‘Mannequin’ Reveals The Grim True Life Stories Of Our Fashion Models

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In her book Mannequin, Manjima Bhattacharjya decodes the connection between fashion and feminism, and tells us the real stories behind this glittering world.

As I laid my hands on Mannequin, by Manjima Bhattacharjya, I was excited to delve into the pages that explored the fashion world and feminism. Yes. fashion and feminism. Poles apart, yet completely connected. Manjima Bhattacharjya decodes this connection and dives deep behind-the-scenes at the fashion world, the uplifting stories and tales of despair, their lives, and much more.

Mannequin (published by Zubaan) is a fascinating research-oriented book with 12 chapters that traces the rise of the beauty industry from the 1960s till date. Written over 200 pages, its eye-catching design is just a glimpse of what’s in store for all book lovers. As a follower of fashion from the early days, I could easily identify with many of the stories shared and fondly recollected the names of popular models who set trends in a time when modelling was indeed looked down at as a disrespectful profession no “good Indian girl” would opt for.

The ‘big’ names

Manjima begins her book with a short and personal history of glamour in India. She outlines the journey from Madhubala’s smile to the double whammy in 1994 – the year India won two titles in International beauty pageants with Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai.

From here on, the author introduces us to the “Faces of their Time” section. Here, I met Meera (1970s), Shirin (1980s), Niharika (late 1980s), Ritu (early 1990s), and Pragati (mid 2000s). The author takes us on a journey into the lives of these models and the struggles they faced, their stories, their joys and sorrows. She attempts to remove the layers of makeup to show the real story behind these glamour queens so often seen only as “mannequins” with no real voice in the fashion industry.

The author continues her extensive research through interviews in the “Almost Beauty Queens” chapter which gave us the tale of Kamal, who, despite having missed the Miss India crown organized by the popular magazine, Femina, was welcomed in her hometown with great fanfare and fervour, in contrast to the treatment meted out earlier.

Unseen struggles

The author highlights the struggles of the models who sometimes have almost nothing to eat (out of no choice) or are pushed to have a nose job because they might just look a trifle better. As she takes you on her journey, the stories make me feel quite uncomfortable as Manjima exposes the truth quite effortlessly through her extensive research that spanned many years.

Fashion is indeed fickle, and the book outlines the insecurities and the toils of the glamour industry. If you have grown up on a diet of Femina, Vogue and the uber-cool Cosmopolitan like me, the book will touch a chord with you.

Fashion week and feminism

The author’s entry into the Fashion Week as a feminist was a delightful chapter to read. Manjima’s mission to interview models in a field that was relatively new to her, also makes one realize that we are all the same. Sans makeup and all the fuss. The chaos of the fashion week, the life of the models, the stars and their tantrums – it’s all outlined here. This is a life that is so different, yet no different from the politics of the corporate world.

Shushed voices

The author has also published her personal interactions where she served as an agony aunt based on actual conversations. All these conversations indicated how women get exploited, are looked down upon, and how insecure they are right from the money they earn to the atrocities they suffer even when their hair is pulled, tugged and tied to appear beautiful. The worst case? They cannot utter a single word of protest. And newcomers? Can they even speak? Well, you better be happy to be here.

As models, women are constantly displayed as “objects of desire” and are under the scanner. Manjima highlights that women in the glamour industry don’t receive the respect they deserve and are categorized easily in an Indian society that is heavily loaded with double standards.

The hegemony of agencies

Mannequin also takes a look at the formation of the Union and the Agency, giving us a grim picture of how feminism gets activated but only to send mixed signals as different groups have different agendas. The rise of the modelling agencies, the lack of appropriate payment terms and conditions as well as inadequate leaves for models and other situations are handled delicately by the author. As she writes about women who dream to make it big on the foreign shore, she also mentions models who portrayed an entirely different life from their reality, one that is caked in false illusions leading to a equally fake life.

The chapter on Objectification and Commodification brings together different perspectives as well as the change in the attitudes of feminists. Now, it is ok to wear red lipstick and sashay in heels as for some, lipstick is a sign of resistance that challenges “slut-shaming” giving feminism a makeover.

Asking hard questions

This research-based book is an interesting read as Manjima finally questions, “Who were we and who are we now?” These voiceless models that form the central focus of Manjima’s research are her personal exploration of this difficult relationship between fashion and feminism. While she argues that modelling must be recognized as hard work, it’s just a matter of time when this industry will move beyond the mere objectification of women.

The question remains, how much time will it take to empower women to truly do what they want, enjoy the process, not be judged and be treated as human beings instead of mere mannequins.

As a lover of fashion from the time I have known and having worked with the media to design their glamour pages, I find this book easy to relate to, definitely a delightful read, and one every lover of fashion must pick up for a good read over the weekend.

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Top image via YouTube and book cover via Amazon

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