These are just a few
of the questions and comments I hear from my well-wishers in India,
members of my parents’ generation who find it amusing that
I prefer imitation earrings over solid gold. They think I am being
frivolous and have, well, a rather poor dress sense. Now, there
were times that I would get incensed by these comments. After all,
criticizing a clotheshorse about her fashion sense is bound to create
Resistance to Change
I used to get irritated at the thought of Indian women resisting
change. Long ago, Japanese women realized that kimonos were slowing
their progress. European women revamped their wardrobe by throwing
away those impractical gowns and choosing skirts and, later, trousers
as daily wear. Islamic women in some countries have chosen to dress
more comfortably by replacing veils with simple headscarves. Why,
then, are Indian women still hiding behind voluminous saris and
ostentatious jewelry? Indian men seem to have forsaken kurta
pajamas and dhotis or lungis for trousers
a long time ago! Why are women still beholden to traditional, cumbersome
Symbols of Married Women
Our generation has taken to malls and jeans in a big way. However,
the majority of women in villages and towns in India wear heavy
jewelry and saris or salwar kameez after their
One of my patient relatives explained this to me by saying, “Women
must show that they are married.”
“But why should the husbands sport no such signs? In the
West, men wear rings on their left hands to show their marital status,”
“Men do not need any protection but women do. Being married
gives them a secure standing in the society,” my aunt replied.
While I could have responded with more of my own
ideas about women's liberation, I decided to think about what my
aunt had said. Perhaps traditional dress discourages harassment
from leering men. Also, if India remains a very male-dominated society,
a woman might be following custom and refraining from exercising
her freedom of choice to ensure her own safety. This might make
you feel indignant, but the truth is that women who want to survive
in chaotic or more repressive societies have to follow the rules.
Tradition and Culture
It seems to me that the burden of protecting the Indian culture
has fallen solely on women who have difficulty giving up the ideas
and beliefs that have been ingrained since infancy. Women who have
not had the opportunity to broaden their horizon may fear change
because they feel comfortable in the predictability of their lives.
They wait for someone else to start the revolution in the family.
Red vermilion in the part of their hair, bindis, toe rings,
bangles and other customs are practiced frequently by women in India.
Men, however, do not have to be bothered with such trivialities
because they are frequently the breadwinners and are not bound by
as many rules.
My opinions on traditional clothes began to change one day while
I was trying on a perfect fit GAP t-shirt on a sweltering afternoon
in India. While I was having trouble breathing in my skinny jeans
and tight shirt, my mom was looking perfectly cool in her light
cotton sari. Saris, with their midriff-baring
styles, allow room for air to circulate and cool a woman’s
body. Even salwar kameez, with their loose pants and flowing
tops, keep the humid heat at bay and offer total coverage with lots
of sun protection.
I realized that clothes are neither an indicator
of a person's progress nor are they always worn for comfort. They
are just a matter of choice. If you’ve tried wearing pantyhose
or stilettos—a preferred style for many women in Europe and
the United States—you know that comfort is certainly not one
of fashion’s virtues. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy likes
wearing saris and so do a number of independent, well-traveled
Indian women. I cannot help preferring jeans to salwars
and skirts to saris. I love to wear my little black dress,
and I do not like a lot of glittery gold on my neck and ears.
So, while I still buy my clothes from Forever 21
and not Sari Plaza, I will not try to justify my selections
by belittling someone else's. I have a healthy respect for the fashion
decisions other women make, even if they do not mirror my own. Most
importantly, I grin and bear the never-ending nosy comments about
my fashion sense without any malice towards the speaker.
No, I am not giving up my Liz Claiborne costume necklaces just yet,
but I have begun to understand the motivations behind the frequent
chidings from my elders.
Neha Singh is a software engineer who loves
to play with her toddler and write in her spare time.
Back to Top