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Ellicott City native plays with history and gender in fashion line

By Amanda Yeager, ayeager@tribune.com

6:05 AM EDT, April 2, 2014

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In his pale gray waistcoat, charcoal corduroys, and crisp white dress shirt buttoned to the neck, a burgundy ribbon tied around the collar, Amadeus Guchhait looks like he's from another era.

So does his art. Guchhait, a junior at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and an Ellicott City native, has spent the semester creating a collection of clothing that unites disparate time periods and cultures as a commentary on western notions of identity and cultural appropriation.

Guchhait will present his work in two upcoming fashion shows organized by MICA this spring.

XIX, an experimental, multimedia collaborative event, where fashion mingles with puppetry and other performance on the runway, will be held on April 5.

And Unmarked, scheduled for April 12, is a benefit show for the school's Office of Diversity & Intercultural Development that encourages designers to let loose and use unconventional garments, fabrics and colors to express their artistic identity.

Guchhait's designs span centuries of fashion and cultures thousands of miles apart. He can reference, in one outfit, the exaggerated frills of pre-Revolutionary France and the warrior's practicality of a Japanese samurai's linen bottoms, called hakama.

A bright green scarf with an Asian-inspired peacock pattern pops against an oversize burgundy wool schoolboy jacket, and a tunic in a demure gray, tucked into black jodhpur shorts, is made dramatic with a lacy collar and black ribbon tie.

All combinations find their anchor in a Don Draper-esque pairing of knee-high black socks and brown leather oxfords.

Guchhait's collection doesn't just mix culture and history on a whimsy. It's meant to shine a light on cultural appropriation – as "both a modern phenomenon and [one that] goes back centuries" – and to raise questions about the ways in which identity is conveyed through dress.

"My line is really based around challenging notions of identity that we have in western society," Guchhait said of his collection. "So, basically, what's an acceptable form of expression when it comes to identity?"

The pieces draw inspiration not just from history, but from Guchhait's own roots.

"I'm half Indian and half white, so [there is] that weird culture blend, but also challenges between [cultures]," Guchhait said. "They don't always mesh well."

And his designs blur gender lines, as well. While Guchhait's clothes mostly reference traditionally male styles, some of the ruffles and lace are now read as feminine. His hakama pants have been cut into shorts, which closely resemble skirts due to the bulk of the material, and can be worn by male or female models.

"By putting the same clothes on men and women [questions are raised about] what we perceive as differences, and are they really there?" he said. "How does it read to different people? And what's wrong with having everyone be able to dress how they want and express themselves how they want?

"I'm transgender so there's a big gender component," to the clothes, Guchhait added. "I made one line that's both for men and women, so it's not feminine but not masculine either. It's kind of both in different ways… And it's my style, too."

It's a style that Guchhait says has some problematic roots – jodhpurs, for example, were adopted by British colonists in India, and there were no more samurais to wear hakama pants by the end of the 19th century, as western influences shaped Japanese society.

His hope is to use historical examples "to sort of reference what I see as the more problem-tinged aspects of them," he said. "So I use the subject to subvert itself."

But, he said, that doesn't make his clothing devoid of beauty.

"Even though they do have this whole background of problematic things behind them, they're all styles I myself would wear, and feel a little guilty maybe for wearing them, and enjoying it so much," he said. "But I made them to be beautiful because I feel that there's a lot of interesting, less than perfect things hiding beneath the things we consider to be beautiful, and I think that's part of what makes beauty interesting sometimes."

Guchhait, 21, has found ample beauty and history growing up in old Ellicott City, which he said has been an inspiration for him and his art.

"I love going into all of the antique shops," he said. "I would just go in there and buy gloves that didn't even fit me, because I thought they were so beautiful, tried on hats and that sort of thing."

And he credits his art teachers at Ellicott Mills Middle School and Howard High School for putting him on the path to becoming an artist.

They "provided so much inspiration and so much help," he said. "I probably wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't had them."

An interdisciplinary artist with aspirations of opening his own graphic design business, Guchhait said fashion is just one facet of his work.

"It's one thing that for this year I've been exceptionally interested in," he said. "But fashion is definitely something that I think plays a big part in what I do, even when I'm not directly creating fashion."

When the collection hits the runway for the first time this weekend, Guchhait said he thinks he'll feel a mixture of nerves and gratification.

"I'll be working up until the day of the last show," he said. "They say that the designers of the shows are always sewing until the last minute… so I'm just preparing for that. And if it doesn't happen, that'll be nice."

His hope is that people will continue to think about his work after it's had its runway moment.

The message "is planted in there," Guchhait said. "And if people do research or even just let it sink in their minds for a little bit, if they think about any of these ideas at all – that's really what I want."

His own takeaway from the experience is that – just like his styles that mix culture, gender and time period – no art is created without outside influence.

"You can't create anything in a vacuum," he said. "And you can't do it alone."