When you choose a dress that helps you blend in with the community, you are giving them a compliment and a reason to have faith in you
After travelling about 300 km through the night, we were supposed to deboard our bus at Katani Kalla at five in the morning, hoping to hitch-hike with someone for another kilometre or two. Two city girls waiting to get picked up by someone who was on their way to Shri Bhaini Sahib, a suburban community near Ludhiana, doesn’t happen very often. But we had faith in the land and how we had dressed up for it to ensure belongingness.
We wore our traditional attire, which for women is a white churidar salwar kameez and dupatta. We had assured our mothers that this is how someone was going to identify us. My cousin had told me earlier, “We just need to wait for an uncle who is going in the same direction.” He would most likely be wearing a white kurta-pyjama with a flat front turban, some visual traits typical of Naamdhari Sikhs. That is how she got a lift in her earlier trip here where she landed in the wee hours, she had told me. I know this is how my late grandfather reached the village after getting off the bus.
Things did not pan out as planned. How we actually reached the village is a story for another time, but the trust we exercise for a clothing style to perceive people, make decisions and sometimes even use help has stayed with me ever since this trip took place.
In all these years, clothing styles have both neutralised (maybe because of fast fashion) and become precise amongst all kinds of communities. Traditional wear rarely sees the light of the day among the millennials, whose dressing sense is informed more by the popular culture which in turn is inspired by what happens on the ramp. But when we dress up specifically for an event – for example, the decision to wear ethnic for a family function – on a fundamental level, is done hoping for easy interaction among the family members, especially those people we are meeting for the first time.
My erratic dressing sense has led my mother to tell me on multiple occasions to dress up according to the place I am going to and the people I am going to meet. I have on most occasions differed from the idea as I have hardly cared about how people viewed me or craved their appreciation. However, is only when certain experiences help one understand how people can directly or indirectly affect our lives that one has to start caring for the public opinion of you.
My experiments with the sari got my mother worked up. She found it funny how I was able to go to work in a cotton saree tied in a way not common for north Indians. It took thorough convincing for her to let me wear what I like. Recently, I attended a wedding in a colleague’s family for which I arranged the best dresses I could. I wore a high waisted pant and shirt for a family birthday party of a baby boy where everyone wore traditional Indian attire. Only yesterday, I was at a film screening that required me to wear my Naamdhari outfit but due to unforeseeable reasons, I had to go in a pant and shirt again. These are some hits and some misses. I have got looks from people and have also gelled well a few times. Clothes can secure confidence, that is when you work it out around the idea of people and the occasion you are going for.
A friend who visited Masai Mara got himself photographed with the Masai people in their attire. In my opinion, it is a way to build trust by exchanging cultural artefacts with a foreign group that is used to a certain lifestyle – be it their food, clothing, jewellery or language. In that regard, clothing comes in handy as a direct visual representation of respect and faith for a community.
I remember buying the traditional robe in Leh in my visit to the valley that I wore on my last day there. Apart from its beauty as a garment often worn by married women and the flattering remarks I received, I felt closer to people as I think they understood my naïve choice as a gesture of respect for their culture. A traditional Tibetan drape dress and blouse that I bought in McLeodganj lies in my wardrobe that I wore to a fashion week once. And then there is my recent obsession with the saree.
It is indeed a pattern where I analyse various forms of clothing and their relationship with people. For the longest, I chose clothing for myself on a whim but now that I finish writing this story, I do believe it is an amazing tool and can be used to understand interpersonal and intrapersonal affinities.