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Friday, June 24, 2011

Clothes and Politics

It turns out, apparently women's clothes is symbolic and a topic for debate and difficulty. I was chatting with a guy recently who said that he noticed from my blog that I wear Indian clothes frequently and that he wasn't sure, as a feminist, how he felt about that.

I don't tend to think about the political implication of my clothes.

I wear clothes because they suit my mood, they make me feel a certain way (elegant or cute or graceful), they are pretty, they are comfortable.

But clothes have other meanings, particularly female's clothes. Clothes can be a sign of oppression, they can be forced on a woman (such as a burka, or Hindu daughters-in-law who can be required to wear sari).

When I get dressed, I never worry about those things. I'm not a very political person, I guess. I just do my thing and I don't always see the big implications of it.

I don't believe that salwar kameez are clothes of female oppression, what do you think?

To avoid forcing women to wear certain types of clothes, doesn't it make sense to allow us to wear what we like best? Are there reasons not to do this?

For me, the clothes of oppression are the ankle length skirts that I used to wear in SES. I still sometimes wear ankle-length skirts, but it's rare. I only own two now, when that used to be my entire wardrobe. I've never forgotten the humiliation of being sent back to my room to change when I wore a skirt I borrowed from my mother that was mid-calf length instead of all the way to my ankles.

I don't want it to sound like I'm upset by this, I just thought it was an interesting topic to talk about!

Edited to Add: Picture of me at work today, this kurta is from my trip to India and the biggest problem with it is that it makes me look fat!


  1. In India Clothes & politics go hand in hand not just for women,though.It is also used as a way of Control on women[oppression?}We have Universities & colleges,&even primary schools deciding for us what we should/should not wear[not only for the Students but also the Staff]. Ironically we are deemed eligible for Marriage & voting at 18,but not deemed clever /sensible enough to decide our clothes.
    BY the way what is 'SES'

  2. Freedom from oppression in clothing can be seen by what happens when you DON'T do something, rather than when you DO.

    For example, a free society is a society that allows a woman to wear a hijab, or not, and doesn't discriminate between the two. Or a sari, or pants, or whatever. It's that range of choices, and an acceptance of each individual's particular choice.

    I wear ankle-length skirts sometimes because I like to wear them. I think your wearing salwar kameez is a similar thing (or a sari). As long as you understand the social implications of that and help educate people and teach them tolerance, it's possible to remove that negative association between an item of clothing and oppression.

    It's good to think about all the implications, though, and make decisions that are well-informed, so that if someone does call you on it, you can have an educated and reasoned dialogue with them about it.

  3. I feel that the point of feminism is that women should have choices in their lives. So if you want to wear Hindu clothes, or old style, or whatever, you should absolutely be allowed to do so, and without be censored.

  4. It's an "arbitrary" argument and capable to last till death.

    Im a liberal and i think people should wear what they like. In a "liberal environment", unnecessary morals and theories will not last the test of time. What has to go away will go away eventually.

    Your fascination with indian cloths is not surprising. Indian girls themselves love salwar kameez, chudidars, sari's etc and love showing it off during functions or events.

    Many conservative indian families do force their daughter in laws to wear saris but wearing saris is not the problem. Wearing saris for several weeks is the actual nightmare and it can take the fun out of any fancy garment away.

  5. Sita, it is interesting that there are a lot more dress codes in India than in America. It's a good point that people should be considered adult enough to choose their own clothes!

    SES is the organization that I grew up in, sorry to drop that in there without a link, here you go:

  6. Bandhani - the type of knotted cotton fabric you seem to have worn - is from rajasthan. it has the nasty habit of bulging around the body.

    aah, even we boys had faced the dress code problem - no colourful tshirts, nothing written on the t-shirts or pants, no bright coloured shirts..
    btw, an informal 'colour code' is now being implemented - men cant wear 'pink', etc.
    funny how the women can wear whatever men do (pants, blue dresses, etc), but a lot more stigma attached with men doing the vice versa (not about cross dressing)

  7. If you like wearing it and no one id forcing you then why not? I mean they look comfortable and cool and when I get my dhoti's I'll prolly wear them all summer.

    In western culture some women though wearing a corset was oppression and hence the start of the arts and crafts/aesthetic movements, where as some women preferred wearing corsets and felt naked without them.

