“Nothing can be worst taste than to adopt unhesitatingly the manners and customs of a strange country. An English gentleman should always be dressed, so that, were he suddenly dropped into Bond Street, he would pass unnoticed in the street” – The Indian Charivari, 1873
Boy, those British. It’s a real shock people ended up resenting them as colonial masters, isn’t it? Still, the image of a Victorian gentleman resolutely clinging to his wool topcoat and trousers in the sweltering humidity of Bombay’s version of October is a real delight. For some colonial systems, specifically British India, racial and cultural superiority was 50% a state of mind, and “going native”, no matter how comfortable it looked, was as taboo as a tatoo. So despite the climate, employees of the British East India Company and their associates refused, by the mid-1800s, to wear the lightweight cottons salwars (trousers) of their subjugated people, choosing instead to don heavyweight formal wear in constant anticipation of a visit from Queen Victoria, who, by the way, was like Godot. She was never coming. Get the hint. She’s just not that into you. Her tiny purse has no room for caring. She was like, India, you mean that lovely market where I get all the spices and the cottons and the teas? When I say I get, I mean, of course, that people give them to me, don’t they, Albert, darling, buying things, so frightfully common, isn’t it? And they would laugh and laugh and throw diamonds and rubies and poor children at each other, generally doing what the monarchy do, one assumes.
We will probably never know the whole story of what India looked like, clothing wise, before European colonialism. The best the world has are the scores of Mughal paintings completed over the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, which at best give us a glimpse into how the Mughals used local materials and their own silhouettes to create a new kind of fashion. Despite the concept of Indian garments as ancient, which in a sense they are, in the same way that covering yourself with any kind of clothing is, most scholars agree that British garments coupled with Victorian concepts of modesty fundamentally altered the landscape of Indian bodily understanding, and where else can that be better understood than the female body?
With the rise of nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women’s bodies came into focus as a battleground for cultural identities and traditions. As Arti Sandu remarks in her excellent work, Indian Fashion, “The dilemma of presenting educated women and girls in public wearing respectable attire was a concern for reformists, particularly in Bengal, as the regional style of sari was often made out of transparent fabric and worn without a blouse or a petticoat. The solution to the dilemma of finding appropriate dress is credited to Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law, Jnanadanandini Devi, who also found herself in a similar predicament.” What Devi did was to combine the Parsi tradition of a blouse and petticoat with the Gujrati style of draping the sari (or saree as I spell it here because someone else took sorry I’m not sari and as God is my witness someday I will make them pay) around the body and over the shoulder, resulting in the style of sari we see and know today.
This look became immensely popular among India’s elite, especially those involved with nationalistic anticolonial movements. The problem is, right, that concept of appropriate was not particularly self defined, but colonially defined. This sari subscribed, and does still, to British morality, the idea that the unclothed body is immodest, a violation of female virtue. It effectively swaddles a women’s body in layers and layers of cloth, and while it’s beautiful, nothing is beautiful if it’s your only option. It’s another kind of trap, you see. As the nationalist movement spread, Sandu goes on to explain, Indian women were expected to shun Western garments, as signs of colonial subjugation, and native regional styles, which were not “modest” enough for the Western standards the movement was so adamantly against. The newly evolved sari as it came to look became a symbol of Indiness, of nationalism, of appropriateness, and of female virtue.
And so it has remained. One of the first things politicians and conservatives do here is credit revealing western clothes as part of the impetus towards sexual violence.
Along with railroads and trade routes, India was left with western physical shame as a shiny inlay onto its existing religious and cultural morality. Slut shaming. The gift that keeps on giving.
So what does any of this have to do with me, a white lady (well, real talk, I’m half Puerto Rican and half Russian Jew, so self identifying as white is a little weird, but go with it, its India) living in Mumbai? Well, the fact is, these struggles continue, and while struggle is what both Tigers and I do best, the issues and concerns about clothing and modesty were questions that plagued me when I was planning my move here. And while I would like to say all my fears were in vain, the reality is, at this point, two weeks in, I’m more confused than ever.
Here is a fun thing that happens when you move to India. If you are research oriented, like I am, you do a lot of googling and reading, and you look up travel guides for women in India, and you read a lot, and you get a lot of information that might make you want to put your head through a plate-glass window. Most travel guides will have detailed notes about how you should and shouldn’t dress and behave yourself in India. Tourists are warned that in Indian society hugging and holding hands are seen as precursors to sex and should never be performed in public. As for female tourists, they are advised that shorts, skirts, tank tops, revealing blouses and most western wear in general is considered scandalous and inappropriate, and they are advised to pick up some tunics and salwars as soon as they arrive, which, they are assured, will be better for the climate anyway, and a fun souvenir to take home! Men can wear whatever they want.
