The Indian Woman’s Uniform…

A few months ago, the day I was packing my bags to move to India, I called my cousin D – who lives in NY – and sobbed dramatically. “I’m going back to India. I’m packing my clothes. I’m giving away my skirts, shorts, scoop-necked tops, <<insert long list of inappropriate to wear in Chennai items>> to Goodwill. I don’t want to go!”. Ever practical and wise, she said, “Look forward to all the Indian clothes you’ll get to wear!” That worked like magic. Sneaky, sneaky woman.

I’m back now, and sentimental fool that I am, I brought back some of the forbidden items with me too. I found myself justifying the items in my suitcase to my mom as she watched me unpack. Oh, the tank tops are for the times I put on a face pack. And the shorts are for waxing appointments. My mother and the Taliban may be in close alignment when it comes to defining appropriate attire for women, but I have to admit that she prioritizes face packs way higher than dress code. Fruit pulp, home-made packs, herbal products bought off the shelf, facials, nothing goes un-recommended…. Anyhow, coming back to the bit about guilt. Any skin or hair care related argument works. Comfort is not as worthy a cause. Forget what my mother thinks. I feel consumed by guilt to step outside my door for the few seconds it takes to open the door and pick up the newspaper or the packets of milk lying there. It’s as though I expect every male in the building as well as the moral police to come calling all at once.

What’s more interesting than this lack of acceptance of comfortable clothing is that there seems to be only one accepted dress code for women in India now – salwar kameez (I use the term loosely here). It seems to be a little more acceptable to be seen without a dupatta than it was a couple of years ago but that’s about it. Jeans and a kurta are essentialy the same as salwar kameez. I don’t see women in trousers and formal shirts at work. I don’t see saris. I don’t see anything but salwar kameez. The more hep women wear kurtas with leggings sans dupatta, the conservative wear complete sets with pinned-up dupattas. The undecided wear leggings but carry dupattas. But that’s all I see around me.

To be fair, one can’t run to catch a bus in a sari. And jeans are torture in South Indian weather. I’m not sure why trousers haven’t caught on yet, but that’s probably because they only sell formal shirts for petite, flat chested women in this country. Those with real dimensions must look elsewhere. Most of us probably haven’t worn anything knee length in India since we got out of school. And what else is there to wear but the all-forgiving salwar-kameez?

For the typical Indian woman who’s raised to feel vaguely guilty that she has, umm, real dimensions, the salwar kameez is a blessing. You can first obscure all signs of curves under a tent-like top and then ensure no one else umm, “observes” you, by covering it all up with a dupatta. The looser the bottom, the more comfortable it is in Indian weather anyway. So you can hide all signs of being a woman if you so choose. On the other hand, you could wear a well-fitting kurta to show off your curves and lycra leggings to show off your fabulous legs. All this without having to tone your abs as you might have to to wear a sari.

Perhaps that’s the appeal of salwar kameez. It’s forgiving. It understands that the one thing an Indian woman can’t do is lose those last two inches of tummy without excruciating effort. And so, it lets you hide those inches. As if that wasn’t enough, the dupatta is multi-tasking. You could use it as a shield on the bus, as a hanky should you find yourself without one, as a makeshift umbrella in the rain or scorching sun, as a pollution shield by tying it all over your face, as a shawl when they turn the ac on too high at office, as a proof of “modesty”. Expectant mothers can use it to cover up their baby bump, the filmi can tear a strip from it to bandage their boyfriend’s arm, you can hold it up against your nose when you smell something nasty, there are endless uses. No wonder Indian women love the outfit.

But for all its virtues, salwar kameez irks me. And that’s why I call D sneaky. She made me forget for a moment that I don’t like wearing any version of salwar kameez. It just doesn’t feel like me. I don’t like carrying a dupatta. It makes me feel like I’ve lost to the creeps who travel on the bus. I don’t like wearing leggings and churidars. They’re constricting. I don’t like kurtas, I don’t notice I’ve put on weight until it’s too late. To me, salwar kameez is the lazy option. A compromise of sorts.

