I didn’t grow up comfortable around salwar kameezes. I was an 80s Bubblegummers kid in upper middle-class Mumbai. The first generation of post-independence babies (my parents generation) had just come of age, carrying their unique rebellions, ego parades and hidden traumas into the world. It was a unique time on the brink of liberalisation and before the internet homogenised fashion and wiped cultural history from our memories.
In the early 2000s, I was transitioning from college kid jeans to ‘adult’ clothing. Comfortable, well-made western wear for women was not easily available. What was there, was very expensive & didn’t last. I would spend my hard-earned new income on a wardrobe that developed holes and tears. It would take me some time to figure out that while the West wanted me on their payrolls, I was but cheap labour and a third world consumer worthy only of the lower-grade stuff that their brands dumped in India.
I loved sarees even then & would wear them for home functions. But I was not confident enough to wear them outside, mostly because of the notion that only older women wore them. There was also the idea that sarees were for festive occasions. And the whole aura about a saree being difficult to manage. As a regular saree-wearer now, I can confirm what’s difficult is living up to the impossible standards of patriarchy & a regressive value system upheld by those saree-wearers. The stiffness of a saree’s pleats do not determine your value. The angle of the pallu doesn’t say you ask for harassment. It would take me years to grow the confidence to fill a garment that’s by far, the most democratic one of them all.
I never liked salwar kameezes. My earliest associations were of being forced to wear them on nightmare trips to South India. The suits had full sleeves and were tent-shaped because my mother feared the moral policing of relatives. This design is closely linked in my head with her BAD moods and the horrible weather. Also the lingering smell of sambar all day, and constant power cuts punctuated with berating for not being a good enough Tamilian girl. A salwar kameez felt like my prison uniform for the annual jail term.
Winters brought on a different kind of arduous war over salwar kameezes. The other half of my family in Delhi would sneer at Mumbai living. The salwar kameez was still called ‘Punjabi suit’ where I was growing up. And Delhi was full of people jumping in to scoff at my ‘filmi’ taste. Bahahahah, imagine Punjabis saying that to South Indians in our sombre colours. Then there was the policing about the length of the dupattas, the exact placement on a body that didn’t even have breasts yet. The salwar kameez was not a pleasant attire for me to don in North India either. In the space of six months, it would transition from prison uniform to uncomfortable armour within Delhi’s martial aggression.
In my 20s, relatives started gifting me salwar suitpieces. It was supposed to be their concession to modernity as otherwise they would have given pavaddai cloth (who tf made little girls wear silk pavaddais in hot cities in the 80s or 90s?) It was a fight to have these suitpieces tailored to styles I liked since I was supposed to also parade their gifts on family visits. So the salwar-kameez section of my wardrobe had shapeless tent patterns with design aesthetics that were someone else’s idea of what a ‘marriageable girl’ should wear.
I fought & negotiated my way to some salwar suit designs. Absolutely no sleeveless (why were Tamilians so anti-arms?) but short sleeves & fitted waist could pass as long as I wore a dupatta on top. The kurta could be a bit more fitted, possibly because I loved length. Chuddidars were okay even though the Chennai tailors would never stitch anything that tight and the ubiquitous pant garment under was a baggy pant with different leg lengths known as a ‘sudidaar’. Well, Mumbai knew how to make chuddidars so I got away with that. I was lucky to find a very decent tailor in my neighborhood. Lucky because by this time, Mumbai had had readymade garments for many years. But ‘family has gifted such expensive suitpiece, you must use this instead of wasting money’.
I had just entered the job market so my negotiations with the family/moral police involved ‘I will wear these to office so let me make them the way that will suit that place’. Happily, FabIndia was making a splash so I could show examples of modern Indian wear. Kurtas the unisex way they were always supposed to be. In this, capitalism has regressed to join hands with patriarchy again. Every single readymade Indian garment store has a different men’s and women’s section. The ‘kurtas’ in the women’s section are tight and have no pockets. And more than once I’ve shopped in the men’s section for the kurtas (that are really kurtas) much to the distress of salesmen who tell me “But this is men’s wear”.
