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Editorial Special Edition: Aesthetics as a socio-political tool

The following piece is in addition to the work of the Policy Analysts. It is part of a wider research project conducted by Drishti Patel and Vriddhi Khattar through the scheme of the URSS. This article covers the themes discussed on the poster and they hope to share their findings in a more accessible way- through the article below. Please do contact the individuals above if you have any further questions.

Design has always been an interpretation of contemporary culture. With shifts in time and circumstances, design, especially worn design, has been a sophisticated indicator of the condition of society and whether or not they are flourishing economically. This is not only exemplified by changes in styles across time but by particular changes in the length and appearance of clothing too. For instance, the Hemline index rose and fell with stock prices. However, in the twentieth century, this indicator of the economic welfare of a state had a different trend where the length of the skirt was shorter in good economic times whilst it was longer in times of hardship, like after the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Somewhat on the flip side, in countries like Japan, fashion has forced society to change and accept other values. Here, a fashion aesthetic called Yami Kawaii (literally translating to sick-cute) emerged in a society where mental health was considered taboo. Through the utilisation of the pre-existing ‘cutesy’ aesthetic, Yami kawaii seeked to normalise mental health struggles by incorporating dark characters and quotes like ‘I want to die’ or ‘Give me love’ with pastel colours and chibi drawings, making society in Japan more comfortable with such struggles and thereby making it easier to access help. Ultimately, it can be reasonably deduced that fashion has not only been influenced by society but has also served as a tool to influence society.

Our study involved a comparison of two very different societies: the UK and the UAE. Whilst individuals in the UK are typically more expressive in the way they dress, individuals in the UAE are not only bound by the climate of the region but also the socio-political climate, which disproportionately affects women. Thus, we used this opportunity to do a comparative analysis of women, looking at factors like age, economic status and profession, to see how these factors affected their individual expression.

Whilst having the exact same brackets for many of the factors was difficult, we tried to have individuals who had fairly similar backgrounds, ages and stages in their careers to try and make it as accurate as possible. We first conducted questionnaires (mostly consisting of Likert scales), in order to gather baseline results, which then helped us gather information on the themes that we could streamline and also gather participants, after asking them for consent for further information. We ended up with two interviewees from each country: One middle-aged woman working in Education and another student in her early 20s entering the workforce. Through the semi-structured interviews, we were able to ask further questions on the answers they had provided and the results of the overall research but also go into much more detail on some of the key details they brought up during our conversations.

In the UK, when the participants were asked what influenced their styles the most, both participants expressed the impact social media and trends have on their aesthetics. In the UAE, while the younger participant expressed similar influences from social media and characters on TV shows, the older participant mentioned that she is influenced most by the practicality of what she wears. Alongside being true to her personal style, the participant expressed that she needs to adapt it to the specific dress code restrictions (especially in institutions of education) in the UAE. At the same time, when asked if they felt constrained by any external factors within society like gender norms or social class, participants in the UK mentioned that there was an equal expectation for both men and women to dress a certain way while the participants in the UAE felt as though more was expected from them than from men, especially in terms of how they presented. It is interesting to note that while the UAE, can be argued as being much safer for women than the UK, women in the UAE are not permitted to dress in revealing clothing or have their underwear shown in any way in public places like malls and public parks, which are typically seen as more family-friendly. However, no such legal restrictions are applicable to women in the UK. While this was the case for all of the emirates in the UAE earlier, Dubai, owing to a popular tourist destination for influencers, recently legalised crossdressing and eased overall dress code restrictions. In this way, it is reasonable to deduce that not only did people adapt to restrictions in the UAE, the UAE also adjusted its restrictions to account for growing influencer fashion and culture.

All participants were also asked how they thought their style had evolved over time and the only commonality lay between both the older participants who mentioned how their style evolved as they grew older and felt they were free from the shackles of societal judgment. Both participants expressed how they started incorporating patterns and brighter colours into their stylistic preferences in their professional spaces to be more expressive, whereas these weren’t as easily accepted in the earlier days of their careers. Now that they were well situated, these women had more autonomy over what they wore in their workplace.

Fashion is an interesting tool that not only influences culture but is also heavily influenced by it since it not only promotes diversity through preferences but interestingly also promotes solidarity through trends (like Yami kawaii and cutting of hair in solidarity with Iranian women). Through this study, it can be discerned that despite differences in location, careers had a significantly larger impact on fashion than cultural differences, which is clearly exemplified by the similarity in the outlook on fashion in the older participants. Simultaneously, while the culture of the location had an impact on restrictions and constraints on fashion, it is very likely that since older participants have been accustomed to it for a longer period of time, there is a convergence of practicality and local fashion trends. Hence we can deduce that practicality and expression were what ultimately led to similar fashion outlooks for all participants, irrespective of location.

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