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Overthinking My Outfits in India

by Chiara Rossi

“We warmly encourage our Western guests to wear traditional Indian attire.”

I squinted at the words on the wedding invitation. 

My two good friends were getting married in Hyderabad, where they were both born and raised. It would be my first trip to India, and I couldn’t think of a happier reason for a trip to a place that I’d been dreaming of visiting my whole life. 

Still, something was amiss. As my imagination floated giddily towards images of kurtas, lehengas, and saris (terms I would later learn through many Google searches), I felt a distinct knot forming in my stomach. Was I really going to take them up on this?

The specter of cultural appropriation loomed.

Weeks before I left, I solicited advice on the matter from my various born-and-raised, as well as second generation, Indian friends. I was reassured repeatedly that I should feel comfortable dressing like a local. I showed them the clothes I was planning to purchase online, and they confirmed that everything was tasteful and appropriate. 

And so I went for it. I purchased a kurta, a Punjabi suit, a sari, and some jewelry, with the idea of wearing them to the Mehndi, Sangeet and wedding ceremony. Upon arriving in Delhi and seeing what young women my age were wearing, I dropped into Fabindia (which the bride had recommended), and bought a couple of extra kurtas and some leggings. I donned them the very next day and very much enjoyed how I felt in them. They were loose, comfortable, attractive, and airy in the warm weather. I seriously wondered how I’d lived without these all my life.

Yet still something was amiss.

Not a day went by that I didn’t submit my concerns to the oracle of Google.

“Is it okay for white people to wear Indian clothes?”
“Is wearing a kurta cultural appropriation?”
“Can westerners wear saris?”
“How do people in India feel about cultural appropriation?”

And to be honest, the search results I found were generally less permissive on the matter than my friends had been. One blogger told me that white tourists in kurtas ‘look like they’re wearing a costume.’ Several others advised me to stick to western clothing exclusively. 

Naturally that gave me pause.

Here’s the thing, I love Indian clothing. Just love. On many occasions I found myself thinking, how unfortunate it is that western culture and fashion are so pervasive. If only cultural influence moved the other way. That the west was more subject to influence from other countries, so that the world’s fashions might blend together into some beautiful new amalgam.

And gradually I realized what was at the heart of the problem. I so wanted to wear Indian clothing that I couldn’t help but question my own motives. I wasn’t wearing Indian clothing to fit in or to be culturally sensitive. I was wearing it because I loved it. 

So I had to ask myself, am I allowed to love it? Sure. But much more importantly, am I allowed to indulge in it just because I love it? Isn’t that the essence of privilege? Being able to pick and choose aspects of a culture as one wishes, and then toss away the rest. 

Please, by all means, share with me your pretty jewelry and fabrics. But keep your poverty and problems to yourself. And by all means, don’t expect to be treated as an equal in the workplace. That most definitely will not stand.

It all felt horribly colonial and oppressive.

But other things also happened. For starters, most people didn’t seem to even notice my clothing. I didn’t get any bad looks or comments. Some even complimented me on my style. But most of all, the bride and groom were thrilled to see us all dressed up in Indian clothing at their wedding. It’s what they wanted, and that’s what made it okay.

And I think that’s the key: the realization that we don’t get to decide whether or not it’s appropriate to borrow from other cultures. The call is not ours to make. We need instead to defer that judgment to the people who have better claims on these cultures as their own. And we need to accept that they can choose to grant or rescind that permission as they see fit. What is appropriate today or with one person might not be appropriate tomorrow or with another person. 

And that’s okay.

So what of my lovely Indian outfits? Well, for now, they are hanging in my closet. And once in a while, I’ll slip on a kurta and leggings while I’m chilling out at home because they really are so comfortable and I love how they look. But I haven’t ventured outside in them for fear of offending someone or committing a cultural faux-pas.

Meanwhile, I’ve been invited to another Indian wedding this year. This time around, we’re all invited to wear saris for the Mehndi ceremony. But not the wedding itself. 

And that’s okay too.

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