of the process of selfing as well as at the ways in which clothing acts back on them and their bodies. The relationships we will discuss are those between the material world, social persons and their bodies. Therefore, let us first briefly talk about the dialectical and mutually constitutive relationship between matter, social persons and their bodies.
We are unthinkable without the material world. The matter matters and it directly impacts the social world and our lives (Appadurai 2008; Bourdieu 1984; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Miller 1998b). The material world is part of our cognitive processes and social activities (Boivin 2008) and the way in which we conceptualize our world is deeply rooted in its materiality. To put it differently, the realm of symbols is to be found among the world of things (Boivin 2008; Kirmayer 1992). The material world also plays a central role in the constitution and maintenance of social identities (Roberts 1998) and social relationships (Bourdieu 1984). Our bodies are intertwined with the world in many ways. Both the self and the body literally extend into their material and social surroundings and come into being through the interrelationships between these. Still, we people somehow tend to overestimate our bodily separation by the way of reliance on our visual field. Even though when looking closely, there is intermingling at every level, be it chemical, biological, or social. To put it simply, we are part of the world. However, this whole idea of part in a whole marks a fundamental ambiguity in our lives (Burke 1969). We tend to think of ourselves as independent; but to be frank, there is no way in which we are not dependent on our surroundings and on other people. Even the word ’I’ tends to be ambiguous, its boundaries stretch and contract, it includes and excludes people and objects according to situation. This continual merger and division, differentiation and identification are central to self-awareness and the process of selfing (Belk 1988; Boultwood and Jerrard 2000; Claxton and Murray 1994; Mead and Miller 1982). The world comes into being through this continuous dynamism as does the self, which should be understood more as a process, constituted through a dialectic of subject-object relations (Miller and Tilley 1996). This notion of processual self is even supported by current neurophysiology that claims that the self is re-created at each moment of reflexive consciousness (Franks 2003; Gazzaniga 1998). We constantly recreate our selves through the knowledge we acquire, through the opinions we adopt, through the material possessions we gain, through the others with whom we interact. We continually merge at the same time as divide ourselves from others and our surroundings. It thus seems as if in this world of continual merger and division we use the language and its categories to divide and make sense of it, only to put these categories back together, and in this process to able to see the interrelationships between them. We have divided mind, body and matter, and now there is time to put them back together and to try to understand how they continually act on each other, neither the body nor the matter being passive objects. Therefore, if we want to understand material culture we also have to take into account the material body (Warnier 2001). As Warnier points out, there is possibly no technique of the body (Mauss 1934), which is not incorporated into the given materiality and therefore it makes very little sense to divorce the study of material culture from the study of the body (Warnier 2001) as well as non-material culture (Gibson 1966). It is through the body that we experience, our sentient embodiment is the very basis of our experience (Crossley 1995b; Merleau-Ponty 2002). When thinking about experiencing through the body and the relationship between material culture and the body, what is interesting, is that our main reactions to each other and to our material surroundings are of emotional nature (Damasio 1996; Damasio 2003). There is thus dense intermingling between our emotional life, and psychical and sensual relationships towards our and others bodies and material culture. Material culture thus not only influences the way in which we conceptualize our world but also reaches deep into our psyche. The objects emotionally resonate with our bodies and actively act on them. This capacity of material objects to trigger particular emotions is central to the interrelationship between identity, material culture and personhood. The boundaries of our bodies and our selves thus can be said to extend into their surroundings (Rochberg-Halton 1984; Warnier 2001). In the process of selfing we include into ourselves particular objects, which then maintain our social identity and therefore can be seen as “embodiments of a person, his world-view, his values” (McCarthy 1984:116). It is through physical objects, bodily gestures and speech that we communicate who we are (Goffman 1969; McCarthy 1984; Mead and Miller 1982; Simmel and Wolff 1964). To put it simply, objects are central to the presentation of us to others and to our impression management (Belk 1988; Goffman 1969; Goffman 1971; McCarthy 1984). As Sartre pointed out, having and being merges, and the only way we know who we are is by observing what we have (Sartre and Elkaim-Sartre 2003). Physical objects are thus reminders of our identities, confirming them both to us and to others. Our possessions tend to become parts of ourselves; we pretty much are what we possess (Belk 1988; Tuan 1980). Our possessions impose their identities on ourselves, at the same time as we impose ours on them. At a first glace is this apparent in our relationship to clothes, which brings us to our focus on dress as embodied practice.
