Opinion | Met Gala: Fashion, Faiz, And The Fragility of Bodies

Latest and Breaking News on NDTV

What is this pervasive fragrance in our Garden of Time? Can we pick the notes? Is it that of dissent or conformity? Is the garden resonant with an ode to the west wind or does Nero's lyre pulse through its nooks?

Each year, many of us find questions to ask about the relevance of the Met Gala, fashion's biggest evening out. The dissing voices are particularly louder this year given the recent spate of arrests across university campuses not very far from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the gala's venue.

The theme of this year's Met Gala is 'The Garden of Time', and it could not have been more appropriate in at least a slightly perverse sense. With many parts of the world torn apart by ongoing wars and violence, a rumination on time and its passage is essential to retain perspective. Is time really an objective concept? If so, why does it not pass with equal speed for the aggressor and the victim? Why does it stand still for the weaker side? (Actually, Henri Bergson told us the reasons long ago).

Fashion As A Reminder

It may sound discordant to raise these metaphysical questions amidst the celebration of the physical and the material. And the latter should be celebrated. Fashion is both the celebration and the extension of the undeniable corporeality of human existence. We exist as bodies and therefore we are. Bodies precede ideas. The moment our bodies go away, our existence - however rarefied or fetishised in intellectual terms - fades. Nobody knows this better than those witnessing the destruction and desecration of bodies around them.

Fashion brings back attention to the body. It also, often, ends up idealising the body. There is no end to the debate on what the function of fashion is or ought to be. This is not even the time to get into that debate anyway. As a socio-economic activity, fashion has its role cut out. As an assemblage of ideas, it often leaves a lot to be desired. Fashion exists between the two extremes of Karl Marx's war cry to politicise art and its later rejection by the proponents of Aestheticism. Those who were chanting 'art for art's sake', l'art pour l'art, or, much later, ars gratia artist - the motto of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc.

Lessons From Faiz

Therefore, fashion confuses us when we start 'thinking' about it. But think we must. And not just about how various designers and connoisseurs interpreted the theme this year. Truth be told, this year's Met Gala can go down in its history as one of the most lacklustre editions. How many iterations of the 'naked dress' can one stomach in a single evening? And Zendaya does not even need a Met Gala to establish her supremacy in the world of fashion. So, what should we talk about when we think and talk about fashion?

There is no prescriptive way of approaching the fashion discourse. Politics alone can not be it. Some thoughtless acts of blending politics and fashion are more disastrous than a badly blended foundation. Take the just concluded Mumbai Fashion Week, for example. Several designers tried to mask their lack of creative ingenuity behind socio-political grandstanding. This is a double fraud - against fashion and against politics.

Faiz Ahmad Faiz gave certain lessons in dealing with ideas that are not natural bedfellows. His poem 'Mujhse pahli si mohabbat mere mahboob na maang...' depicts the human state as the following:

an-ginat sadiyoñ ke tārīk bahīmāna tilism
resham o atlas o kamḳhāb meñ bunvā.e hue
jā-ba-jā bikte hue kūcha-o-bāzār meñ jism
ḳhaak meñ luThḌe hue ḳhuun meñ nahlā.e hue

Life being a cursed maze, or marketplace, crafted out of expensive and exquisite fabrics like silk and brocade, where bodies are bought and sold ... The duality of excess and deprivation is enunciated radically in this poem. Faiz does not diss the beauty of the fabric or the artistic vision that has painstakingly brought beautiful motifs on silk turning it into the prized 'kimkhaab'. He, on the contrary, is giving a hat tip to the sweat and blood of the working classes that create such beauty.

Why Fashion Seems Incompatible With Radical Change

Fashion is one of the biggest industries in the world, 2% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and, therefore, cannot be ignored by even the unfashionable. This is why the protesters gathered outside the Met demanding immediate ceasefire and divestment. It is unlikely that their demands will be heard any more here than on the university campuses or the floor of the Congress. But that's alright. Both can and ought to coexist. That they appear incompatible is a function of a historical alliance of the fashionable with the cruel and the indifferent. That needs to change. Fashion's potential for radical change by demanding what is ethically sustainable is still untapped. When it is realised, it will be a moment to reckon with, and the placards might say:

'Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion'.

Yes, the theme of the 2024-25 exhibition that the Met Gala celebrated.

(Nishtha Gautam is a Delhi-based author and academic.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author