Originally published on the Times of India blogs, 17th June 2011
On my second day in India I bought a salwaar kameez. That was nearly two years ago. I’d come to India, travelling, for the first time and wanted everything the local ladies were wearing. Bangles, bindis, the whole shebang. My first ‘suit’ was a simple ready-made in pink cotton with a bit of embroidery. It was Rs.350 and fell apart after a couple of washes, but I didn’t mind because it meant I had to get another one. Or ten.
Every day of my travels I wore these lovely things, and my suit-obsession continued long after I moved to Delhi early last year. In fact, I think there’s only been two or three days when I haven’t worn one. But why would a foreigner spend every day dressed like an Indian? I get asked this a lot. So, for the record, here is my response.
Firstly, salwaar kameez are, without question, the most comfortable items of clothing ever invented. Fact. Before I discovered them – and India – I would change into my pyjamas as soon as I got home from school or work, and often wore them all weekend. The problem with this was, as well as obviously being sleepwear, they weren’t the most attractive of garments, often pretty shapeless and featuring rather unfashionable pictures of sheep and kittens. Salwaar kameez have the comfort of sleepwear but they’re also stylish and incredibly flattering. Not to mention, you can wear them outside! And on a 40 degree day in Delhi there’s nothing better.
But these days I never wear ready-mades. As well as the obvious fact that they fit better, there’s something about wearing tailor-made suits that makes me feel a bit like the Queen. At home nobody gets clothes made to fit. Occasionally people will get tailors to alter something they’ve bought, but having full outfits made from scratch is very rare. I love it. I love going to fabric shops in the market and looking through rolls and rolls of material. I love the smell of the dye and the infinite combinations of colours and patterns. I’m getting quite good at mixing and matching fabrics, picking out colours, trims, matching dupattas… And don’t get me started on the bangles and bindis.
Then I take it all to the tailor. I’ve tried lots of different ones, but in my opinion nobody can make a more perfect suit than the aunty at Lakshmi Boutique in Rohini Sector 3. True, the ‘boutique’ is more like a medium-sized cupboard, and true, I don’t even live in Rohini anymore (nowhere near, actually), but I’ll happily travel the distance for one of their perfectly fitting masterpieces.
As for the attention I get in Delhi, I’m sure that much of it is a result of how I choose to dress. A gori is one thing, but a videshi girl dressed like an Indian is quite another. It’s not uncommon for groups of women to point at me while whispering and giggling, and it can be very unnerving. I always wonder what they’re saying about me, and often assume it must be something negative. Recently I was waiting for a friend in Rajiv Chowk metro station, wearing a blue Paisley print suit. Two young girls stopped near me and began whispering to each other, making me feel quite uncomfortable. Finally, one of them came over, and shyly said, ‘You look beautiful. Thank you for respecting our culture.’ It took me completely by surprise, and made my day.
Yes, I firmly believe that if we’re living in a culture that’s not our own we should be willing to adapt a little, and wearing salwaar kameez is one of my ways of doing this. When I first moved here I was living in a part of town where all the women dressed traditionally, and wearing my suits helped me fit-in more easily. I knew all too well about the reputation of western women in India, and wanted to separate myself from that as much as I could. Quickly, I got used to this way of dressing, and to feeling comfortable but colourful at the same time. Local people seemed happy to see me, even remarking, occasionally, that I was a ‘Good Woman’. And, of course, I looked less of a tourist, which (when teamed with some Hindi) got me lower prices in shops and in rickshaws. You can’t argue with that!
I’ve tried wearing jeans in India and I just can’t do it. I admit it: I’m hopelessly addicted to the Punjabi suit – whether it’s self-coloured cotton or with more sequins than a Bollywood dance number. But what about sarees, though? They’re equally beautiful, very traditional, and perfect for us tall ladies. Have I worn one? Yes. It was quite an experience. But I think it deserves its own blog post.