The need to study material culture in relation to the study of the body is nowhere more visible than in the case of clothing, due to the proximity of the material to the human body. Dress marks the imagined boundary between the naked biological body and the social person. It has the potential to signify, as well as to arouse emotions in us, but it also bears traces of its wearer, it is literally imprinted with the signature of the wearer’s body, revealing his physiognomy, identity and character (Hauser 2004; Stallybrass 1993). Our clothed bodies communicate our values, preferences, roles and status to the world. At the same time, the acquisition and showcase of particular objects and clothes enables us to play with these roles and values and with symbols and meanings, though these manipulations occur very often at the level of intuitively felt. We often get the ’feel’ that a particular dress or thing is appropriate to a given situation. The dress gives us certain sensations and connotations, it is felt on and through our body, and it arouses emotions at the same time as it forms, constraints and enables the body through its sheer materiality, which demands particular postures and demeanor (Mauss 1934). This playful and creative use of clothes enables us to project certain values and messages. However, clothes have to be in accord with particular techniques of the body to project the wanted images. So bodily behavior, such as gestures, postures and movement interacts with clothing and it is at this intersection that meanings are produced and that the self is continually enacted. Dressing oneself is thus both socially structured and embodied practice (Entwistle 2000; Entwistle 2001). Social structures are reproduced at the level of bodily practices (Bourdieu 1977; Bourdieu 1984; Goffman 1969; Goffman 1971), and in this respect clothes play a central role for the sustenance of the micro-social order (Entwistle 2001). It is an embodied actor and his bodily techniques (Crossley 1995b; Goffman 1971; Mauss 1934; Merleau-Ponty 2002) together with his use and manipulation of material objects and clothes that are coordinated with the micro-social order. Thus, we can say that the dress together with the techniques of the body is the first visible “insignia by which we read and come to read others” (Entwistle 2001:47). However, this “body-clothing communication is a mélange of multi-messages, which often contradict each other, creating ambiguity for both sender and receiver” (Boultwood and Jerrard 2000:304). There is thus no straightforward way in which we can read these messages. As Davis noted, the nature of the statements we make with our clothes are more like music, “where the emotions, allusions and moods that are aroused resist, as they almost must, the attribution of unambiguous meanings” (Davis 1992:3).
If we thus want to get at least a glimpse of these at times rather ambiguous meanings and messages projected by the clothes worn by the Indian urban middle-class, we have to immerse ourselves a bit in their lifeworld. On my first day in Lucknow, an emerging city in Northern India, my landlady invited me for a trip to show me the best features of the city; it turned out to be a trip to the latest shopping mall. There we ended up drinking café latté, eating blueberry muffins, admiring western branded clothes while discussing the famous and delicious traditional cuisine of Lucknow. In this first encounter I began to sense a part of urban India where images of the ‘West’ and ‘India’, visions of ‘modernity’ and nostalgic dreams and memories of the great Indian civilization merge, creating a unique fusion (cf. Favero 2005) and where the class division is far more important than any religious or caste division. Soon I realized that people identified, spoke about and judged one another primarily in class related ways (cf. Béteille 1992; Béteille 1986), which turned out to be “one of the most potent idioms of identity, rank and political power” (Dickey 2000:464). Though the class divisions