Religion And Clothing Brands Cultural Studies Essay

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There is a background to my selection of this particular topic for my dissertation thesis. One fine day 3 years ago, I was asked by one of my friends why I wore "Muslim clothes". In that one second, I was aghast, dismayed, and surprised at the possibility of such a thing existing and the audacity required in asking it in "secular India", or maybe I didn't expect it in an increasingly politically correct India. By the time I managed to say something, I realised the notion of "Muslim clothes" was not entirely baseless. After all, the shop where I used to buy those clothes was a Muslim's.

Religion is a key variable in a person's life that influences his decisions. It is all pervasive - whether at a conscious or unconscious level. In my dissertation, I would like to study the changes the notion of clothing has undergone in the past decades. Also, the ways in which religion affects the product need perceived by the company, and communication of its benefits to the consumers, taking the case of clothing industry. India being diverse country is home to many religions, each having their own beliefs, systems and teachings. This area can be studied in two ways-as consumption preferences of consumer or as product attribute and brand identity projected by the company. My dissertation will look at both the brand image and brand identity perspectives, utilising advertising as a medium to study brand identity, and qualitative consumer research to understand brand image and try to arrive at a conclusion.

Need Gap Analysis

On searching through available literature in books, journal and newspaper articles, and online databases, I found that there wasn't enough literature available to study Religion and clothing, taking into account both brand identity and brand image, from the Indian perspective. I think my work will in some way be a start in understanding how the intricacies of culture, religion play out with respect to brands, in the case of clothing.

The objectives would be to:

Understand elements of brand imagery that people perceive with respect to religion (Brand Imagery)

Study elements of identity of brands, with reference to religion (Brand Identity)

Literature Review


"Culture, in Anthropology is the integrated system of socially acquired values, beliefs and rules of conduct, which define accepted behaviours in any society, and cultural differences distinguish societies from each other." (Columbia encyclopaedia., 2000 )

( Herbig ,Paul A., 1997) "It is the sum total of a way of life, including things like values, language, and living practices shared by members of a society or region."

It influences behaviour and the process of decoding or filtering information, setting standards for what is right, and what is wrong. It is learned, dynamic, functional and prescriptive. Over a period of time, behaviour traits and customs which are useful and valuable for the 'collective' are institutionalised as cultural traditions, which become so well ingrained that their use or purpose is never questioned.

According to Emile Durkheim, the main function of culture is integrating society.

Other Basic functions are:

Informative - gathering ,preserving, transmitting value, knowledge, experience

Significative or symbolic function -expression and entrenchment of meanings, knowledge and values within a system of symbols.

Communicative -promotion of unity and interrelation.

(Jerry d. Moore, 2009)

He said that only culture can do transmission of social experience and wisdom from generation to generation, and between nation and people since it codifies and keeps it in a complex system of symbols where information is transmitted through both natural and physical memory like films, books, paintings etc. (Durkheim, Emile, 1912)

"We are all foreign to each other." - Bhoju Ram Gopal (Gottschalk, Peter, 2000)

"There, behind barbed wire, was India.Over there, behind more barbed wire, was Pakistan.In the middle, on a piece of ground which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh." (Manto, Saadat Hasan, 1955 )

In the light of above statements, it is interesting to note that sometimes the interplay between culture and religion leads to a modification in religious practices, since culture influences religion in the sense that people living in different regions but having the same religion may have altered religious practices. E.g. most Malay Muslims are converts from Hindus and so their brand of Islam is more similar to India, than to Middle East.

Culture , Media and Religion

Marshall McLuhan proposed that media impacted not only the individual, but entire societies and cultures. ( McLuhan,Marshall,1964)

All types of media-including film, Internet, and music-thrive on novelty in how a story is reported, and the tough competition amongst high number of 24*7 channels in India means that there is sensationalism ,which leads channels to cover stories in biased or one sided manner. Aarushi murder case is an example of the limitlessness of what the media can do- by the end ,it had done character assassination of almost every singles person involved, passed on judgements even before courts did, causing a lot of mental agony, and yet it evaded any accountability.