And so, of course, the burden of appropriate dressing is a female responsibility globally. Look, I’m all for dressing respectfully, particularly within a religious institution or during an event. When traveling to a country with different modesty standards it’s important to be aware of that, and make your clothing decisions accordingly. But this isn’t a vacation for me, it’s my life, and moreover, there ISN’T a longstanding religious dictate within Hindu texts about clothing. If there was, we would all be wearing unending saris a la Drupadi. More than any of these, in fact, I make the majority of my clothing, so I think about what I wear a lot, a lot a lot, and not in a particularly fashionable or socially conscious way, but because I am the physical engineer of my own wardrobe. So I was, hopefully understandably, a little concerned about moving to a country where apparently my safety was in question if I didn’t throw out my existing wardrobe and replace it with Indian ethnic wear.
Okay, so I figured, research online and in books isn’t everything. Let’s use real people, they have the more relevent life experience anyway! So I asked Mr. India about what I could and couldn’t wear comfortably in India. His response was to freeze, look like a deer in headlights and blurt out “I don’t know! Ask someone else! Everything! You can wear whatever you want!” and run away, even as I called after him that this wasn’t a trap. So that was…..not as helpful as one might have hoped.
Indian females I encountered assured me that I didn’t have to wear any one thing, but then ruined it by cheerfully reassuring me that a lot of girls wear jeans now, which I have found to be true, much to my horror. I’m not anti-jeans, although I’m certainly not a jeans person, and more importantly, holy hell, guys, It’s really hot here. It’s REALLY HOT HERE, and it’s humid, and the air is like walking through soft warm bowls of jello left out to steam in an un-ventilated hospital ward. The very idea of wearing jeans in this climate makes me want to peel all the clothing off of my body and jump into an ice bath. When I asked these girls how they walked around in jeans, they explained that they didn’t, they went from one air-conditioned space to another, with brief 30 second encounters with the outside world when going from cab to destination. This may be true for them, but I knew it wouldn’t be the case for me. I like walking and taking the train and being outside and being comfortable in multiple spaces. Moreover, this clearly isn’t the case for many Indians, as I certainly have seen girls walking around outside in jeans and cotton leggings, and both views turn my stomach in sympathy. Growing up here they might not be bothered by the heat, but I am, or at least I would be if I was walking around daily in jeans and kurtas. (Although, side note, Indians I meet through work and socially are frankly astounded that I’ve walked anywhere, although part of that might have to do with the labyrinth nature of Mumbai more than anything else).
The standard answer most people give to the question of clothing is that you can wear anything you want in Bombay. And so far, in my limited experience, this has proved partially true. As I walk around, from my neighborhood, Santacruz, in what is refered to as the northern suburbs, to South Bombay, the original fishing village turned major metropolis, as I ride the train and stroll from malls to markets, tiny lanes to big streets, I do see women in all kinds of clothing, but the predominant daytime look for women, or at least, the women who are actively visible on the streets, is a sari-salwar kameez-kurta and jeans kind of situation. At night, in the ultra-hip Williamsburg of Bombay, aka Bandra, it’s another world. Women in shorts and skimpy tops, dresses and heels, far more done up than anyone would be for a Friday night out in Brooklyn, it looks like Bebe exploded inside these bars. Gone is the modest draping and complete coverage. Now the elite of India are the ones in the transparent saris, leaving others behind to carry on the flag of “decent clothing”.
And here I am, somewhere in the middle. Too western for the day, not western enough for the night. My vintage-inspired wardrobe filled with full skirts, shirt dresses and whimsical tops (which have inspired more than one comment from my mother that I should stop dressing like a little girl) had been carefully ameliorated before my move with freshly made maxi-dresses and the one or two pairs of pants I can stand to wear in this climate. But it seems that Mumbai requires three or four wardrobes, one for day, one for night, one Indian, one Western.
Sidenote: How do people here contain their clothing in their tiny apartments? This doesn’t even begin to touch on wedding garments or holiday outfits. The average sari or saree is between 5 to 9 yards or 4.5 to 8.2 meters of cloth. (Yes, I just put something in meters and yes I am ashamed of myself, I’m sorry, America.) THAT IS A LOT OF CLOTH! WHERE DO YOU FIT ALL THAT? Most women have multiple saris in multiple materials. The cleaner who comes to our apartment daily has at least 5 saris, I know, I’ve been counting.
To bring all these many thoughts to a close, at least for today, because I strongly suspect that my Indian fashion woes are just beginning, each day has been a bit of an experiment, clothing-wise, comfort-wise, appropriateness-wise, feminist-clothing-politics wise and heat-wise, and that’s just here in Bombay, the most liberal of Indian cities. Who knows what cities like Delhi, the city drunkenly titled by a friend “Land of Rapes” or Kolkata or Hyderabad will bring? Best case scenario? A thousand nervous breakdowns and a Mr. India who is super adept at running away. The reality is, I could swath myself in sari silks or salwars, and people would still stare at me wherever I go. So while I’m not going to be donning a tube top and daisy dukes anytime soon (which to be fair, is not exactly my daily look ANYWAY), I, like the British who’ve come before me, am not exactly going native. My reasons are the opposite, though, from theirs. I don’t fear succumbing to foreign ways, but I do have a very real fear of heat stroke.
And besides, isn’t subscribing to antiquated modesty standards of Indian’s western colonizer just letting the British empire win? They already took the Elgin marbles. They can’t have this, too.