may be obvious in the field, it turns out to be actually incredibly hard to define who the Indian middle-class is. However, as I see it, there are several characteristics, except for economic status and self-definition, which I believe are important and central for our discussion. What is a recurrent topic, is the ambivalent relation of the Indian middle-class to the West. The Indian middle-class is to a great extent a product of the British (cf. Favero 2005; Varma 1998) and is commonly associated with the westernized and consumerist lifestyle on one hand, and the focus on traditional Indian values, most apparent in the discussions on religion, honor, respect and family, on the other. The middle-class oscillates between the discourses of westernization and traditionalism, which has led its famous critics (notably themselves also middle-class) to label it as imitative, media-driven and culturally at hazard. Ashish Nandy thus, for example, claims that the West has created a class of mimic men, of “modernists, whose attempts to identify with the colonial aggressors has produced (…) pathetic copies of (…) Western man in the subcontinent” (Nandy 1983:74). Pavan K. Varma then associates the new middle-classes with their “horribly bloated unconcern for society itself and (…) acceptance of a certain kind of lifestyle: insular, aggressive, selfish, obsessed with material gain, and socially callous” (Varma 1998:132). The Indian middle-class, formed both by the British and by its resistance to them, is caught in a trap somewhere in the middle, it is a queer category where the “tradition” or even “orthodoxy” persists despite the “enthusiastic endorsement of the project of ‘modernity’” (Varma 1998:123). The continual negotiation between “tradition” and “modernity” is a lived experience for the Indian middle-class; it is what defines its lifeworld. So when we speak of “tradition” and “modernity” here, we treat them as categories of practice as opposed to categories of analysis (Brubaker and Cooper 2000). The middle-class draws on these discourses according to situation, sometimes even simultaneously advocating equality and hierarchy, or liberty and authoritarianism (Joshi 2005), however not seeing any kind of serious contradiction in these statements. This “ability to move within a complex multi-referential ‘life-world’ and to carve out novel meanings” (Favero 2005:6) is one of the central characteristics of the middle-class in the post-liberalization India. These situational switches between different discourses or their blending “can become weapons to grasp the competence of their counterparts in managing the contemporary ‘hybrid’ life-world and to mark out belonging to specific communities of imagination” (Favero 2005:115). The lifeworld of the middle-class can be easily compared to a Hindi film song, which can be defined only by its eclecticism, by the merger of traditional Indian styles with jazz, rock, hip-hop, whatever it may be (Morcom 2007). The self of the middle-class is the example par excellence of the self positioned in terms of story lines, available categories and representations (cf. Davies and Harré 1990). The second striking feature of the middle-class lifeworld is marked by the fact that this achieved status needs to be continually manifested, negotiated, and enacted at different social stages. The middle-class tends to perceive itself as constantly under threat by the lower strata, who are trying to climb up the social ladder and it thus tries to differentiate itself from them. The tendency to fortify oneself and to visibly mark the difference from the lower strata is thus another important feature of the middle-class lifeworld (cf. Waldrop 2004). Both the discursive oscillations between “tradition” and “modernity” and the tendency to fortify oneself are clearly manifested in the consumption patterns of the middle-classes - possibly most notably in the consumption and showcase of clothing, which brings us back to the relationship between materiality and sociality.