Media being the fourth estate and the major source of information for people for subjects as wide ranging as lifestyle, politics, careers, entertainment, is perhaps the most vital way of not just representing, but constructing reality to its audience, the common man . The topics, events and people it chooses to highlight and give voice to, and more importantly to ignore, are instrumental in forming public opinion irrespective of the truth. The biased presentation of the case of Afzal Guru, the Delhi University professor accused of helping terrorists attack the Parliament in print media, and the subsequent reversal of their stand on his release is an example of only one such case. There might be many more subtle and seemingly insignificant cases of bias of perspectives on a daily basis, which although go unnoticed, but still effect us subliminally. The fact that 88% of media professionals are upper class Hindus, says something about the preferences and bent of the media establishment in our country. The increasing sensationalisation, breaking news syndrome means that the "media treats religion like a problem, just like seeing football in light of hooliganism, not with respect to playing the game." (Bailey, Michael. 2010)

Hence, the media plays an important role in the way religions are represented to the people. The media is also used by brands to reach out to prospective consumers through integrated marketing communications. The basic requirement for large companies to sell their products is the availability of large, homogeneous groups of potential consumers called 'target group' so that companies can mass produce and sell products. There are theories being put forth that say that such large groups don't actually exist, since choices are personal (Anderson,Chris, 2006 ). Hence, it is the brands with the help of communications that shape demand for homogeneous products. My dissertation will seek to understand this in terms of religion, and try to find out if there is any gap between what the consumers wants, and what they get, and also if there is biased representation(if any) in communications, for or against various religions.

There is, of course another side to all this. The influence of media is limited by the cultural, social and religious contexts, and by interpretation of the viewer. (Klapper , 1965).

Uses and gratification studies by Katz and Blumler (1974) say that media users are active during the media consumption process, and decide by their own free will, what they want to partake, how to choose and why. They said that the end was enjoyment or gratification of user's needs.

Denis McQuail listed out 4 major needs:

Diversion or entertainment -as recreation or escape to everyday problems, emotional or sexual arousal

Personal relationships, social interaction -connect with others, substitute . of real life relationships, empathy with others

Personal identity -users find reinforcement, models of behaviour

Surveillance -satisfies information needs.

This theory has had its share of critics, who point out that media consumption can't be talked of only in terms of individual consumption, totally neglecting the socio-cultural context.

McQuail ,Dennis,(1983)


Religion is the set of social customs, values, beliefs that govern the behaviour of man in society. The first organised religions came about in the Neolithic period to justify the rule of a central authority and maintain peace, as man settled down because of agriculture. The present day religions were established in the middle ages. The major world religions now include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Shinto, Judaism, Jainism, Bahai, Non-religious and atheists, Chinese religion.

Although India is the melting pot of cultures and religions, nowadays religion has become individualised due to homogenisation in the sources and versions of mythology that we are exposed to, there is a more narrowed down view of religion, which somewhere effects and is a result of its representation in media. For example, the younger generation comes to know about mythology say the Mahabharata, Ramayana through TV serials and not recitals, as it used to be, and the richness of Hindu traditions and folklores is lost and people start taking the narrowed down view of tradition as the real religion. Recitals and folk stories have more perspectives, versions and sometimes even characters. E.g. there is a Rajasthani version of Ramayana, whose hero is 'Papuji', who goes to Lanka, not to rescue a kidnapped spouse, but to rustle Ravana's camels. (Dalrymple,William, 2009) .Popularity of Santoshi Mata's shrine increased greatly after hit serial and films by the same name.

The notion of Secularism in India is very different from that of the west-there it means commitment to a public life implies separation from religion in a public manner, not an equal pandering to all religions like it means in India. This is a legacy, to some extent to congress's brand of secularism which stemmed from anti imperialistic nationalist sentiment, rather than a want to separate 'the church and the state' - all done to keep the Muslims with the Congress after independence. BJP advocates it own brand of 'right wing nationalism', by refuting this notion of secularism, since its ideological survival depends on finding an enemy in the form of Islam or Christianity (Kesavan, Mukul, 2003)

The bias, however little, of an overtly Hindu police or other defence forces doesn't help matters. When this is combined with state sanction of communalism, the result is polarisation resulting in a Godhra. The homogenisation and radicalisation of both Hindus and Muslims pose a big threat to the secular ideals of India. Passion and rituals are an important part of religion, but these strong emotions are easily used by vested interests towards their end. ( Lal, Rollie, 2003)


The past

Romila Thapar argues that Hinduism is the only world religion which has no founding fathers or religious text, and that is the western scholars who amalgamated many cults, practices, Non-Abrahamanic groups into one religion-Hinduism. (Thapar ,Romilla, 2010) . Still, it stands for religious tolerance, cow worship, & polytheistic amalgam of beliefs.

