Clothes are the mirrors of my American experience. They reflect my learning, my longings, and more. In my first few months in America, I remember wondering about the countless women’s clothing stores in shopping malls, “Hmm, all of them sell the same things—skirts, pants, and shirts. So, why are there so many?” Now I know. (Or so I think!) That the numerous indistinguishable clothing establishments cater to specific niches was something I stumbled upon gradually, in phases, coming as I did from the land of the stitchless sari and the one-size salwar-kameez.
Phase one was “Wal-Mart Zindabad!” Enticed by their “Always low prices,” I went on a shopping spree, chirpily changing my wardrobe every couple of months. Later, while flipping through our photo album, and looking at numerous month-progressed photographs of myself—me in Yosemite, me in Vegas, me in Gap, me in Wal-Mart—I realized that somehow that seamless cotton tee didn’t quite fit as well as it felt. Surely, the look and the feel are not mutually exclusive. Why was the zing missing from my things? I snooped around for clues.
“What is wrong with you?” a voice inside my head countered. Yes, after all, I was the girl who would retort to her mother, “I don’t care about my clothes too much!” when she would chastise me for walking around in a crushed salwar-kameez. What I would not add was that I thought my genuineness would shine through without such crutches as meticulous clothing. And those who did not have the perspicacity to observe it didn’t deserve me anyway. Or so I rationalized. Today I realize how right my mother was. What we are is reflected in our each and every action. Our bodies, and in civilized societies, our attire, tell our stories even before we open our mouths. It is hard to be sloppy and incredibly sharp. The absent-minded professor is a phantom created by Hollywood.
Phase one ended with a closet full of unwearable clothes, tons of laundry, and an insatiable longing for the rich, vibrant colors and fabrics that made up my adolescence and early adulthood in India.
Phase two was my observation phase. I stepped outside of myself a bit. I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked at the women sitting next to me on Caltrain, engrossed in their elaborate hour-long makeup routines. I looked at my Indian sisters in the malls, Costco, and Wal-Mart. And during each of those occasions I cringed. I cringed at my frumpiness, seemingly unreflective (or was it the other way round) of my mental alertness. I cringed when I saw excessive vanity. I cringed when I saw apathy. In Costco, I saw sneakers and oversized jackets paired with dupatta-less salwar-kameezs and each time that sight produced a strong visceral reaction in me. Imagine dispassionately, what would someone think if that was her introduction to Indian attire?
These incongruous choices only mirror our sense of confusion, of pathos and loss, of belonging nowhere. Whereas our attire should ache to reflect just the opposite—our sense of joy and grandeur, our accessibility to the best silks, chiffons, and cottons, our intimate bond with a land where getting clothes tailored is not a privilege afforded to a rare few. Why cannot our clothes reflect that richness of experiences? What makes us such poor dressers? Perhaps because we take the concept of simplicity a bit too far. Perhaps because we never really had the time in the past couple of centuries to indulge in a bit of healthy vanity. Daily life has always been a struggle and we have heard this repeatedly from one generation to another—it doesn’t matter what you wear, it doesn’t matter what you look like, your salvation lies in your mind, your education.
But we forget that ours was that pioneer culture that gave innumerable yoga studios in the Bay area their livelihood. We honored the spirit, the mind, but above all, we honored the body for encasing it all, for giving it a house to live in. Our history abounds with examples like Nehru who dressed nattily come prison or premiership. How and when did we forget? And while as individuals we have the freedom to make our own choices, we have to acknowledge that individuals are judged by the perception of their communities (or social groups) and the converse holds equally true.
I transitioned into my third phase by giving away my old clothes to atone for sins of ignorance.
In Rome, we must do as Romans do. And if we cannot bring ourselves to it, then, we must be an example the Romans want to emulate. While yours truly is not a fashion guru, here are some insights I learned the hard way. For what worked in Sarojini Nagar will not necessarily work in San Francisco.
• Treat yourself with care. Buy clothes that fit you well, even if that means you’ll have fewer of them.
• If you are always hoping for the pointer on your weighing scale to tilt to the left, wearing loose clothes will not create the illusion that you are there. The way out is the way through. Wear well-fitting clothes.
• Hate pants, like me? It’s probably because of two reasons; the typical Indian female figure is (pear shaped!) petite and most pants in stores are not tailored for them. There are two possible solutions. Buy fewer pants but from higher-end stores that might carry your size. The other solution is a skirt. Yes, a great skirt is a great skirt. Dress your skirts with batik tops and caress them with zari-edged stoles.
• If it is too hard to make friends with alien cuts, then honor those that you are familiar with. True, saris and salwar-kameezs, silks, chiffons, and cottons are hard to maintain. But when you choose to wear them, go that extra mile. You’ll be delighted at what you have done with little resources and zero external help. Love them enough to make someone else fall in love with them.
We are not wanting for inspiration. Invest your money, invest your time, and make sure your clothes reflect who you are and where you came from. Immigration has given us the opportunity to be Sita and Gita both at the same time. Enjoy. And if we must sauté in this melting pot, let us not forget to add our spices.
Radhika Sharma is a Bay Area writer.