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“My shoes are Japanese/My pants are English/On my head is a red Russian hat/Yet my heart is still Indian” (”Mera joota hai japoni/Ye patloon inglustani/Sir pe lal topi rusi/Phir bhi dil hai hindustani”)
—Raj Kapoor in Shree Hari 420


In the 1955 Bollywood classic Shree Hari 420, film hero extraordinaire Raj Kapoor channeled Mukesh’s crooning of the above lines in an eponymous song that went on to become almost legendary in its popularity throughout the subcontinent. The film is centered around a bright lights, big city narrative that carries the Chaplinesque comic genius Kapoor into the big city of Bombay for the first time, where he struggles to come to terms with the realities of urban materialism while retaining his integrity. Shree Hari 420 has been interpreted as an allegory for the cultural liminality of post-independence India, and Kapoor’s character seems to be a viable metaphor for the country itself in the 1950s.


But let’s take the song a bit more literally. The most obvious question the chorus raises is this: can one wear clothes from other places without comprising one’s own cultural integrity? Kapoor’s answer is, of course, a resounding “yes”. And both the question and his answer in their most naked, basic sense were both important and relevant to filmgoers at the time. For Shree Hari-era India was coping with the often wonderful but sometimes scary vicissitudes wrought by its recent entrance into the world as an independent country. Its citizens were thus constantly faced with such ostensibly mundane but actually weighty decisions about how to reconcile their wardrobes with their changing identities. The assuredness of “Mera Joota Hai Japani” addressed the real urgency of this context by providing a clear path out of this dilemma, confirming that wearing trousers wouldn’t cause one to become less “Indian”.


Even 50 years later, though, not everyone would agree with the Kapoor character’s conclusion. It might be one thing to support India’s entrance into international markets and welcome the economic realities of globalization, these folks argue, but putting on blue jeans? Why, that’s tantamount to purging yourself of your cultural history and traditions, to selling your soul to MTV and McDonald’s! To such grouchy alarmists, though, others have this to say: fashion is a language. And if fashion is a language, then pieces of clothing are merely signs — empty vessels for the meanings people pour into them, not meanings themselves. So why not celebrate sartorial adventures and the inter-cultural collection of costumes as playful and even subversive identity-breaking and -building acts? To prove that language is polysemic, we can remind ourselves that the word “fashion” itself has more than one definition: it also means to give shape or form to, to make.


“Self-fashioning”. The term, thanks to the tireless expounding of post-structuralists, has become close to common currency in North American and European parlance. But what are its implications for how clothing is understood in the context of modern India? Roland Barthes exhaustively chronicled the vagaries of meaning assignation to clothing representations in The Fashion System (University of California Press; Reprint edition, September 1990) but old-school anthropologists have long conceived of pieces of attire as absolute, unilateral, irreversible signifiers of specifically culturally embedded ideas. But could it be that the entire debate is irrelevant or inadequate in modern India, where the emotional connotations of what one puts on one’s body have begun to tug on the heartstrings of those afraid of the undeniably real threat of the death of tradition?


Yes and no. Indians have their own long history of understanding clothing in ways that draw upon and move beyond both dry semiotic analysis and die-hard cultural purism. We can begin our brief whirlwind tour through this very history by sampling from the inventory of Indian traditional dress and examining some of ways the meanings of specific garments have been understood on the subcontinent. To start, of course, we have the mother of them all: the sari. Usually worn by married women, the sari consists of a tight, short blouse and a petticoat, and a six yard-long piece of often gorgeously embroidered fabric. The latter is folded up and tucked into the petticoat in pleats, then wrapped around and around the body and tossed over the shoulder. Donning a sari is a rather complicated affair, and women are not provided much freedom of movement once the whole thing is finally on.


The sari is surrounded by a cloud of meanings. Hindu mythology is full of references to the sari; perhaps the most famous such mentions appears in the story of Draupadi — the Mahabarata‘s Helen of Troy. When the “bad guys” win Draupadi (yes, “win” is correct — that’s not a typo) from the “good guys” in a gamble, they attempt to strip her naked in front of a bunch of men to shame her. But when the bad guys try to unwrap Draupadi’s sari, Lord Krishna intervenes to protect her honor by making her sari endless. Thus, though the men pull and pull at the cloth, which piles up by their sides, Draupadi remains fully clothed and chaste. The story of Draupadi reminds us of the role that Indian clothing plays in the web of complex gender codes. A woman’s honor is often seen as residing symbolically in her dress, hence (Hindu) religiously-determined cultural “rules” dictating that married women are supposed to cover their heads with the end of their sari.


