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The Rag Trade

So what do you wear in India?

The subcontinent has a millennia-old specialization in textile manufacture, so there is a high base level of interest (high by average-American standards, anyway) in the fashion industry, and garment production is big business. A number of the newspapers have a fashion page almost every day, talking about this or that designer's new show or current trends in couture or jewelry design. Some of this, of course, is just part of the universal journalistic quest for excuses to show lovely skimpily clad models, but a lot of people are very serious about it. And the range of options (even for ordinary people who wear clothes rather than fashion) is huge:

Male ---- Most traditional: The dhoti (a long fabric rectangle wrapped, pleated, and tucked around the waist) and kurta (knee-length loose pullover shirt). More trouble than it's worth for videshis unless you know the technique for putting on the dhoti and can get it properly laundered and starched. A kurta-pyjama (kurta with loose drawstring trousers like our pajama pants---in fact, I think, the ancestor of our pajama pants) is a simpler alternative. Both look kind of dumb with any footwear other than traditional sandals or leather slippers.

Everyday: Western-style tailored trousers and business shirts, usually quite conservative in color and cut, or tailored trousers with short kurtas or "leisure shirts". For kids, school uniforms.

Party clothes: Beautifully tailored Western-style suits or (here in Rajasthan at least) traditional sherwanis, long straight coats with high collars and embroidery, worn with fitted-leg trousers. November opens the wedding season, so if you're out in the evening you will generally see a couple guys dressed to the nines wandering out of a wedding site to visit a nearby tea or pan stall.

Youth/contemporary: Jeans and t-shirts, natch; also moderate hip-hop styles and more European-fashion muscle-shirt-and-black-jeans looks.

Seen regularly but generally not on someone you know: - Sadhu or holyman garb of yellow or red robe over bare torso, bead garlands, long hair and beard. - Full bridegroom regalia including gold-decorated jacket or sherwani, red turban, etc. Involves riding white horse to bride's house/wedding site, no kidding.

Female ------ Most traditional: The sari, an even longer fabric rectangle wrapped and pleated and tucked around the waist and draped over the bust and shoulder, worn with the choli or fitted "crop-top" sari blouse. Contrary to videshi preconceptions, you don't have to show your midriff in a sari; for a more conservative look, the outer layer is worn high and covers the bottom of the choli. Putting it on correctly takes some practice, but once it's on and pinned in place it's quite comfortable and not difficult to wear. Not the outfit for bicycling or playing cricket in, though. Slightly easier alternative: the lenga (which also has a special designation in Rajasthani but I can't remember it), a full skirt with choli and a long stole or scarf draped from the waist over the back and shoulder and bust.

Everyday: Salwar-kurta or salwar suit, a flowing knee-length tunic (kurta) worn over loose trousers ("harem pants") called the salwar, traditionally tapered and fitted at the ankle but nowadays sometimes straight-leg (which I think is ugly, but what do I know). Worn with long scarf (dupatta) draped over shoulder and/or bust, and a royal nuisance it can be when it keeps slipping off or gets caught in something (a lot of people just safety-pin them to the kurta shoulders), but it's not really considered modest to go out without it. School uniforms are severe salwar suits with narrow dupattas pressed and folded with military precision. (One reason that so many people here are interested in fashion might be that their individual fashion tastes are so ruthlessly stifled during their school years. I have never seen a schoolkid in India not wearing a uniform---while in school, I mean.)

Party clothes: Sky's the limit. Bridal dress is generally a gorgeous silk brocade sari or lenga, embroidery, spangles, chiffon, jewelry on almost every inch of exposed skin---absolutely breathtaking. And as I said, the wedding sari is worn as a "best dress" afterwards, though with the rest of the ensemble less elaborate. Fancy salwar suits are also worn by many, even at weddings. The preteen set is generally put into a beribboned and beruffled Western-style little-girl party dress in yellow or pink or some such, which I personally think is much less attractive than the traditional styles. Little girls, however, do not wear saris.

Youth/contemporary: Jeans and t-shirts, what else? Also "export trade" tie-dyed or embroidered blouses and tops. A sort of in-between-modern-and-traditional recent trend is the so-called "mini-kurta", or shortened version of the kurta that just covers the hips. Especially when worn with matching straight-leg or flared-leg pants instead of the traditional tapered salwar, this looks exactly like a reinvention of the 1970's Western "pants suit", except that I haven't (yet) seen it in lime-green polyester double-knit. Ick, sez I.

Seen regularly but generally not on someone you know: - "Villager"-style bright-colored cotton saris worn above-the-ankle-length (to show the heavy silver anklets that are everyday wear for many working-class women? to keep the hem from getting dirty, as poor women generally walk more and do their own laundry?), with the end of the sari draped over the head or the back hair, and lots and lots of bangles. (You probably do "know" someone who dresses this way, of course, since it's a typical style for house servants. Social class thing.) - Shorts, short skirts, and/or skimpy Western-style tops (I guess if you go to nightclubs you meet people dressed like that).

Okay, but what do _I_ wear? I brought hardly any Western clothes with me (too much trouble to wash, take too long to dry, not appropriate for every situation). Every now and then I wear one of my two saris, but mostly it's a salwar suit. I have a few that I bought readymade, but the best way is to go to the fabric shop and pick out cloth for a suit (they will even specially dye a dupatta to match) and take it to the tailor, who makes it up according to your specifications. A nice suit costs about Rs. 600 or around $15 this way, so it's easy to get rather clothes-happy.

—— Kim Plofker
2003-11-10 13:44:22

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Created: 08 Oct 2003
Last modified: Oct 15, 2004 3:58:04 PM
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