The stint in b-school really defined the gender war I was going to have to fight for the rest of my life. It was the first time I came up against the glass ceiling and being treated as a gender rather than as a student. Our presentations required us to wear formal wear and by unspoken agreement, these would only be sarees for the female students. Most of my classmates were not familiar with saree-wearing as I was so they fumbled and stumbled while the male students strutted in trousers and ties – another sabotage of female students’ performance (just like high heels). By second year, some of the female students were starting their tiny rebellions by wearing salwar-kameezes instead. Then my friend was failed because her salwar-kameez was sleeveless, despite delivering a flawless presentation. These were the days before social media (and anyway, it still took #MeToo another decade after Twitter came up, to happen) so our injustices were invisible and our rebellions had to be individual. I went all out with heavy-duty artillery. I became the first student on campus to wear trousers and a pinstripe shirt to a presentation. When my classmates tried to dissuade me, I told them this had been good enough for my bosses in an actual workplace, if a b-school teacher had a problem with it, their subject wasn’t worth scoring in. I aced that presentation, by the way.
Then, I had two raw silk suitpieces given to me on graduation. Obviously they were supposed to become uniform for prospective bride viewings. I worked them into modern patterns that I decided to keep for ‘board meetings’ (if I ever rose to that level in my career). At it turned out, my career went in the direction of more informally dressed workplaces & industries. Jeans and bohemian chic for everyday wear, crisp pinstripes and tailored trousers for presentations. Salwar suits were not common or where they were, it was usually someone who only wore those. And it’s Mumbai so nobody really gaf what you wore.
In the last decade, I’ve embraced sarees. I have much more say in what I get to wear and how and when. My family doesn’t police my clothing but peers, romantic partners and even random strangers do. C’est la vie for an Indian woman. I also wear jeans/trousers for regular wear. I am a swimmer so shorts, singlets and other athleisure are part of my staple wardrobe. Skirts & dresses for specific occasions where I don’t need leggings. Sarees just for the heck of it, everywhere including the stage. Salwar-suits fell through the cracks somehow.
Last year, I let go of most of my possessions, some I’d had for decades. I found those two raw silk salwar-suits. I never did wear them to board meetings or bride viewings (despite going through both). These two raw silk salwar suits were crafted very well by a highly skilled tailor (who passed away years ago). They’re of very expensive material paid for by people long dead too. They symbolise many bygone dreams, mine & my family’s. I have held on to them through two decades, many life changes. In December, I hosted some friends for a homecooked fancy meal. I thought I’d wear one of these suits. It was after all, a coming-of-middle-age celebration with loved ones (my new family), a fresh start for us all since the pandemic. Neither suit fit. I’ve put on pandemic kilos & 40+ weight.
Today I took the two suits to a new tailor I have, who has made some saree blouses for me. His alteration person (that’s such a great thing we have in India) was able to modify them both. What an odd feeling. I now have two vintage salwar-suits that have not been pre-loved because they have been owned by me but I never got to know them. As if I had to grow into them and they into my life. I also have a shelf full of separates bought at different times, with Indian prints in the fabric I like the most – cotton. And I’m now in a world that allows us a little more variation in the Indian wear we don with less punishment.
My mother wears fewer sarees and more short kurtas with calf-length trousers. I’ve had a disdain for these styles thinking of them as ‘aunty-type dressing’ somehow. I’ve associated them with smug married women who have brought only resentment & pettiness to our interactions. But the pandemic has made me examine my own emotional and irrational associations with physical objects. I don’t need to hold on to them. Indian wear is great for my body type, for my skin, for the weather and for the life I live. I have many more options now. And I am officially an aunty now so why not embrace it? And at 43, I’m less subject to the brutal policing that young, unmarried girls face. Maybe there is room for a salwar-kameez on this body. This is how I wear it.
1. Left: Grey kurta with black & red tribal embroidery, Ramya in cropped hair & spectacles looking over shoulder at a station
1. Middle: Black kurta with red & white ikat print worn with majenta/orange chettinad checks kurta wrapped around neck and crossed over one shoulder, maroon chudidaar, Ramya in flipped hair smiling at camera
1. Right: Pink dupatta, cream kurta with maroon warli print and full sleeves, pink chuddidaar, pink sandals, Ramya in cropped hair & wooden earrings
2. Left: White chikan kurta with white distressed jeans ripped at knee, blue leheriya dupatta around neck draped over one shoulder, Ramya in a wavy bob and black slippers
2. Middle: White chikan kurta (same as previous) with green ikat pants, pink sandals, Ramya in straggly bob, steel watch and big silver pendant around neck
2. Right: Denim tunic, red silk tie loosely knotted, white jeggings, black boots. Ramya in neat bob, red tote bag, black boots, smiling in distance
3. Left: Red spaghetti strap kurta with black/white block print, white jeggings, black-and-white sneakers, Ramya in cropped hair, steel watch, red tote bag smiling at camer
3. Right: White kurta with orange & green fabric painted flowers, orange block print chuddidar, orange leheriya dupatta, Ramya in tight bob, wooden watch, wooden bangle, black tote bag and black pumps.