Vogue India’s display made us uncomfortable because it reminded us of what we preferred to forget: our daily complicity in ‘exploiting the poor.’
What was terrible was that it inadvertently reminded the rest of us of the daily exploitation of cheap labour in places like India and the larger exploitation globally
Vogue India is in the news. The glossy fashion magazine reportedly featured 16 pages of photographs of India’s poorest peasants draped in impossibly luxurious accessories, of the sort that they could not even dream of being able to afford.
Burberry, Fendi and Alexander McQueen were some of the fashion tags mentioned in the press. A Fendi bib, one scandalised critic noted, costs around $100 (US). A poor Indian earns less than one dollar a day. A poor Indian baby is fed on a fraction of that dollar.
Yes, it was in bad taste. Yes, it was terrible. We all agree on that. But why was it terrible?
Was it terrible because the photos “exploited” the poor, as some critics argued?
But when is it that the poor are not being exploited? Unless Vogue did not pay its impoverished models, it obviously did not exploit the poor any more than they would have been exploited in the daily course of their labour. The economy of the world — and not just India — is based on ‘exploiting’ the poor: it is mostly called profit. Actually, there is even a chance that Vogue paid them much more than they would have earned that day or perhaps that week. Payment issues
It might be that Vogue did not pay its poor models as much as it would have paid Kate Moss. I am ready to bet that it paid them only a tiny fraction of what it would have paid Kate Moss. But then it would also pay me only a tiny fraction of what it would pay Dan Brown to contribute a story to one of its numbers. That too, alas, is how the cookie crumbles, and has crumbled for many decades. It is called the culture of celebrity, and that is another aspect of a system geared around the celebration of ‘profit.’
Oh, let’s forget the system. Only Sci Fi fanatics talk about the system now. This is not the 1960s! So what if, goes the cry in shopping malls around the world, 850 million people in the world are malnourished; what if half of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day, while there are millionaires who are richer than many nations combined. What system, huh? Marx is dead! The shopping malls shout at me and say: there was no system on display in the pages of Vogue India; what was on display was fashion.
Well, let’s talk fashion. If clothing is a necessity (at least for human beings who are sadly not endowed with much fur), fashion is a luxury. But then, luxury is no longer a topic for discussion either. It is almost as unfashionable to talk of necessity versus luxury as to mention profit, or capital, or (God forbid) Marx. If I want it, it is a necessity for me — and it is not your problem that I have enough, ahem, ‘capital’ to be able to pay a million dollar for it. Or that’s what the shopping malls shout at me. Unwanted reminders
So yes, what was terrible about Vogue India’s photo spread was not the ‘exploitation’ of the Indian poor featured in the photos. What was terrible was that it inadvertently reminded the rest of us of the daily exploitation of cheap labour in places like India and the larger exploitation globally, the exploitation that gets our coffee cheap from Bolivia, our sports shoes cheap from Bangladesh. That is why we — clad in sneakers and sipping coffee in New York, Copenhagen and Delhi — felt that perhaps the Vogue India spread was in bad taste. It reminded us of what we preferred to forget: our daily complicity in ‘exploiting the poor.’
But at the national level, there was another element. The Vogue spread and its defence vaguely revealed to us the gap that has grown between the shopping mall classes and the other classes in India, the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We might live in the same country, but we do not live in the same world. Perhaps not even in the same universe any longer.
If that was not so, Vogue India editor, Priya Tanna, would not have been quoted in an Internet article as defending her display in these words: Vogue is about fashion, she said, and “fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful.”
Sure, man, sure. If you say it.
6 months ago