How I Learned To Love The Clothing Of My Culture

Indian clothes are itchy. That was my first reaction to the threads of my culture. The fabric was rough against my skin and I had a 7-year-old’s version of impostor syndrome about wearing a gold headpiece, because I’d only ever seen this style of clothing on Indian brides. I was enrolled in Bharatanatyam Indian dance classes, where we wore beautiful, over-the-top Bollywood-style ensembles. And though the costumes were intricate and bright, the only thing that stuck with me was that they were nowhere near as comfortable as the Birkenstocks I paired them with.
Photo: Courtesy of Maya Kachroo-Levine.
As a 7-year-old, I was painfully aware that this wasn’t a normal after-school activity for most of my classmates in semi-suburban Massachusetts; I spent most of my time in Bharatanatyam wishing I was taking ballet or tap with the other girls. Back then, the only thing I wanted more than being close to my culture and appeasing my mother was to fit in with the people my age.

Later, when other pre-teens were embracing the fashion staples of the early 2000s (think bell-bottom jeans and graphic tees, à la Mischa Barton on The O.C.), I was handed tunics and long, patterned skirts my grandmother had sewn with fabric she brought back from India. And though I’d give anything for those handmade pieces now (I could easily see them on sale at Anthropologie), I found myself craving one thing: Limited Too mediocrity.

It wasn't until I received my first formal Indian outfit that my mindset began to change. I was 10 and on my first trip to India that I actually remembered. My mom hauled me into a store in New Delhi, where I was fitted for my first lehenga (similar to a sari, with less fabric and wrap-around drama). Consisting of a swirling, silver skirt that rested at the top of my non-existent hips and a cropped, dark blue, velvet top with silver stitching on the bodice, it was the most beautiful piece of clothing I’d ever seen. It was also the first Indian outfit I had that wasn’t a hand-me-down, sewn by my grandmother, or a dance costume; it was fitted exactly to my little 10-year-old body instead of uncomfortably cinching my waist in the wrong places. It was also the first time I wore an Indian outfit I felt comfortable in, in every sense of the word.

So much of what we see of Indian culture in the United States is appropriated extremes, from college fraternities hosting “Holi” parties, to Beyoncé in a low-cut sari. In fact, it sometimes feels like Indian style has somehow morphed into an ethereal, Free People catalogue type of aesthetic that ends up looking more blogger-undergoing-a-pseudo-spiritual-awakening than anything culturally authentic. When I started wearing Indian clothes, the interest in Eastern culture was nonexistent; no one cared about bindis and Aishwarya Rai didn’t exist. There weren't hordes of travel bloggers photographing themselves outside the Taj Mahal in saris. Today, if I post a picture of myself in a richly decorated kurta pajama for an Indian wedding, it rakes in Instagram likes. I don’t like to admit that I let what other people think affect the clothing choices I make. But if I’m being honest, I had trouble showing my Indian style before it was more widely accepted. When I was in high school, my brother went to prom in a full-on Indian outfit and I remember being jealous, because I would have never even thought to wear something other than a traditional prom dress.
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Photo: Courtesy of Maya Kachroo-Levine.
Today, I'm no longer afraid. In fact, I slip small doses of Indian dress into my otherwise laid-back wardrobe. And though it's been a long time since my days of pairing dance costumes with Birkenstocks, I've continued to embrace pieces from my heritage and mix them with contemporary items in the same fashion. I like to pair a silk chunni with dark blue jeans, for example, or an embroidered skirt with a solid, plain top. And like most other Indian women in my family, I avoid silver jewelry — any anklets, bangles, and earrings I’ve ever been gifted from Indian relatives are gold and typically worked into the shape of an Om, flower bud, or teardrop. Actually, the only accessory I wear every day is a gold Om necklace that my grandmother gave me when I was 11. Though I will never buy the "trendy" Om jewelry or tank tops that show up in stores, my Om is something that connects me to my family. And while my Om is, to me, not necessarily a religious symbol, it is still so much more than a signifier of Western thirst for Eastern spirituality.

I wear it every day, because it isn’t special occasion jewelry, nor is the rest of my collection of scarves, skirts, or jewelry from India. I don’t want to treat them as such. That would take me back to being the girl who would never be bold enough to wear Indian clothes to prom. I don’t want to embrace my Indian clothes as a Westerner, who breaks them out to showcase at a dinner party or feature them in a picture on social media. I want them to be a subtle tribute to my Eastern roots; to not make Indian clothes or jewelry staples, but to express that they are part of who I am — not on one extra-important day of the year, but every day.
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