Don't Just Ask What I'm Wearing: Ask Why

Authored by:
Beth P.

Beth P.


In my time in South Asia, I have truly grown to love wearing Indian clothes. However, it is hard not to feel a slight twang of guilt when I say that, because before I came here, I honestly did not expect that I would wear local clothes as often as I do. Firstly, I thought that my leggings and loose t shirts would combat the heat well enough. Second, I figured that, by western standards, I had enough apparel that would probably be deemed modest and not draw too much unwanted attention. But most importantly, I wanted to be as respectful as possible to the local culture, so I thought that wearing their clothes would be appropriative, and that in wearing them, my presence would feel immoral and massively out of place. This blog post is not to say that I was outright wrong in my expectations, but that how I’ve chosen to dress myself here has come with a complicated and deeply personal learning curve. 


First off, since I’m going to be writing about my clothing and style choices, it’s important to establish my own visual appearance. I’m a young white woman, with short curly hair, and at 5’4’’ I am, for the very first time in my life, above average in height for a woman. 


While my homestay and university are situated in a considerably more wealthy and international part of Hyderabad city, the only other people I ever see who share my racial and gender appearance are other international students, whom I know personally on campus. While out in public, I will rarely see other white people, and when I do, I tend to avoid making a new friend in them. I am a minority in this country for the first time in my life, but I am an incredibly privileged minority, and so I tend not to want to foster solidarity with white tourists, especially those who clearly don’t know the behavioural norms of the culture quite yet. 


Of course, before getting settled into life in India, I was that very same white western tourist as well. Every time I left the house, someone would ask for a selfie, and no one would have any problem staring at me or overcharging me for rickshaw rides. It was a new and frustrating experience to be pegged as different, but at least I was still relatively safe. I attracted attention from kind strangers, who would make light conversation with me and proudly drop loads of unsolicited advice on me. 


While I was raised to resent strangers telling me how to be and how to behave, I figured there was no harm in trying out some of their advice, most of which was centered around how I dress and present myself. Aunties would say that wearing colors other than black over my whole body would keep away mosquitos, so I should invest in some long colorful breezy pants. So I did. Other students saw my sunburnt skin and said that kurtis (long tunic shirts for women) would be a comfortable way to prevent that type of thing. Every new item of indian apparel I bought and wore to dinner, my host mother would compliment, saying it’s a nice colour on me, or a smart look for class, or things like ‘isn’t it wonderful how ladies’ fashion in this country is so comfortable? We wear pyjamas every day-- no problem!” 


And so my standard daily wardrobe began to consist of a very standard, albeit modest, Indian woman’s outfit, including a kurti (tunic), salwaar (long breezy matching pants), and dupatta (light scarf worn across the front of one’s chest and shoulders). Everyone was right about the environmental things-- I had no more sunburns, less exposed skin for mosquito bites, and could cover my sweat from dance class and biking everywhere quite easily with my dupatta. 


The designs that made me, and many other women, feel more comfortable in the weather, surprisingly also caused a shocking difference within my social interactions with strangers. I found that, wearing Indian clothes, I received less unwanted attention from men, who wouldn’t linger in their stares as long, and I found that women would be more willing to talk to me, or at least maintain friendly eye contact with me on the bus. People wouldn’t ask for selfies nearly as much, and I found that prices at markets suddenly dropped with less of a fight. Of course, much of this can be credited for my improved bargaining, language, and social behaviour skills, but it still remains the case that my auto driver to school will always try to charge me more when I wear western clothes, whereas he’ll always accept my ten rupee fare without question when I’m dressed like a local. 


So, these clothes save me money, give me peace of mind, and I don’t have to end the day wringing sweat out of my leggings. All in all, I am less insecure about how I present to the world. It lets me get out of my head and look at my new situation, instead of constantly fretting about how much I stand out or how differently I’m treated.      


While I’m grateful that I’ve had the means to buy new clothes and in turn feel more comfortable in most social settings here, I know that the nature of women’s clothing runs much deeper than comfort with the environment. There are many reasons why I feel the need to blend in with these clothes, while the white men in my study abroad program who live in homestays don’t dress locally and many local young women in my classes prefer jeans and t shirts. The issue is inherently both gendered and racial, as well as intersecting with class and economic status. 


An unfortunate run-in with the deeper social undercurrents of dress and fashion happened to me back in September, when me and some friends went into the old city to observe the procession of the muslim new year. Without going into too much detail, that day I was invasively groped by a male stranger in the crowd. With the help of my friends, I was able to leave the situation relatively promptly and get a ride home to where I could cry it out and work through the emotions of being invaded like that. However, immediately after reaching home, I had to run to a music lesson that I’d forgotten I’d even scheduled, wherein my well-meaning teacher coaxed the truth out of me, and proceeded to shame me for my choices in going there in the first place. I obviously wanted her to stop blaming me for an awful man’s choices and so when I answered her question of “what were you wearing?” with “Indian clothes,” she backed off significantly on the lecture. 


Don’t worry-- since then I have properly cut my correspondence with her and have had many good talks with friends and family who have helped me process the event. A morbid example, yes, but it goes to show how important clothing is to receiving acceptance or respect. As a woman, either here or back home, people may believe that wearing modest clothes could help protect me from men. In this context though, for me, my teacher thought that wearing modest Indian clothes should have gained me more respect and protected me from harmful strangers. Especially since a particularly pervasive view of women in the west is that we are “loose”, my attempts to look de-westernized can communicate that I am making an effort to adhere to the Indian values of modesty, and all that that implies. 


My male friends don’t receive the same high stakes pressure to wear local clothes. They already commandeer more respect from strangers than women do. But when it comes to my local friends as well as my American friends of South Asian descent, these women are sometimes told that dressing in a modest western style can demonstrate financial status and international (American) connections, while at other times, they are told not to look too westernized, or else people may think they’ve been corrupted by non-traditional western values. There are certainly mixed messages depending on how you look. Still, wether or not one feels the need to blend in most certainly marks if the system was built for that person, or if they are instead meant to adapt themselves to accommodate that system.


On this same note, just last week in my anthropology class, we were discussing this very topic: clothing, status, imitation, and the social value we place on apparel. My professor called on me at the back of the class and asked me, very kindly, why it was I chose to wear the Indian clothes which I was wearing at the time. I told him my standard answer, that, since I live off campus and take public transit into school every day, I find that I get better treatment in negotiations and less unwanted attention from men when I dress Indian. What was interesting was that after I said this, while my twenty five male classmates started to laugh openly, my six or seven female classmates applauded my statement, and got louder when the men laughed harder. While I appreciated the solidarity the women offered, as well as the genuine curiosity from my ignorant male classmates who asked me why I felt insecure after class, I know that in expressing the issues faced by many people of my gender here, I was given an unfair spotlight due to my race.


And so, my inconclusive unsolicited advice for anyone else curious about what to wear during your study abroad in India is to wear whatever makes you feel comfortable. But most importantly, ask yourself why it is that you do or do not need to change how you dress.


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