Exploring South Asian Gender and History through Experimental Fashion Design: Interview with Manimekala Fuller

QA Blog Series: QA18 Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition: Artist Interviews

Posted on 20/06/2018
Manimekala Fuller participated, along with Anil Dega, in the Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition, as part of the ‘Queer’ Asia Conference 2018. See more here

I think that clothing, which surrounds and emphasises the body, is possibly the most relevant medium to express ideas about gender since society typically bases its gendered assumptions on a person’s appearance and choice of clothing


1. Colonial-Clash-6
Manimekala Fuller, Illustration for Colonial Clash, 2016. Illustration of jumpsuit design symbolising indigenous resistance and the future Republic of India.

How were you introduced to fashion? Could you briefly explain what experience or education led to your design practise?

The women on my mother’s side of the family have always sewn, as do many women in Indian sub-continent and the Desi diaspora. Not professionally or commercially, but as an extension of managing the household; sewing and mending clothes and other textile goods was a typical activity. I made clothes for my toys before I knew how to properly sew, and when I started making them for myself, my mother got fed up of washing things that would fall apart and sent me to sewing lessons. Combine that with my incessant need to colour, draw and build things, and you get fashion. I studied Art Foundation in Manchester, my hometown and moved to London to study Fashion at the University of Westminster. I am graduating this summer and currently in the process of launching my own fashion brand while also working on various other art and design related projects.

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Anil Dega and Manimekala Fuller, Print for Third Gender, 2018. All of the materials used are recycled scraps as we believe in responsible, sustainable and ethical design. We sourced natural fabrics reminiscent of traditional Indian textiles, then patch worked and dyed them together as a representation of different communities coming together to dispel the gender binary.

Could you describe your work,
Third Gender, for the Bodies x Borders exhibition?

Anil Dega, a friend and fellow fashion designer, asked me to collaborate on a piece for BodiesxBorders because he knew that as a creative with a mixed Asian background similar to his, this topic was close to my heart. After discussing our personal experiences in queer and Asian culture, we wanted to investigate the Indian archetype of the “hijra”, a term typically used to refer to a transwoman, but often conflated with many different queer identities. We wanted to make a garment but took the opportunity to create more of a sculptural installation piece as befits a static exhibition display. The sculpture utilizes the three colours of the trans* flag: light blue, light pink and white. The garment’s base is white to represent the idealised neutral expectations of gender. The body is then encircled by layers of both pink and blue, which are the societal expectations of binary gendered performance. The sculpture opens out into triumphant banners, once again in pure white. After the pink/blue, male/female dichotomy, there is a third way forward to more openness and inclusivity. The flags displayed around the garment sculpture represent just some of the many Asian countries where trans* rights are an everyday battleground. These flags can also be used as clothing since indigenous south-Indian dress for both men and women is intricately based on wrapping and tying a single long piece of cloth.

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Inspiration for Third Gender, 2018. While researching the hijra, this image stood out as a powerful silhouette. We wanted to re-create the presence of the flowing dupatta to instill a sense of energy and defiance in our piece.

Could you elaborate on the process for creating
Third Gender for the exhibition?

Honestly, I do not typically collaborate on design so to work with Anil on this piece involved lots of communication to make sure we both fully understood the other’s vision. It came from quite a conceptual idea and we had to work out how to make sure this could be read visually. Usually in fashion I am very concerned with fit on the body, movement, comfort and wearability but for an exhibition piece none of these parameters apply so it was quite a freeing project but was still based on what I love and know best: textile printing. Anil and I both work best directly testing out the materials rather than drawing, so we sourced fabrics and he started draping directly on the stand to create the garments’ silhouette while I sampled dyeing and printing techniques. Once we had each worked an outline of what we wanted to achieve, we then constructed the final piece together, making design decisions as we went. In my personal work I am normally very particular about everything being done neatly, but for this project, I wanted the process to be obviously hand-made and raw. Therefore, our work Third Gender does not have all its edges finished and corners smoothed because it represents an on-going struggle.

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Anil Dega and Manimekala Fuller, Initial draped print for Third Gender, 2018. Printed fabric for the final garment on the mannequin while under construction. The garment was designed to have separate bands of colour: pink, white and blue to represent the trans* flag.

How do you think
Third Gender relates to the theme of Bodies x Borders?

Our piece is about trans* rights and how the societal dichotomy of male v. female is so limiting and harmful in reality. I think that clothing, which surrounds and emphasises the body, is possibly the most relevant medium to express ideas about gender since society typically bases its gendered assumptions on a person’s appearance and choice of clothing. The shapes of the garment were specifically inspired by the perception of the Indian hijras and their typically feminine style of dress, and by creating flags and also using them as draped clothing, the sentiment can be expanded to the people of other countries and cultures.

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Manimekala Fuller, Toile images for Colonial Clash, 2016.
Toile images, dungarees design and hand-embroidery inspired by the European military dress of colonial British invaders who were regarded as heroes and awarded medals for their crimes against the indigenous people.


How do you think your featured work in the exhibition fits with your overall body of work? Or is it in some ways a departure?

My work is always informed by my identity as a queer, mixed-race woman whose heritage was and continues to be influenced by colonialism and euro-centrism, but it is not typically the main focus of my designs. However, the fashion collection that I am currently working on is about identity and presenting as part of a “girl-gang” (although not exclusively female) for protection and a sense of community. Typically my work is more eclectic and colourful and often combines many different experimental textiles and processes within a more wearable silhouette. For “Third Gender” I deliberately pared back my aesthetic so that the message wouldn’t get lost in the melee. Visually, it could be considered a departure from the rest of my practise but it also has roots (conceptually and also somewhat visually) in a previous project of mine where I explored the impact of British colonialism of India in the 1870s and the indigenous resistance.

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Manimekala Fuller, Illustration for Colonial Clash, 2016. Illustration of coat as a protective garment also symbolising indigenous cultural pride and defiance through using traditional Indian textiles.
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Manimekala Fuller, Colonial Clash, 2016. Indian handloom block-printed cottons with silkscreen over-print, vintage oriental rug (exact origin unknown), silk sari scraps, Liberty London Indian-inspired floral-printed cottons with silkscreen over-print, cotton velvet with silkscreen print, and Indian costume jewellery jhumkas. Constructed to be adjustable in size and with adjustable size hanging pockets.

Do you have any expectations for how audiences will respond to
Third Gender? Are there any messages you wish visitors would take away after seeing your work?

Our piece is designed for viewers to walk around it and see it from all angles (not that people always do that in an exhibition setting!). Our hope is that while viewing our garment, they will be surrounded and encompassed by the flags, as a reminder of all the battles that remain to be fought. I am very passionate about queer rights and particularly trans* rights. In almost every country the trans* community is many decades behind in terms of legal and societal equality. However as a ciswoman, I try to advocate with and for, not in the place of, those who are oppressed. I hope that visitors will appreciate our piece as a message of recognition, solidarity and hope to our genderqueer siblings.

Installation at QA18: ‘Third Gender’ by Manimekala Fuller and Anil Dega

Manimekala Fuller is primarily a fashion designer who also creates sculptural (sometimes wearable) pieces. Graduating from the University of Westminster this year, she is currently launching her own independent fashion brand. Her designs are riotous with print and colour, drawing on her Indian heritage and rich textile history.  As a mixed-race, queer designer brought up in the UK who often passes for white and heterosexual, the themes of identity and resistance through the reclamation of oppressed cultural signifiers consistently inform her practise.

A selection of her work can be viewed at www.mekalafuller.com.

Follow her fashion brand at www.manimekala.com and @manimekalavf on Instagram.