"The nineteenth century brought an era of revival and reform in Hindu religious life. During this period, Hindus consciously set out to define their religious tradition." (Shattuck ,Cybelle,1999)

Institutions like Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission were founded by social reformers like Rajaram Mohun Roy, Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda took steps and created awareness for the betterment of society.

Hinduism played an important role in the development of Indian nationalism. .B.G. Tilak used it as a unifier in his efforts to unite people into nationalist groups, especially in Maharashtra. Through journalism in Marathi, he opposed British bills that challenged cultural traditions. He used festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi occasions for patriotic speeches and political education of the masses, supported Cow Protection Societies etc.

Then in the 1920s, Veer Savarkar coined the term 'Hindutva' to connect religious and national identity, which extended to Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains by virtue of their religions being indigenous, but excludes Christianity and Islam. VHP was founded in 1964, works towards having a Hindu country by projecting Islam as the enemy.

Contemporary Hinduism: Rise of the Indian middle class

With India's burgeoning middle class, economic prosperity, there is a new brand of Hinduism that is on the rise-one that is more ostentatious in display of its religiosity, as seen from rising pilgrimages, huge donations. "Globalisation is making India more religious and religion more political. This religiosity is being cultivated by an emerging state-temple-corporate complex, which is replacing the more secular public institutions of the Nehru era." E.g. VIP lines in Tirumalaa and Vaishno devi, and Tirumala becoming the single largest donation getting temple. "India has 2.5 million places of worship, but only 1.5 million schools and barely 75,000 hospitals. Pilgrimages account for more than 50 per cent of all package tours. In a 2007 survey jointly conducted by the Hindustan Times and CNN-IBN, 30 per cent of Indians said they had become more religious in the past five years."

It is the age of instant religion, and TV god men like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev, who have created huge followings, and empires in the process (called "Karma Capitalism"). Religion has also become a business, and the people want more. A more centralised, monolithic Hinduism is emerging in response to the needs of middle class, which is wiping out local deities and myths. (Thapar ,Romilla, 2010)

Lately,there has been significant increase in religious donations by government -for yagnas, temple tourism and the like. The modernisation of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is also worrisome (it organises IT-Milans, where techies meet to feel closer to god, through Hindutva).

Islam in today's India

Islam is the second largest religion in the world and in India (13.4% population according to census 2001). It means "submission to the will of god."If we look at the state of India's Muslims today,

"The three crucial dimensions of social exclusion of Muslims are backwardness, marginalization and discrimination. Also, the literary, economic status of variety of Muslims is very low as compared to other socio-religious categories, apart from SC-STs." They have a view, supported by data, that they will be discriminated against while applying for employment, and thus see less value in education. Also, a large number of Muslims are self employed. There is a 'ghettoisation' of living spaces since they feel safe staying together in large numbers, and are poorly represented in public order and safety activities like police and armed forces (less than 4-7% at both state and centre),which shows

up as a biased police force. In IAS, IPS services, it is 1.8%-3% only. (Robinson ,Rowena,2008)

The deprivation Muslims suffer is on all fronts-social, economic, educational and political.

Brand and Religion

Brand is defined as the name, logo and symbols associated with a product, which are used to differentiate between similar products and indicate possession to consumers. In today's world where there is commoditisation and a wide range of choices in every category, it is brands that are helpful in helping the customer make choices.

There are many variables that go into the way brands are positioned in front of the consumer, basis the ways in which consumers perceive the need and uniqueness of a brand.

As far as the consumer is concerned, the salience and relevance of a brand is vital for brand loyalty and customer engagement. A brand or product can only be successful if the brand communications are addressing the needs, cultural and religious sensibilities of the target group.

A brand that does all this, achieves brand resonance (shown below)

As seen above, media, advertising, elements of brand identity like logotypes go into the making of a brand. My analysis of advertising will study the interplay between all these.

