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True suffering for fashion

Imagine for a second that you are one of the millions of so-called “Untouchables” who occupy the lowest caste of Indian society.

You live in a mud hut in a filthy ghetto of Calcutta. You defecate in the street since you have nowhere else to go. You’re missing most of your teeth because you’ve never owned a toothbrush or visited a dentist’s office, and you have to beg for change to scrounge up enough money to feed your family.

You know what would make you stand out from the crowd of similarly wretched beggars on your block? A $10,000 Hermès handbag. Who cares if your clothes are unwashed rags? With a bag like that you could really impress the passersby who you rely on for the rupees that keep you alive from day to day.

Or suppose you have a young child and nothing to feed them. Well, then you positively must have a $100 Fendi bib to protect their tattered clothes from the nothing they’ll dribble down their fronts when they miss yet another meal. Just because your baby is malnourished doesn’t mean she can’t look fabulous.

Worried about the rain because your hut has more than a few holes in the roof and monsoon season is coming? You should help yourself to a $200 Burberry umbrella. Go on, you deserve it. It’ll cost you about as much money as you can beg in a year, but it’ll be worth it when you see the jealous looks on the faces of your homeless neighbors.

Welcome to the world of Vogue India, a publication that seems to think that survival is much less important than style. In its August issue, the magazine ran a 16-page spread of handbags, clutches and other status-symbol accessories modeled by destitute Indians who will never be able to afford any of the items they’re helping to pitch.

Unsurprisingly, the photos weren’t exactly a hit with everyone in India. One columnist for New Delhi’s Mail Today newspaper, Kanika Gahlaut, called the spread an “example of vulgarity” and decried it as “not just tacky but downright distasteful.”

Ms. Gahlaut makes a good point. It does seem a little rude and insensitive to drape expensive handbags and bibs over people who could not only never buy them, but would never be allowed in the stores and malls that sell them, most of which have guards stationed at the doors to keep just those sorts of people outside.

On some sick level, though, using the poor as models makes sense. After all, supermodels go to great lengths to make themselves look unhealthily skinny, so why not just use people who actually are unhealthily skinny? They have the same body types, and you can probably get them to do the photo shoot for a warm bowl of lentil soup.

Does this justify using these people to sell items that they couldn’t buy even if everyone in their neighborhood contributed every rupee they’d ever made? To we Americans, conditioned as we are to political correctness, the answer would be a resounding “no,” but maybe we just don’t get it.

For people like us and Ms. Gahlaut, who might view such photos critically, Vogue India editor Priya Tanna had this sympathetic message: “Lighten up.” The shoot wasn’t meant to make fun of poor people, according to Ms. Tanna, but was a way of saying “fashion is no longer a rich man’s privilege. Anyone can carry it off and make it look beautiful.”

Ms. Tanna neglected to mention how someone who lives on less than $1.25 a day, as 456 million Indians do, could carry off a $10,000 handbag and make it look beautiful, but that’s not important. What’s important is being stylish even while you’re starving.

In Vogue India’s defense, I should point out that it is a fashion magazine, which more or less absolves it of any responsibility to seem intelligent or compassionate, and as Ms. Tanna said, they “weren’t trying to make a political statement or save the world.”

You’re absolutely right, Ms. Tanna; it’s not Vogue India’s duty to delve into societal issue such as inequality and poverty. All you have to do is keep people apprised of what’s new in the world of fashion.

Funny, then, that you somehow managed to make fashion seem so ugly. And I’m not referring to the handbags and umbrellas or the people holding them. I’m referring to the malignant spirit and twisted egos that thought this was a good idea.

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Todd Hartley

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09 2008

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