Moving on, we come to the much more comfortable alternative of the salwar kameez for Indian women who want to avoid the rigours and restrictions of donning a sari yet remain “traditional” in their dress. Originating from the Punjab region, this costume consists of three pieces: a loose, gathered pant (salwar), a long tunic (kameez), and a scarf (dupatta). The practicality of the salwar kameez is undeniable: it actually allows you to walk freely! But perhaps the appeal of this garment to modern women lies in its possibilities for modification and play. Though the burgeoning Indian high-fashion industry has produced interesting designs experimenting with sari-dresses and the like, the potential for wearable indo-western fusion has been most exploited with regard to the salwar kameez.


The latest fashion to strike the subcontinent is that of the “trouser suit”, which is actually an updated version of the salwar kameez that consists of Western-style trousers, an abbreviated tunic top, and the standard dupatta. For though a few cosmopolitain Mumbai and Bangalore girls increasingly prance around in blue jeans and tank tops, most young and old women in the rest of India still face some degree of social sanction when they opt for a complete wardrobe of Western dress. The modified salwar suit provides them with a happy medium.


This brings us to an interesting point. The gender-lopsided attribution of cultural importance to clothing is quite obvious in South Asia, and while many women still feel pressure to don traditional garb, almost all Indian men freely partake of Western options. The “uniform” of men in today’s India is thus not the traditional kurta pyjama (loose pants and a long tunic), but trousers and long-sleeved button-down shirts. But while we may acknowledge the current gendered-ness of vestimentary meanings in India, we should not forget that not so long ago even many Indian men struggled with the decision of whether to wear Western or stay traditional.


We need look no further than the example of Mahatma Gandhi to illuminate our understanding of the stakes of dressing decisions across gender lines in India. Despite his comments to the contrary (“the truest test of civilization, culture and dignity is character, not clothing”), Gandhi was famously pig-headed about his own attire. Whether embarking on protest marches or attending official conferences in London, he usually appeared clad in a dhoti. The dhoti is essentially nothing more than a cloth that is wrapped around a man’s waist. The image of Gandhi rubbing elbows with British colonial bigwigs with his scrawny legs protruding from the single piece of white cloth is not easily forgotten.


The dhoti has been much misunderstood by firangis (foreigners) who have spoken of Gandhi as a man who went everywhere in his underwear. The dhoti is NOT underwear, though today religious men are usually the only ones found in public in such an item. Yet Gandhi’s decision to confine himself to this garment was undeniably extraordinary. His reasons for doing so shed light on another dimension of the great clothing debate that we have not yet touched upon: economics. Sure, Gandhi was a bit of a hard-headed cultural purist, but he also stuck to the dhoti because he recognized the importance of India’s anti-colonial swadeshi movement, which called for a unified boycott by Indians of cloth manufactured in Britain.


A quick history lesson reminds us that the colonial machine ran on profits like those garnered from British industry’s practice of importing raw cotton from the subcontinent, refining it into cloth, and selling it back to the “natives” at unreasonable costs. Gandhi led a movement known as swadeshi against this practice, and called for a return to the wearing of khadi, or homespun Indian cotton. His dhoti was a symbol of his commitment to Indian self-sufficiency, and he even famously spun his own khadi at his own chakra (spinning wheel).


In the post-Gandhi and post-colonial era, the swadeshi example still resonates. After all, aren’t those Indians who buy Western-manufactured clothes going against the example set by Gandhi in buying tee shirts from the Gap that were made in India, brand-labeled and marked up, and then remarketed across the world as an American product? Sweat-shops do still exist, and citizens of a developing country that supplies some of the labor that goes into the manufacturing of Western corporations’ apparel might understandably be troubled by the implications of the arrival of mass-produced brand-name attire to their stores.


Indeed, the mass-produced reality of Western clothing clashes with the more organic nature of much garment manufacturing in South Asia. The production of clothing is still a craft in much of India, as any visit to the cloth vendors’ or tailors’ areas of a bazaar will demonstrate. Prints, fabrics, and embroidery styles signify more than just brand names in this context; most handmade clothing can be identified with a specific part of the country or cultural tradition. From the intricate chikin embroidery of the north Indian city of Lucknow to the bright, mirror-laden tribal creations of Rajasthan, from the pashmina of Kashmir to the silks of the South — there is enormous variety in the textiles out of which most traditional clothes are constructed. And the subcontinents’ thousands of tailors actually personalize this process of construction — a practice only dreamed of in a chain-store and strip-mall saturated country like the US.


But let us not get distracted. We should return to our hop-jump-and-skip through specific trends in subcontinental style history. Next on the men’s lineup is our first example of semi-traditional (or “fusion”) dress, as seen in the example set by the man who led India in its first years of independence: ex-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The 1950s, in particular — the era of Raj Kapoor and Shree Hari 420 — brought to most Indians the unprecedented possibility of access to global commercial products, albeit in a much more limited form than exists today. To the Western vs. Indian apparel dilemma that was raised by the juxtaposition of this new international context with the perceived imperative to solidify a new national identity, Nehru found an ingenious solution: the Nehru suit.


