Person of Color Column: I ain’t sari for wearing my culture with pride

I’m often an all-black outfit kind of gal. My wardrobe mostly comprises turtlenecks, collared shirts, and high-waisted jeans in a sophisticated albeit boring range of neutral colors. It’s sprinkled with plaid blazers and a few statement pieces—funky jackets and a pair of colorful pants. 

Still, I’m a sucker for a sari. 

Saris are traditional Indian garments made up of a cropped blouse and a long drape that wraps around a woman’s waist and rests on her shoulder. Like most Indian clothing, the beading and embroidery on saris are intricate and ornate, unlike anything I wear on a day-to-day basis.

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There are very few times a year I actually dress like a brown person, but I endlessly look forward to those infrequent nights. For holidays and special occasions, I’ll reach into the dark top shelf of my closet at home, dig up saris, lenghas, and Punjabi suits my mom securely stored in their original plastic wrapping, and dress myself in non-Western wear. 

As I slowly came to terms with the beauty and inevitability of my Indian-American identity, I started adding Indian pieces to my wardrobe. While my daily outfits are usually void of patterns, easily mixed and matched, the Indian clothes I hoard are each innately individual. Every pair of patiala salwars or jhoomar earrings I wear speaks to the unique spirit of the community in which I was raised. 

Dressing in these clothes always feels lavish and special. Sometimes, wearing them makes me feel like I’m living a double life—one where I adopt a different persona when I’m in a pair of plazzo pants and covering my head with a chuni. But as an Indian-American born and raised in the States, slipping on clothes that link to my culture also feels right. Plus, dress is the only part of my ethnic identity that is malleable under my discretion—I can literally get in and out of it in minutes. 

For years, however, I sharply separated the Indian parts of my wardrobe and the “American” parts. When the festivities were over, I would slink out of my cultural wares, admire them for a moment, and put them back in the closet cubby reserved for them. 

Choosing to wear “American” clothes over my Indian garments was an act of assimilation. Because of the human tendency to make quick judgements, clothes determine the way people perceive each other. First- and second-generation immigrants often alter their attire to attain the approval of the majority. Of course, this isn’t a new concept. 

During World War II, following Adolf Hitler’s consolidation of power in 1933, Britain took in nearly 10,000 unaccompanied children from European Jewish families. When these children arrived in these new communities, they donned their best cultural wear to meet their foster families for the first time. But these children were often denounced for their wardrobe choices by the very groups they hoped to impress. 

This same wardrobe code-switching has surfaced in my own life. When my mom and I would return from the gurdwara, the Sikh house of worship, on Sunday afternoons, we would immediately change into our assimilated attire—jeans, T-shirts, and sweaters—before carrying on with the rest of our day. In high school, I never even considered styling a kurta with skinny jeans or dhoti pants with a v-neck. Honestly, it was out of the question. 

As recently as 2017, Vice writer Anna Topaloff wrote about a handful of Afghani refugees looking to expand their wardrobes with donated clothes from humanitarian centers in France. Many of them had a clear idea of the clothes they wanted, even going so far as to ask for specific brands—one even requested “sneakers that were ‘not too ugly, more like JAY-Z’s.’” For them, the clothes they put on in their new country affected others’ perspective on them. 

“The fit and style of a piece of clothing might help them feel equal to the people they pass by on the street, or compliment their personality,” Topaloff wrote. “Or, perhaps, it just looks good on them.” 

I knew no one would ever outwardly insult me if I wore a fully decked Indian suit to the grocery store or the gas station. And I also knew that if this did happen, I would stand up for my right to wear what I want, when I want, regardless of how others felt. But I chose not to put up with the wary looks from strangers I would inevitably receive if I wore Indian clothes outside of worship, festivals, or celebrations. 

In a piece for Buzzfeed News, Teresa Mathew, an Indian-American writer, shared a similar concern that wearing cultural clothes would make her stand out as an immigrant, an “other” in the community.  

“I was always worried that wearing Indian clothing or jewelry—even pieces of it, paired with Levi’s or Converse sneakers—would make me look fresh off the boat,” Mathew wrote. 

Now, I’m slowly accepting the idea that I can and should meld these two aspects of my wardrobe. I realize there’s no reason for me to live in fear of not being accepted. It’s widely accepted that Indian clothes are beautiful, laden with color and character that makes them almost universally attractive. 

Some would even argue outward aspects of Indian culture have been praised to the point of fetishization in the western world. Even Beyonce appropriated Indian attire in Coldplay’s “Hymn For The Weekend” video, to the dismay of Priya-Alika Elias, a columnist for Teen Vogue. 

Indians also traditionally apply henna, a plant-based dye, to their hands and feet in detailed, swirly patterns at weddings and ceremonies. However, this practice has recently been adopted in the Western world as a carnival activity, akin to face-painting and temporary tattoos. And last year, a handful of high schoolers were accused of cultural appropriation and criticized online for wearing Asian-inspired dresses to school dances. The proliferation of different cultures, specifically pieces of Indian culture, in the Western world is widespread and shows no signs of stopping soon. 

It’s impossible for me to hide the fact that I am brown—brown as can be, in fact. My ethnicity is etched in the crevices of my skin, my caramel brown complexion, my big eyes, and my long textured hair. Covering up these features with American clothes and Western trends cannot erase these marks of racial and cultural separation. And I don’t want them to. 

However, I do not care to dress in Indian clothes everyday—I just want to remind myself that I am free to pair these polarized fashion choices together if I choose. 

For people of color, the question of whether or not to wear cultural clothing is not and should not be concrete. Bi-cultural individuals are not obligated to only wear western clothes, but we also aren’t obligated to regularly switch between our outfit options to assert our dual identity. All we can do is give ourselves the freedom of choice and realize that our cultural clothing is meaningful—it’s worthy of love, respect, and closet space.

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