Material culture, in our case clothing, is very often a concrete and visible means by which the discursive oscillations and the tendency to fortify and differentiate oneself is resolved by the middle-classes in practice in everyday life (cf. Miller 1998a). Clothing in this case both expresses values and works as a class-differentiating marker (Bowie 1993; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Lurie 1992; Norris 2004; Simmel 1957), because it is very often the acquisition and showcase of particular commodities what stands behind the dreams and realities of vertical mobility. The clothes then as class symbols “serve not so much to represent or misrepresent one’s position, but rather to influence in a desired direction other persons’ judgment of it” (Goffman 1951:297). This point is central when thinking about the middle-class and its struggle to demarcate visibly its boundaries and to align particular values with its visual representations. What stroke me as significant in the field, was the exclusive focus on either traditional type of clothing, especially heavily embroidered designer outfits, or on western branded clothes, like Armani or Versace. Even though it might seem as two very different and even opposing types of clothing, one standing for “tradition” and the other for “modernity”, there is something that is common for both of them, and that is a search for “authenticity”. This authenticity is derived from the value associated with handmade production, be it hand embroidery made by artisans in Indian villages or handmade design and manufacture of branded western haute couture (cf. Rovine 2007). Not only does hand made design enhance originality and individuality, but it also implies wealth, taste and style, at the same time as it implies authentic West (because copies of western brands are just not good enough) and authentic India. When talking particularly to middle-class women, and when sitting in the showrooms and observing how specific orders come into being, I realized that what is important when it comes to authenticity and hand-made products, is the texture. “Texture serves as a barometer of the expectations attached to authenticity (…) we rely on our hands to tell us if fabrics are ‘genuine’, if a garment is ‘authentic’. Touch is the sense most deeply used in question of authenticity” (Rovine 2007:135). Touching and sensing the embroidery, the women were deciding on its quality and value. Then they would proceed to discuss the style and the cut of the garment they demanded, usually influenced by the latest Bollywood fashion, at the same time as the garment was supposed to be fitting their bodies perfectly, so that it would be obvious that the garment is not of the ready-made kind, i.e. cheap. They often described that wearing such clothes gave them the celebrity ‘feel’, that they felt like a different person, wealthy and beautiful. When I was then later on shopping with these women at the new booming shopping malls, they applied the sense of touch to the branded clothes in very similar ways, judging the texture of the cloth, its value and commenting on its quality. They were often shopping for clothes for their husbands, often expressing the need to make them look good, with style, at the same time, as they should look as progressive and modern in their thinking. It should also be apparent that they are spending enough money on their clothes, that they know where quality lies, and that is with authenticity, therefore copies of branded clothes were out of question. For many people the whole shopping for clothes was about feeling well and appropriate, however, that included shopping for clothes that would project the right values for given occasions. The women thus had to consume conspicuously, they had to purchase goods that would provide evidence of the wealth and social dominance of their households (Roberts 1998; Veblen 1970), because selfhood is what is at stake in public encounters and it must be ensured that it is maintained (Crossley 1995a:139). In this respect, the particular value of the handmade manufacture seemed to lie in its ability to evoke “lives and stories, offering consumers a means by which to partake physically in those narratives (…) It is the ‘feeling’ of garments that allows consumers to insert themselves into the stories the clothing evokes” (Rovine 2007:136-7). These stories and narratives were very often a particular blend of the images of the western lifestyle, of the advertised splendor, wealth, beauty and accomplishment, as well as of cinematic dreamworlds produced by the Bollywood film directors. We do not have time to go in depth into how particular clothes are used to project particular values and how they are used in the theatre of everyday life. What I however wish to point out, is the fact that the craze for handmade ethnic designer wear and western haute couture is paradigmatic for the middle-class lifeworld, and it nicely shows the negotiation of the “tradition” and “modernity” in everyday life and at the level of the material. The woman here, more often than the man, wearing traditional outfits stands for “tradition” (Das 2000:169; cf. Kabir 2001), however her outfits must be at the same time clearly distinguished by their quality and texture from traditional outfits worn by the lower strata. The use of such garments can also be understood in terms of the aspirations to upward mobility, which are “frequently expressed in terms of greater preoccupation with female modesty and respectability and, in many cases, an increased surveillance of women’s sexuality” (Mankekar 2004:411). The same woman dresses her husband in western brands and projects the idea of a “modern” family; however, the texture remains the same. Together then they are urban middle-class India writ small. Through these particular consumption choices, these middle-class men and women also create communities of purchasers, they differentiate themselves from others by what they purchase and identify with those who purchase likewise. Showing themselves off in certain clothing is thus a creative act (cf. Gell 1986; Gell 1998; Lurie 1992; Tarlo 1996). The commodities that they purchase extend their bodies and selves and as a result contribute to making them who they are; they unite them with other members of the middle-class, and make them recognizable to others. The possessions thus have the power to create particular kinds of people and to demarcate boundaries and it is also obvious that the aesthetic judgments of texture, embroidery or clothes in general are rarely disinterested, and that they frequently serve to sustain social inequalities (Bourdieu 1984) and are fundamental for the micro-social order (Entwistle 2001). The dress consumption practices of the middle-class thus reflect and are geared towards “an attempt to ground one’s identity in a coherent lifestyle that accords with the reflexive narrative one has chosen to adopt” (Sweetman 2001:65).
