I swapped my crop tops for kurtis for one week, and you should have heard the comments
Shedding the behenji tag attached to Indian ethnic clothes
If I had a career in fashion, I’d be the ideal candidate for the role of a salesperson at Zara. I’d get my hands on all their new collections, keep up with their newsletters and Instagram hauls like a high schooler studying for a test. Fashion trends change at supersonic speed and I have followed most of them from the lurid neon colours in 2014 to the current crop-top and tie-dye fads.
Naturally, there came a point where I found my personal style to be fairly derivative, swinging between high-rise skinny jeans and mom jeans or from tank tops to halter tops, just in different trending colours and patterns.
When I vented to the Tweak India editor, she asked, “Why don’t you wear kurtas, then?” After an awkward pause, I admitted, “People in their early 20s don’t really wear kurtas because they don’t look that fashionable.”
I should have known better.
That little confession was rewarded with a challenge — to wear only Indian ethnic clothes for a week, and chronicle my feelings and the reactions of everyone around me.
Variety is the spice of life and I’m definitely someone who loves masala in everything, from gossip to chai. So, excited by this challenge, I went home and dug deep into my mom’s closet to find old kurtis and salwar suits that I could wear.
Remember, up until this point, Indian ethnic clothes made annual appearances around Diwali or wedding season, so the only options in my own wardrobe were a few heavily embellished lehengas.
But it’s not just me. Most young women living in metropolitan cities usually have two separate wardrobes: Indian ethnic for festivities and western for work, college and nights out.
To unravel this secret bias that only ‘aunties’ are supposed to wear Indian casuals, I took a big step out of my comfort zone. Basically, I decided to lose my Fab India virginity.
Indian ethnic clothes get quite a reaction, just not the ones you want
For friends and family, seeing me stroll around Delhi wearing simple cotton kurtis and palazzos was as bizarre as watching Arnab Goswami practice voice modulation.
On Day 1, as I glided down the stairs of the mall to meet my friends, I could see their puzzled expressions from the top of the escalators.
“Are you coming straight from the gurdwara?”
“Are you carrying a change of clothes in your tote?”
When I explained that the kurti was my outfit for the day, I was met with even more confused looks.
“But you’re just 23, why do you need to wear kurtis to change your fashion game right now?” asked a friend. To be fair, I would probably have reacted similarly, had I been in her place.
Day 2 of my social experiment was even more telling. I went to a Teppanyaki restaurant for dinner and drinks with my cousin, who didn’t hesitate to tell me that my block-print kurta and dhoti pants were completely out of place. Not going to lie, this reaction did crush my confidence.
Though ironically, a few minutes later, we found ourselves gushing over Manish Malhotra’s new couture collection. It’s strange that most Indian girls dream of becoming a Sabyasachi bride, but simultaneously hold strong biases against casual ethnic wear.
The same friends who were scratching their heads at my bandhini handloom were frenetically refreshing the Sabyasachi for H&M webpage like it was CoWin.
By then, I assumed that I would only get such reactions from pop culture-influenced gen z and millennials. But, much to my surprise, even my older relatives had similar reactions. “I didn’t even recognise you. You’ve become a lady now.”
There is a general consensus that Indian casuals are worn by older, more mature women. Girls, if you want aunties to start taking you seriously just trade your jeans for a salwar next time. Simple.
I would be lying if I said the initial reactions didn’t bother me. I became conscious to the point that, before anyone could react, my reflex was to justify that I was coming from a prayer meet.
But by the end of the week, I started getting more comfortable with my decision. I learnt that being stylish and modern doesn’t mean wearing a crop top or slip dress. It’s about self-awareness and confidence.
The behenji cliché attached to Indian ethnic clothes
One factor behind our inherent bias is our colonial hangover. Western dressing and mannerisms are considered indicators of education and wealth, so we associate them with a higher social class. Isn’t it amusing how the ideals of people who have been dead for decades still control our thinking and attitudes?
“We’re quick to label someone wearing a kurti as conservative, while someone else may be labeled as progressive simply because she wears jeans,” explains *Aisha Chopra, 24, New Delhi, who admits that she avoids Indian ethnic clothes because it might send the wrong message about her personality. She’s not wrong.
Research by Princeton University suggests that clothing can affect how people judge your competence in under 1 second, reports Inc. Post-Liberalisation, western clothing came to signify global values, and embracing international brands portrays an improved social identity and bestows status, value, and quality, uncovers The Journal of Targeting, Measurement and Analysis for Marketing.
Movies have done their part in entrenching the behenji stereotype. Whether it was Sonam Kapoor giving salwar kameez-clad Amrita Puri a hot girl makeover in Aisha, or Kareena Kapoor’s iconic transformation from a Punjabi suit-donning Pooja to a leather jacket and mini skirt-wearing Poo in Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham, the subtext is that in order to be perceived as fashionable, modern and sophisticated, we must swap dhoti pants for distressed jeans.
“Indian casuals don’t rank high on the sex appeal quotient. There isn’t much scope to make them bodycon or strappy,” says Simran Gupta, 22, Mumbai.
Break up with biases
One week of wearing only Indian clothes was an eye-opener. With the initial flak, I was hesitant. There were moments when I felt embarrassed, even inferior.
But I began to realise that my self-image of being modern and fashionable cannot coexist with allowing society and my inner circle to dictate terms. I would have to be comfortable and confident in my own skin, not matter what was covering it.
“Even though no one in my group wears Indian casuals, nobody judges me or questions me. I know I look stylish in my chikankari kurtis and for me, confidence is all that matters” says Tanya Mehra, 27, Kolkata.
I’ve resolved to take more pride in my culture and practice freedom of choice. Of course, I’m not promising to say goodbye to my Zara and H&M. But what I can say for sure is that the next time I shop, I’m definitely adding some kurtis from Good Earth and Aurelia to cart.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy