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A liquid lament on vogue: how water impacts fashion

In the image: Iris Van Herpen at Couture Spring 2020

Fashion is an emulation of our culture and the society we populate. It can be defined as an expression of emotions, sentiments and ideals. Virginia Woolf famously stated, “There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, brains, our tongues to their liking.” This powerful quote perfectly captures the essence of fashion and dressing. Although, some may debate that the word ‘fashion’ is rather an abstract perspective. Susan Sontag, an American multifaceted personality in 1964, termed fashion as “camp”. The absurdity of defining fashion ranged from “Andy Warhol’s Marilyn”, “Swan Lake”, “a second childhood” or “a mode of perception”. When “Camp: Notes on Fashion” was adopted as the theme of the Met Gala in 2019, fashion was discovered in the rarest of themes. The abstraction represents remarkable moments, turning points, and revolutions in culture with a hint of philosophy.

In a much more practical sense, I have always been curious about clothing designed in relation to the climate and geographical location. Taking the economically deemed free good of water, how do the luxury fanatics of fashion design their goods? An area dominated by a waterbody or coastal region experiences a moderate climate throughout the year. The presence of water generates land and the sea breeze that contributes to cool weather. When you compare the fashion of a landlocked region such as Delhi to Mumbai, which is surrounded by the Arabian sea, you would realize that winter fashion ispolar opposites. Being a citizen of Mumbai myself, I can firsthand testify that winters are an exhale from the scorching hot summers but it’s not cold enough to wear scarves, boots, and trench coats. While in Delhi, the fashion ranges from beanies to the most exclusive woolen items; maybe a new Moncler is roaming around the block. Here, I want to focus on how the almighty water permeates into society, shaping what we wear and when we wear it.

For the May issue of Vogue America, Haley Bieber modeled different takes on beach outfits. In the June issue, Kaia Gerber discusses her childhood in Malibu and how the beach has shaped who she is. The two models wear exciting and bedazzling outfits to the beach, mostly in the forms of bikinis, dresses and skirts. The temperature of California is relatively warm and this is further enticed by the luscious blue water. The fashion is casual, relaxed and easy with denims, sandals and sneakers. The glamorous nature of the water allows residents to wear clothes that are laid back and accommodate a culture of leisure for Hollywood's brightest stars. In stark contrast, the state of Wyoming is victim to hotter, drier and yet windier climatic conditions. The cowboy state reproduces fashion of the same name. Cowboy hats, leather boots, belts and hues of brown form the nexus of fashion. Yet another coastal area in the U.S.A, New York City is home to a plethora of fashion choices with anything but casualness. You could find a woman in a sparkling ballroom gown in the subway along with a man in his sweatpants. What’s interesting here is that there is no beach in the entire city. A hypothesis could be that the fashion isn’t nearly as impacted by the waterbody because there is no access to it. Although there are warm days, the metropolitan, fast-paced nature requires citizens to be quick and comfortable to walk. The style is more practical on most days rather than easygoing. The pleasure and calmness that the ocean provides to the citizens of California is merely a scene for New Yorkers and non-existent for the rural-oriented Wyoming.

Moving closer to home, Tamil Nadu, pioneered by fishermen, is enriched with the garb of lungis and traditional sarees. The fashion is representative of the culture and religion of the South. On the other hand, Goa was a colony of the Portuguese and hence, heavily influenced by Western culture. Christianity is pervasive in Goa and the coastal fashion here, accentuated by the infamous parties, is all about crop tops, shorts, dresses and so on. This can be clearly seen in the film starring Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan, titled Dear Zindagi. Another dissimilarity through film is exhibited in Wake Up Sid! Despite the prop of Marine Drive utilized, Aisha’s clothing was of the quintessential kurtis and jeans. Indian fashion paves its path according to the culture prevalent rather than the geographical needs. The fear of ‘short’ or ‘revealing’ clothes is apparent in India, as a consequence of gender inequality that trickles down through customs. There is an aversion to short clothes due to the ingrained fear of women being harassed or toxic masculinity to preserve a woman’s body.

The confluence of fashion and water, as discussed before, is a privilege with varying gateways. In contrasting U.S.A and India, it can be deduced that the characteristics of water often define outfits but culture in India precedes the decision of what to wear. Pakistan, an orthodox country compared to the U.K will face the same barriers. Here, the right and freedom to choose is extended to clothing and fashion. An expression of our being is concealed by the values a country and its people carry. Similarly, another entrance to privilege is the basic affordance of fashionable clothes. Young boys and girls would love to embrace their true aesthetic but the constraint of money is evident. Considering this, the fashion industry can be deemed as a luxury.

To conclude, I’d like to state that access to water plays an essential role in how water impacts fashion. This dabbles on the larger concept of inequality of access to basic goods and consequently, fashion becoming a luxury. While everyone has their own sense of style, being privy to fashion choices is a privilege that most don’t receive. It is interesting to note how water paired up with fashion, can highlight important social issues and make one think critically. It is also observable that culture governs the fashion that is designed. In a country such as India, there are a multitude of religions and values are deeply focused upon. Therefore, fashion attempts to embody those aspects. Whereas, the U.S.A, follows the culture of individuality, letting the water weave into the fabric of its fashion. Regardless of the country, I believe water bodies greatly impact the clothes we wear and the state of mind in which we wear them. The culture we live in configures who we are and fashion can be a powerful manner of communicating the same. As model Joan Smalls said, “Fashion is part of our culture and it's about more than just a pretty dress.”

This Night Owl Original has been authored by Sanah Shah. Sanah is an undergraduate student pursuing Liberal Arts from NMIMS University in Mumbai. With a keen interest in writing and reading surrounding the fields of business and fashion, she hopes to learn new skills and apply existing ones, in creative ways.


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