However, there is an enormous source of influence when it comes to these narratives, and that is the Bollywood cinema, a dream factory of upward mobility. The cinematic dreamworlds are both produced by and the products of the middle-classes and their experience of modernity with all its contradictions. It is the cinema that has introduced the world of aesthetized commodity, opened a window for global travel and exploration, and became a sort of phantasmagoria of Indian modernity (cf. Favero 2005; Mazumdar 2007). The seduction of commodity along with the seduction of tradition is at the heart of Bollywood cinema. This might remind us of the discursive oscillations of the middle-classes that we discussed earlier on. The cinematic messages oscillate between what is imagined as “modernity” and “tradition” in similar ways as the middle-class people do in their daily interactions and in their use of the material. Fashion then is obviously an important aspect of the cinema, and especially of the film song parts, which emerged in the 1990's as “one of the most important spaces for an aggressive and sophisticated form of fashion display” (Mazumdar 2007:96). “Affluent Indian men and women have drawn on film costume to inspire their own clothing choices for several decades”(Wilkinson-Weber 2005:135) and the filmi dress plays a central role for the imagination and consumption choices of the viewers. However, what is striking is that it is not only dress that is adopted and adjusted by the viewers but also the techniques of the body of the original wearers of the dress and sources of inspiration. The clothed bodies of the middle-class men and women often tend to mimic and imitate their favorite stars, both in dress and in bodily movements and gestures. This is possibly related to the “widespread belief in contemporary India in the capacity of material things to absorb and transmit the essence of people and places with which they have previously come into contact” (Norris 2004:62). This seems to be the case also in the imitations of the Bollywood film costumes that are flooding the markets. Wearing these clothes, be it the same brands as the greatest stars promote, or imitations of the designer outfits in traditional fashion used in the movies, the middle-class women and men I worked with describe significant changes in their moods, feelings and self-confidence. They describe that their way of walking, their gestures and way of talking are transformed and become more confident, as they know that they are looking good and this shows in their behavior. They thus tend to incorporate characteristics of the people connotatively associated with the garments through the acquisition of similar garments. Their self somehow expands and includes the imaginary glamorous worlds of the stars through the garment, and the body in turn acts as if this imaginary world was somehow real. In the end, this world becomes real in its consequences. These garments thus can be said to transform the personality of their users and endow them with particular characteristics and qualities (Bayly 2008; Mitchell 2000). The ‘reel’ types are turning into ‘real’ types and ‘real’ categories of people. It is therefore obvious that “cloth of different textures, colours, or origins could do more than simply impart information in society: it could change the moral and physical substance of the individual” (Bayly 2008:287). Looking at both the case of texture as a search for authenticity, western lifestyle and traditional Indian values, and at the case of the mimicking of the Indian movie stars in terms of their clothes and bodily techniques alike, it becomes obvious that the mystical character of commodities lies in the fact that they can acquire value only by appearing to embody, represent or connote some quality beyond themselves (Marx and Engels 1990; Mitchell 2000). We have thus seen how the world of symbols is intertwined with the world of things, how the discourses and imaginary life scenarios live among the things and come into being through the acquisition of these things. We have seen that the discursive oscillations between “tradition” and “modernity” manifest themselves in the material at the same time, as the material actively constitutes them. The material possessions are continually used in the negotiation of one’s position in the social world and in the process of selfing and self-management. As Sussanne Küchler says, we can no longer regard “things as passive receptacles of discursive thought; rather, as we have indeed long suspected, thought can conduct itself in things, and things can be thoughtlike (…) things partake not just in thinking, but also in the shaping of knowledge (Küchler 2005:225).
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