A Tale of Two Cultures: What To Wear
A Tale of Two Cultures: What To Wear

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Have you ever struggled with what to wear if you were raised in a different culture than the one you live in?  I know I have! I was born and raised in India, and when I moved away from home at 21, I was, in many ways, completely lost. I fought so many ‘traditions’ for so long that when I was finally on my own, I didn’t have something concrete to hang onto; literally and figuratively speaking. There was a lot of self discovery and a journey that involved searching within myself – fast forward a decade, and a boat load of trial and errors later, I found my personal style.

As a fashion stylist, I often get asked questions like “how should I dress?”, “what’s my body type?”, or “what’s appropriate for an event?”, The list is long. Today I’m going to talk about something I was asked not too long ago; by a fellow immigrant – “how do I keep my individuality, while keeping in line with where I live?” It reminded me of one my favorite quotes about fashion by Alber Elbaz:  “Pure, intense emotions. It’s not about design. It’s about feelings.”

I use this quote to answer the questions above. While I believe there is a certain amount of culture-learning required, you have to stay true to yourself, no matter what you identify yourself with, no matter where you came from or where you’re headed. One such difference between cultures  is the use of colors. In India, white is worn at funerals, while in Western culture, it’s worn by the bride on her wedding day – such a contrast!

While these distinctions are important to know of, I’m going to touch on practical advice – how I learnt to marry my two (past and present) homes and cultures. First of all, it’s about knowing yourself and your style. Being comfortable in your own skin is for many, like me, a skill to be learned over time. That’s the theoretical part related to looking good, I know, while you ask,  – “what about real, practical advice?”Here are some tips on how to blend the two. I’m consolidating what I’ve learned based on research, fashion education, and my personal experience:

  1. Length – A  popular way to anglicize an Indian outfit is to change the length of the garment (hem line) or a component (for example, a deep slit along the middle vs. the traditional two slits on either side, or shortening/ altogether removing sleeves). Think of the ubiquitous Kurti, which is a ‘modern’ version of Kurta or Salwar Kameez. A Kurti is an integral part of the transformed ‘Indo-western’ wear.
  2. Mix ‘n Match; part I (casual look) – talking pieces from the two cultures and wearing them in one glorious ensemble. Practical examples: a non-ethnic blouse or a cotton shirt with a salwar, for a BoHo chic, harem-pants inspired look for the weekend.
  3. Mix ‘n Match; part II (formal look) – Or a plain tank top (in a solid color) with your favorite lehenga for a dinner out/ evening on town (I’ve actually worn this look to the Symphony and very formal parties many times. If you care about no one wearing the same outfit as you, this one’s a definite winner – every time!
  4. Stole – Fourth is incorporating a shawl or chunni with your LBD (little black dress) or plain-looking  outfit. Nothing brightens your little black dress (or any monochromatic outfit) with a pop of color and/ or embroidery of a stole, shawl, or chunni. A shawl/ stole has the added benefit of keeping you warm as the evening progresses, or you battle the harsh airconditioner of your work place.
  5. Jewelry – This one’s my favorite and also the easiest. You can wear Indian earrings, bold necklace, or a statement ring with pretty much any outfit for an added pop of desi fabulousness.
  6. Handbag – a jhola, or bag/ clutch makes an easy addition to pretty much any outfit. It can also help with enhancing the ‘look’ you’re going for. For eg, a jhola with a pair of dark denims says “vibrant, globe trotter.” A clutch paired with the same jeans is now “elegant, exclusive.”
  7. Literally Speaking – I also love a ‘regular’ t-shirt, with quintessential Indian words/ texts/ images  (we’ve all see Aum shirts). I absolutely love these!!
  8. Tailormade – Lastly, a western outfit (gown/ skirt, etc) in an indian fabric or with extensive Indian embroidery. This one’s a little trickier, as you need a good tailor, a designer (or a good design at the very least). There are several online stores that offer such clothes ‘ready-made’, but I’m not confident about their quality or value

So, there you have it folks, try these easy ideas to incorporate your love of all things Indian, no matter where you live. This is how I take my soul wherever my heart takes me.  I’m excited to know what you’ve done!

Roo moved from India to Singapore, and then to San Francisco, where she currently resides with her husband and two children. She is a commercial and personal stylist, and started blogging in 2016 (www.rooism.com). When she’s not hanging with her family/ friends, she’s daydreaming about her next scuba diving trip. In her (non-existent!) free time, she enjoys mentoring a running group for a non-profit, and helping fellow bloggers and fashion entrepreneurs start their new ventures. She’s passionate about women’s empowerment and body-diversity, and spreads the word through various public speaking opportunities.