Updated: Sep 30, 2020
As an an ISC (person from the Indian Sub-Continent) every mother had that one closet hidden away somewhere filled with saris, anarkalis, lenghas and shawls stacked a mile high all wrapped in a plastic protective casing. I remember being a little girl standing on my toes and catching a glimpse of the sparkly borders on yards of beautiful raw silk fabric. Much to my mother's dismay, I even vaguely recollect stacking books on top of a chair with a slightly wobbly leg, just to try and feel the hand-embroidered blouses that, if worn, would engulf my very tiny self for years to come.
From a young age, I always admired Indian clothing, but as I hit the age of around 10, I found that my relationship with the pieces that I had always loved had become a little more complicated. Growing up in Dubai, I was fortunate enough to go to a school where literally hundreds of cultures entangled together - so I wasn't the only non-westerner around. Yet every kid I knew seemed to disregard the fact that they were Nigerian, Malaysian, Pakistani, etc when it came to their clothing. It was as if our cultures had taken a back seat to the desire to fit in with the British curriculum and consequent way of life we had now gotten used to- so we stuck to the status quo and only wore western fashion. Naturally, I began to think that my Indian attire only had a place at Indian functions. For over eight years, I truly believed that my favorite pieces of clothing could only be worn around ISC's like me, and only at the right time and place. I thought no one else would understand the bold colors and traditional silhouettes- so they would tease me- right? Sadly, those pieces eventually became this secret source of joy for me and me alone- because even my ISC friends thought it was cooler to wear a gown than a chaniya choli.
It wasn't until college that my perspective began to change. My parents moved to India as I moved to the US, and I found myself missing home more than ever. Granted- we had never fit into the stereotype of a typical Indian family, but at the end of the day, we still had a lot of cultural influence in our lives. Anyway, my mother had sent me to school with a few Indian pieces, "just in case," and they became a comfort source. As ridiculous as it sounds, when I missed her the most, I would try on some small piece of jewelry, maybe a bindi, and immediately feel slightly more at ease. Those pieces were still just for me, though, never leaving the inside of my cramped dorm room. However, one day I was rushing out the door, late for class, and forgot to take off a set of bangles. Not realizing, I got onto the bus, and people started noticing the 'clink clink' coming from wrists. I readied myself to get on the defense, but Instead of teasing me, strangers were giving me compliments left right and center - because guess what? The impossible was true. In this new world of art school, it was actually cool to appreciate your ancestry- to be apart of your culture.
So that's when I began to experiment and mix and match both my western and Indian wear and even actively searched for pieces that encompassed both my cultures. As a kid, I was scared of what people might think of me. Most of my friends only adorned the normal Dubai kid version of jeans and a T-shirt, and as an avid fashion lover, I already stood out. When they wore basic tank tops, I would be wearing a multicolored splattered silk button-down. When the 2005 oh so stylish denim mini skirt became popular, I decided it needed to be paired with a matching pink checkered fedora and scarf set. Now, as ill-advised that outfit combination might've been, it wasn't exactly subtle and so I felt like embracing my Indian culture as well would be a little too much. Yet in college, I was going to school for the very thing that made me stand out - fashion. My out of the box taste was celebrated (for the most part), and I suddenly felt empowered by my choice to wear South Asian pieces. Now my closet is filled to the brim with garments that are Indian, Indo-Western, and Western.
As an adult, I wish I hadn't been so afraid to stand out because those were years of my life that I could've spent growing my style and fashion further. I could've experimented in ways that I didn't even understand, and maybe then, not only would I have made some less questionable outfit choices in college but would also have been genuinely proud of my roots sooner. I say this all the time, but clothing is not just fabric. It's an expression of who you are, and in this case, my South Asian clothing reflects thousands of years of history and oppression and growth that my ancestors went through. The seemingly small thing of wearing Rajasthani earrings with a t-shirt dress or mixing Indian patterns and colors through the use of tailored trousers and top made from a tied dupatta showcases my love and respect for the past but also a new outlook on the future. I am one of the first generations to embrace this globalized world where cultures collide, and I'm finally ready to show it off.