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Each country boasts of its own sense of style, and living there means fitting in is necessary. Here’s a story of losing and finding Indian fashion, on a journey through three countries.
When I left India in the 1990s, most urban young women of my generation wore traditional Indian clothes in daily life – at home, at work, and obviously, for traditional occasions. So salwar kameez or churidar kurta were worn as casual-wear and at work, while sarees were reserved for special events like weddings, religious ceremonies, and ‘traditional day’ in college.
Western clothes were worn less frequently, and for my friends and me, it was limited to wearing jeans with long tops. Moving from India to the UK, a cold country with a different culture, led to changes in many aspects of my life. Clothes and dress-sense was one of them.
The need to fit into the society led to western-wear slowly creeping into the wardrobe. At work, in the beginning, an attempt was made to wear salwar kameez; but even the simplest one would be met with stares, compliments, and remarks on my ‘Indian costume’ until the whole experience became too much of an attention-grabber, almost a distraction for others, as well as myself. So, to avoid unnecessary attraction and to make work the actual focus, the Indian outfits made way for trousers and tops – to blend in with the crowd and not stand out.
Bland greys, blacks, whites – lacking in bright embellishments and often uncomfortable – replaced colourful, cheerful, loose-fitting Indian clothes. But this change had to be embraced if one had to amalgamate with one’s peers, and in a way, it was thought, perhaps erroneously, as a way to be taken seriously, professionally. The cold weather was another factor that led to abandoning non-heat-retentive cotton and silk Indian wear for more robust, warmer woollens, and sadly, synthetics like acrylics, polyester, lycra blends in thicker, chunkier knitwear – giving off static.
At first, the thought of wearing trousers with shorter tops at work was uncomfortable. But nobody stared, and looking like everyone else was all that mattered.
At first, the thought of wearing trousers with shorter tops at work was uncomfortable. But nobody stared, and looking like everyone else was all that mattered. Then of course, there was the ubiquitous coat almost all-year-round for a cover-up, or a longish cardigan, indoors, to conceal the shyness. Slowly, becoming more adventurous, skirts were bought and worn ankle length with thick tights for extra coverage.
Over the years, the hemline, although still conservative, became shorter, and the tights thinner, a lesser denier, each time. One learnt to go with times, trying to keep up with western fashions, learning how to make the dull palette more interesting by adding a bright scarf, trendy accessories like boots and hats, with colour coordinated gloves. Dressing up in western wear actually became fun, although conservatism was still at the back of my mind.
Regrettably, as the western clothes took over the wardrobe, the beautiful Indian clothes were relegated to the back of the closet. Taken out only for occasions like Diwali, a rare wedding, or a ‘pooja’ at an Indian friend’s house, they were worn for a short time, enveloped for most part in the coat, which had now become a second skin.
Regrettably, as the western clothes took over the wardrobe, the beautiful Indian clothes were relegated to the back of the closet.
Trips to India meant buying some Indian clothes to take back, but worn rarely. The subsequent India trips saw that my Indian outfits from the trip before had all become outdated. If I possessed what I thought was a fashionable salwaar kameez, it was ancient compared to the latest fashion of churidars and short kurtas. Even the saree, a classic timeless piece, seemed to be different every time we visited India.
So my own very traditional silk sarees with typical zari border seemed antique compared to the latest Bollywood-inspired ‘designer’ type sarees with zardosi border. The old blouses with longer sleeves appeared prehistoric in front of the various backless, halter type, and other daring versions. It was a culture shock in reverse! In the India that I had left behind, women dressed more conservatively; where wearing sleeveless outfits was considered bold and wearing a dupatta with a salwar kameez was de rigeur. So here I was, having lived in the west, adapted to it, but still being shocked, in India of the present!
A new challenge awaited: Fitting a typical, full Indian figure into shorts without sacrificing the ever-present need to conserve modesty at all costs.
Moving on, sensibilities changed with dress sense. Relocating to Singapore, adapting to local fashion was a part of adjustment. Women here wear shorts and short dresses all the time. The weather makes it imperative to keep clothes to a comfortable and decent minimum. A new challenge awaited: Fitting a typical, full Indian figure into shorts without sacrificing the ever-present need to conserve modesty at all costs.
The advantage of this is a new fitness regime to stay in shape, to be able to adapt to this new attire. No more coats to cover up, a welcome to cottons and silks and a good-bye to synthetics. Just when I thought that wearing shorts was going a little too far in fitting into a place, I noticed, on my last India trip, that shorts were the new rage in urban India. Nothing shocks me anymore!
In recent years, I have been observing the steady ingress of Indian fashions into the international scene. Indian fabrics, embroidery, jewellery are making their presence felt among non-Indians, who are taking to our traditional fashions enthusiastically. Not only are international celebrities sporting Indian oufits like sarees and lehenga cholis, but also regular people on the street, of various ethnicities, can be seen dressed in Indian-inspired clothes.
So Lucknowi chikan-work tops, zardosi embroidered dresses, bandhani kaftans are seen quite commonly. ‘Made in India’ cotton and silk clothes are everywhere. In Singapore, I have met some admirable Indian women who regularly wear Indian clothes to work. In a workplace that has a very international atmosphere and fierce competitiveness, these women wear their Indian-ness with aplomb.
In a workplace that has a very international atmosphere and fierce competitiveness, these women wear their Indian-ness with aplomb.
Perhaps these recent observations have opened my eyes to the beauty of Indian clothes; not just the unparalleled physical beauty of our fabrics, embroidery, beadwork, cutwork, patchwork, ‘tie and die’ patterns, but also their practicality. The ability to dress up or dress down as per the occasion, the comfort levels – predominantly cotton – which is great for hot weather, the looseness – where you do not have to worry too much about an expanding waist after a heavy meal, the ability of our outfits to look traditional and modern at the same time, and most importantly, the splashes of colour that bring cheer into life.
So, how can one wear Indian clothes and still blend into foreign society? I have figured that Indo-western fusion outfits are a great way – Indian fabrics with Indian embellishments, but with a western cut and design. Short kurtis worn with trousers, jeans, skirts, leggings, and even shorts is another way. Indian jewellery goes with just about any outfit and takes it from boring to sensational.
Indian footwear – mojadis, Kolhapuri chappals, and Indian bags go with dresses and jeans, and I’ve recently seen them being sold in fashionable, high -end shops in Singapore. A dupatta can be used as a scarf or stole to liven up a drab outfit, or even as a wrap to cover a slightly revealing neckline. The creative options of Indianizing western wear are endless.
As I celebrate the return to my Indian roots, there is a sense of finally starting to feel comfortable in my own skin.
Pic credit: Fashion concept image via Shutterstock.
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