When my classmate Monica posted her dress in the senior prom Facebook group, people started “liking” the post immediately. “What a beautiful dress!” girls crooned, “Where did you get it from?”
“It’s from India,” she replied nonchalantly, “I wore it to my cousin’s wedding, and I really like it, so I’m going to wear it again.”
The “dress” that everyone fawned over was actually a lehenga—a beaded gold and white blouse with a full green skirt, dotted with pink and white flowers. It was beautiful and it was different, captivating everyone’s attention at once.
Sparkly, satiny layers of fabric with designs, pretty necklines and full skirts that make every girl look like a princess—girls give a lot of importance to finding the perfect prom dress.
Dress hunting generally begins months before the actual date of prom, and schools have groups on Facebook, in which girls who attend prom post pictures of dresses they plan to wear, so that there are no unpleasant surprises with someone else wearing the same dress on prom night.
Traditional prom dresses typically have very similar silhouettes—long, tighter at the top, and gently flared from the waist down. My friend Harini’s dress was the hue of lavender, with an intricate lace top and a skirt that gently swished around her ankles. Until recently, that’s the type of dress that most girls chose to wear.
However, this past year, a unique style broke through. Bearing resemblance to the Indian lehenga or ghagra choli, this ubiquitous design is a two-piece outfit. The top is fancy, like a blouse, and the skirt is simpler in comparison. The dresses come in various colors, from sparkly gold to deep reds and vivid blues, some with floral or beaded patterns, just like a traditional lehenga.
Lehengas and ghagra cholis are beautiful. They’re elegant, trendy, and fairly easy to move around in. Fashion designers from around the world have taken note of these qualities, and Indian-inspired clothing is featured in haute couture lines like Marchesa, Chanel, and Diane von Furstenberg, with established retailers such as Forever 21 and ZARA falling suit. Actresses like Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra are media darlings and are paving the way for Indian acceptance in that industry as well.
In the past, wearing Indian clothing to a school dance was not something I would have considered for even a second. I had not seen anyone else attempt it either. Would I have been ashamed if others did so?
Quite possibly, yes. As a teenager, sometimes it feels as if social media and mainstream culture wants you to be malleable, fitting a certain set of norms, covering up who you really are in the process.
Decades ago, prom was celebrated in a very specific way. It was hosted in school gyms—students dressed in classic western formal wear and danced the night away. Nowadays, prom has been given a fresh, new makeover, embracing new script lines. Last year, my school’s prom was outdoors, and this time it was held on a yacht. My friend’s school is having their prom at a local amusement park. On College Confidential, a website frequently visited by teens, students are talking about how they plan to wear saris to prom, and they are being encouraged by their peers, who admire the intricacy and elegance of the Indian garment. The definition of prom is transforming, becoming more accommodative of the melting pot that our country truly is.
For someone like me, who used to be reluctant to embrace my Indian culture, because it was so excluded from the media and fashion indsutries, seeing girls of different races appreciate my background not only makes me proud, but also more confident. Being unconventional, being different, is something that should be praised.
I went to the mall three times, browsed through tons of websites—Pinterest, and Instagram, saving almost twenty dresses before I found the perfect one, that carried the all-important tag of “Amma approved!” Even though I did not wear a lehenga to my prom, I felt like royalty—in my glittery navy blue dress, I spent time with 600 seniors who broke down social cliques for the night, we came together to make memories for a lifetime. I attended prom night this past weekend, feeling more confident of my identity—it was indeed magical for a whole host of reasons.
Sandhya Iyer is a high school senior at Evergreen Valley High School in San Jose. She aspires to be a journalist.