I wear salwar kameez instead of trousers when I’m feeling fat. I wear it instead of a sari when I’m running late. I wear it instead of jeans if I anticipate being around conservative people. I wear salwar kameez, a bindi, and my thaali when we go out to a late movie because then, the police won’t stop us. I wear it instead of a skirt when I feel conscious. In short, I wear it when I want people to think I’m a conformist.  I wear it because my mother and mother-in-law wish they could have worn salwar kameez when they were younger. They don’t like me in a sari. At least my mother doesn’t. I wear salwar kameez when dress code forces me to. Very rarely do I wear it because I want to.

Why do I dislike it so much? I have no clue. But I just had to wonder. Does anyone else feel the same?

10 Replies to “The Indian Woman’s Uniform…”

  1. Oh yes you echoed my thoughts! It not so bad in Mumbai though. I wear trousers and I see a lot of women in coporate world wearing trousers. But yes we still can’t beat Salwar Kameez. I see them everywhere. I hate to wear coz I feel restricted in it. My MIL and husband asks me so what kind of freedom do you want? I can’t explain that in words. It’s just a feeling. I’m most comfortable in my jeans and tees. In office I wear only trousers….no skirts 🙁 Sigh! Mumbai is still India, though coz of a huge catholic and Parsi population you do see women in skirts and dresses. I sometimes feel I’m born in the wrong time zone:(

    1. Well, shorts and Carnatic music don’t really mix. If I pick one, I need to lose out a little on the other. I totally agree about the freedom because it comes back to the whole issue of being forced to do something. I liked wearing salwar kameez on occasion when we lived in the US but being obliged to wear it as I am in India is just too much. I feel better now that I have my own place and not living with the in-laws. Because there I would end up wearing salwar kameez as night-clothes and that just sucks. But it made sense because most visitors seem to come by at night after my in-laws shut the clinic. And I never like being seen in night-clothes except by family.

  2. Hmmm. I actually like wearing salwaar kameez. It’s light and comfy. The only problem is that I have to carry a handbag to keep stuff like cellphone, money etc. So, I am mostly in Jeans/Trousers and Tees (and oh yes, shirts too). I don’t wear shorts (unless I am in goa) but I do wear 3/4ths. I salwaar-kurta means “dressing up” for me. Saree is something I just cannot handle (in spite of MIL’s encouragement 😉 )Too much paraphernalia. Impossible to manage with two kids hanging around you. They are best kept in my godrej locker with moth balls.

    1. You need to be very comfortable in a sari before you can handle kids wearing it. But it might not be a bad idea to get them used to seeing you in one sometimes. I remember a colleague once told me her son didn’t want her to come to office in a sari because… “Hawww Mama, your tummy is showing!”

  3. Well, this is not true about the whole of India. Even a small city like Lucknow where I come from, people do wear one piece dresses with halter necks! we are not comfortable with shorts around the city, but girls in Delhi and Mumbai do wear them almost everywhere.
    You should take short trips to use your clothes 🙂

  4. I dont dislike Salwar kameez but I find it boring if worn daily.I do wear trousers and shirts/jeans and Ts to my work and many girls/women do that in Hyderabad and Pune atleast.Infact jeans are most commonly worn by girls and women in Pune.
    But I do agree that Salwar kameez helps in multi-tasking as you mentioned covering baby bumps,acting as hanky,scarf etc..

  5. Clearly a month late, but my head would obviously explode if I don’t comment. Really, this seems like a problem that effort can solve. The sari clearly works as a viable alternative and would of course bury the argument that the salwar is the uniform. But wait, that requires effort doesn’t it? It’s simpler to complain on ones blog than to make an effort to get comfortable in drapes.
    Oh, and am I the only one (the despicable chauvinist, let me remind all once again) who thinks the sari is more feminine than the gender confused salwar? As a guy (you didn’t guess that?), I would die of embarrassment before I wear a skirt. Or perhaps I am just seeing the result of a culture of repression that my thamizh women are put through. They would rather be eunuchs than be seen as women (oh the horrors) by us lecherous men who, of course, are bereft any self-control.

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