Brand and religion seem to be unrelated to each other, but there is a lot more than what meets the eye. As seen above, the basic philosophy and even terminologies used for brands can be said to be taken from religion.

In fact, religion can be thought of a brand, which has attained unparalleled loyalty from customers (followers), and there are a lot of things that we can learn from religion in terms of branding -whether it's sensory branding, having a brand story, brand promise, symbols etc. From another perspective, religion can be an important variable in the decision making matrix of a consumer, since elements of culture and religion are deeply ingrained and they would abide by their religious customs and teachings. Traditions are so important, since they give us a sense of predictability and belonging to a reference group (religion), in this world where change is the only constant. Also relevance, inclusivity, consistency are some of the cornerstones of customer choice and successful branding - not just in terms of product attributes, but also in terms of marketing communications. For example, Halal cosmetics are gaining popularity in the Muslim world. Thus, successful marketing and advertising has both a cultural and a religious context.

Religion and fashion

A person's identity is formed from many socio-cultural variables like culture, nationality, region, religion etc, apart from individual characteristics. There are multiple identities--including, for many, religious identities --by which an individual associates with any one of many groups according to social context. ( Hasan, Mushirul ,1997)

The way a person presents himself to the world, and the way the world sees him depends on, apart from the content, the way he speaks and dresses. We take on the identity from what we consume. Clothing, apart from being a social requirement in a civilised society, is a way of expressing one's personality and identity to the outside world. It is a reflection of who we are and what we stand for, and the interplay between religion and clothing is a lot clearer, than a category like, say shampoos. This is the reason I chose clothing as a category for the topic chosen for my dissertation thesis.


A semiotic view

There are three modalities in the clothing system - the real, represented and used garment. The actual object concerns the production phase-how it was made, properties etc. The second modality is where connotations take over and represented garment comes into being, using creativity and imagination it is transformed into an object of fashion, with help of marketing and distribution. In third phase of consumption, the clothing is absorbed by all as "the way to do things" and dress to wear. "The continuation of fashion depends on transformation of the garment to its iconic, verbal representation-an object which became a fashion object, and would become normal if everyone wore it."

Swadeshi can be said to be a Gandhian Fashion system whose basis was the real garment made from home spun cotton or khadi. He wanted to fight the notion of inappropriateness and lack of civility of Indian dress in Britisher's eyes, and create a new signification of productive, self reliant India.

(Barthes, Roland, 1967)

India has a wide range of traditional clothing, varying across regions and religions, which reflect the diversity of India. From Sarees, Lungis, Salwar kameez, Shararas, kurta pyjamas to trousers, shirts and coat.

Some of the famous designs of various regions include Bandhej work from Gujarat , Kashmiri embroidery, Kota doria, Chikankari for Lucknow,Sujuni from BiharĀ (gets its narrative from the famous Madhubani paintings), Kantha work from Bengal, etc. Thus, we have had a rich cultural past of producing some of the finest fabrics and designs-from dyed and embroidered dresses in the Vedas, to producing the finest silk and muslin fabrics to producing 'khadi', to now showcasing the finest blend of Indian designs and western clothing. Owing to skill of its craftsmen and the rich diversity of designs accumulated over the ages from different religions and cultures, India has some of the finest, most intricate designs in the world. For example, Zari or Zardozi work utilises exquisite designs made from threads of silver and gold.

In a culture which encourages show-off, the clothing we wear is taken to be an indication of our social status, and the person we are. But over the past few decades, there has been a lot of change in what is perceived as the consideration set of clothing to be worn, in the notion of what is ours and what is normal, and what is not. There has been homogenisation and a tendency to label clothes too.

(Badaracco,Claire, 2005) "Dress is geography-specific, culture-specific and religion-specific" .Taking the case of the silver screen, earlier there used to be Hindu characters wearing traditional Muslim wear like the 'Sharara', but now the characters, the rituals , the clothes featured all have a bent towards one religion. The amount of stereotyping of characters belonging to other religions is huge. There is a labelling of clothes and even designs as "Muslim". Just like caste is a variable that is all pervasive, religion has also influenced the usage pattern of an everyday utility like clothing. This has gotten onto such an extent that the issue has been politicised in many countries.