Clothing Matters: White Girls and South Asian Dress

Yesterday afternoon I made a trip to the tailor’s to pick up a newly made salwaar kameez. For me, the anticipation of getting clothes back from the tailor is something like that I used to feel when picking up photos that I’d had developed from an analogue camera; you never know quite what the end results are going to be. This was the first time that I’d got a salwaar suit tailor-made, so I was especially curious to see how it had turned out. However, one perennial question was on my mind throughout: do white girls look inherently ridiculous in South Asian clothes?

Daniyal Muenuddeen came up with great description of foreigners looking like ‘either Christmas trees or amazons’ when they wear Pakistani clothes in his recent collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (which, by the way, is a must-read)

It’s fair to say that foreigners in South Asia are guilty of some fairly heinous sartorial crimes when they try to wear the ‘local gear’. Wearing saris and salwar kameeze is something of an art and needs to be got right, otherwise the effect will be at best bizarre, and at worst, offensive. I’ve seen other western girls on the backpacker trail a couple of times wearing sari petticoats (without a sari), which is a bit like going out in public dressed only in your underwear. I also recently saw someone in Nepal wearing a salwaar suit made out of fabric that was printed with… wait for it…the American flag.  For my own part, I’ve steered clear of Indian or Nepali clothes until now. Although, during pre-university days in Tamil Nadu I had a loud shirt printed with a picture of Ganesha which I was rather fond of, and believed that wearing it was a daring act of rebellion against my Catholic roots. In retrospect, it was just a terrible look.

Apart from aesthetics, there are other questions. Such as, do South Asians think that you’re ‘making fun’ of their culture, or ‘trying to become Asian’ if you wear salwaar kameez or a sari? What signals are we putting out to people around us when us foreigner dress up in ‘their’ clothes’? Do we look like we’re trying too hard to fit in, or to demonstrate how much we have ‘absorbed’ South Asian culture (See this amazing parody of Brits who ‘take on’ Indian culture from British sketch show Goodness Gracious Me below)?

I personally doubt that wearing salwaar kameez causes any ‘offense’ as long as it’s worn correctly. Salwaar kameez basically a practical form of dress if you’re traveling in rural areas, or urban areas where people are more conservative. It also looks smarter, not to mention more elegant, than western outdoor gear.

My new green Punjabi suit has yet to get its first public airing, and I sincerely hope that it won’t make me look like either a Christmas Tree or an amazon. And as for trying to be Asian… come on, as if this gori was ever gonna fool anyone!

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3 Responses to “Clothing Matters: White Girls and South Asian Dress”

  1. […] ensemble that women in India and Nepal often wear. I’ve got over my hang-ups about white girls looking weird in South Asian gear, but have not quite got up the courage to venture into saris yet as I have nightmares about putting […]

  2. forget the salwars, the hipsters who immediately don the sai baba style cotton whaterver-it-is in thamel strikes me as PLAIN ODD. no one in the country dresses like that except for that select style of tourists.

  3. forget putting salwars….

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