The Nehru suit was basically a Western formal suit, but with an important modification: the jacket was collarless. Thus Nehru got away with looking “official” and “modern” but maintaining a style reminiscent of the kurta — and with the addition of the also eponymous and unmistakably Indian “Nehru cap”. The Prime Minister’s fashion choices reflected his rejection of Gandhi’s insistent traditionalism and his confidence in ideas such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the scientific modernity of the Third World. India, Nehru asserted, could be modern and still be India. And, accordingly, so could his attire.


Nehru’s visionary fusion-ism, however, didn’t actually end up transforming the male sartorial landscape of South Asia into a masala fashion paradise of mixed traditional-cum-Western styles. Instead, most men ended up going 100% Western, the Kapoor character’s route, and as a result trousers and jackets are culturally sanctioned and even expected in today’s India among male members of the species. But, as noted earlier, the accepted Westernization of male attire contrasts radically with the current wardrobe situation in which Indian women find themselves. For the most part, females still face the dilemma of whether to go Western or stay traditional and, if they choose the former, how to be “modern” without seeming shameless.


In their standard incarnation, saris and even salwar kameezes are basically loose-fitting ensembles that cover most of the body (with the exception of the stomach bared by the sari, which is seen as “legitimate”). While bare arms are becoming more common with the arrival of halter-top and spaghetti-strap versions of kurtas, fitted trousers are exposing the shape of legs, and tight jeans and short skirts are even popping up occasionally. A very real taboo against the excessive display of female bodies still exists in India. Thus, even in the hottest heat of July, one would be hard pressed to find a great deal of bare female skin on South Asian streets.


In this age of the burqa’s infamy, liberated Western women might pity those covered-up brown women over yonder in South Asia who can’t flounce out of the house in a slinky slipdress without feeling at least some public censure. But are slipdresses really superior to the salwar kameez? After all, don’t most Americans end up wearing synthetic, carbon-copy costumes while Indians have ready access real cottons and embroidered silks tailored specifically to their own measurements and designs? And for citizens of a culture where most clothing is not ostensibly “coded” and comprises a series of floating signifiers, is it not tempting to wish for a more grounded set of meanings for their wardrobes? It seems that both sets of dress sensibilities have something to gain from the other. Fortunately, a climate of vestimentary cultural exchange seems to be brewing, and while Indian women’s Western choices gain greater acceptance on the subcontinent, Americans seem to be getting a taste of India in their apparel options.


“India” as a fashion has come and gone periodically in the West, resulting in styles ranging from the truly perplexing Hindu god and goddess-screened baby tees spandexed across the likes of Madonna’s chest to colorful bracelets and bindi-inspired body art. While some of these past trends have been absolutely ridiculous, the latest Indian items showing up on the style map of Western women’s wear seem to be more tasteful, practical, and potentially have some real staying power. The best of the clothes that have started popping up on American racks reflect the burgeoning efforts of Indian designers to create fusion options for Indian women seeking a way out of the domestic-foreign stylistic binary.


Last year, for example, the Gap featured cotton kurtis for the summer, and sexy sheer chikin-embroidered tunics were all the rage in both Bombay and New York. Such “fusion” clothing options are appealing not only to Westerners looking for something Indian but not to difficult or different to wear, but also to young Indian women who want to express themselves with clothing that reflects the new ways they imagine themselves in the world. Indeed, as a wider repertoire of dress is becoming increasingly available to Indian women, their opportunities for using fashion as a forum for self-fashioning are multiplying. As they gain pleasure from tampering and playing with fashion signifiers, though, they need not abandon traditional styles completely, thanks to the vision of such designers creating the hybrid innovations that continue to be informed by traditional costume.


All in all, it is beginning to look as if a bright new era of stylistic globalization and fushion fashion is dawning. But before we unequivocally celebrate this movement towards hybridization and exchange, let us pause for a moment and revisit the philosophy that fueled the Gandhi-led swadeshi movement: the notion that the economics of clothing production do matter. While South Asians sip from the cup of post-modern fashion experimentation, then, over-developed and jaded Westerners might do well to partake of the older Indian sensibility that appreciates clothing as the product of a concrete place, a specific context, and an actual person’s labor. Though worn fashion may be a language whose meanings are fluid, its speakers should not forget that it is also a language whose components don’t just emerge out of the pages of J.Crew catalogs — they come from somewhere.


So let us play with what we wear, but let us also remember to be thoughtful about what we buy. Not everyone can spin their own cotton as Gandhi did, but individual dressers do have the power to reinvest the act of consumption with more meaning. Self-fashioners of the post-industrialized world, remember: when a garment’s tags read “made in India”, there is an actual place somewhere in that distant land where real people have worked long hours to create that t-shirt, skirt, or kurti. If Westerners want to share clothing sensibilities with Indians, they’d best pay as much attention to the economics of such exchanges as to the aesthetics. Only then can the utopian prophecy of “Mera Joota Hai Japani” be truly fulfilled.

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