    Perhaps in India there is a political element, but in a society like America or Western Europe why should In dian politic invade out home. I mean if you like it, wear it. But do keep in mind the political associations outside our culture.

    All in all this is a sticky subject. In fact even the most mundane becomes sticky due to the cultural implications.

  8. My Indian SIL said when she married, she was expected to wear saris all the time. She did not want to, and fought for her right to wear salwar kameez and such. Her husband supported her. She now mostly wears jeans with a kurti, or a salwaar kameez. Good for her!

  9. Madhave, I went to a school as a kid that didn't allow any shirts with writing. It is fascinating that women have become able to wear male clothes, but there is less freedom for men. Hmmmm.

    Kodanda, the corset thing reminds me of the bra-less day I was invited to participate in on Facebook. No way am I EVER going out without my bra on. I like the restriction! lol

    Melissa, that is very good to hear! It's always a relief when the husband supports the wife.


  11. Everyone can wore a dress it's independent. Mainly ladies are particularly maintain some instructions in our domestic.

  12. Hey..I recently discovered your blog and I gave to say it is amazing! I feel that I can relate to you in various ways. Though I actually am of Indian descent, I was born and raised in the East coast. Being raised in a typical Indian family, I felt out of place in school not only amongst my American friends, but surprisingly also among my Indian friends. To me, it seems that they have more difficulty grasping to their Indian than me...

    Getting back to the post, I feel that these are not as symbolic for oppression as they are for tradition. For example, medieval times in Europe saw women where gowns, which was needless to say tradition. Over the years, their clothing evolved to dresses at shorter lengths. Similarly, so has traditional Indian clothing. Saris and salwar kaameez are completely different from even the 90s and they are forever changing. Yes, there is definitely less skin show but then again Indian guys also wear what (idk about others) us gujjus call jabho lengho, which is quite similar to salwar kaameez..

    FYI..I have also walked into various stores wearing a salwar kaameez or sari(those annoying detours before going to pujas or mandir :\) and I have never felt so out of place...some of the looks are painful...though you get some that seem like awww thats a nice outfit and others like WHAT THE HELL is she wearing..cultural diversity people! We live in the land of the free!!

  13. Great to meet you, Dhrupi! You're right, styles of salwar have changed dramatically over the years too. I have to admit, the popular super tight pants and short kurta are not my favorite! :)

    I've gotten so comfortable with these clothes that I sometimes forget that I'm wearing something unusual. I think that I'm blending in and little do I realize, I'm standing out. A few times people have gushed over how beautiful my clothes are and that's always a great feeling, making up for the few weird stares.

  14. do you call the formal dresses required to be worn by men and women to work as oppressive? then how is expectation of wearing sari from daughter-in-law oppressive in this 'oh so perfect' world that we have,dont club wearing burqa and wearing a sari in the same sentence again please.

    p.s : in my ideal world expectation to do something because they belong to a particular something is not ok,but i suppose for a majority of people formal dressing is not oppressive strangely sari for a daughter-in-law is,talk about hypocrisy.

  15. I'm just in favor of women choosing for themselves. I belong to a work place with no dress code and I love that about it! I personally love to wear formal clothes and love to wear sari, but I feel uncomfortable with people being forced to wear something that doesn't make sense to her.

  16. The term formal western wear I find funny. Not the term so much rather the definition and how it has changed so much over the past 100 years. This is something I actually know quite a bit about being an experimental archaeologist studying and recreating these garments. The modern suit just 100 years ago was seen as something that was quite informal and lower class. The more professional elements with a bit more education wore morning coats (which inthemselves started as an informal riding coat) was worn by clerks, Solicitors, chemists (pharmacists) &tc.. The most formal and proper attire for Doctors, Baristers, Clergy &tc. was the frockcoat (itself from a military garment which in itself was from a Persian coat not unrelated to the North Indian coat of the same style). So even in our formality, we are quite informal. One reason for the decline in wearing suits and such were three fold. The first was central heating which renders suits to get too hot at times, Second was the second Great War and the de mobbing. Many soldiers returned after years of wearing battle dress that was much more relaxed in fit to allow men to actually fight, and the third was the decline of tailors that could actually make suits not only fit but be comfortable as well through the mass production of cheap yet quite uncomfortable suits that did not breath.

    Anyway, here in 2 sort months I will experience what many of you talk about as I will be wearing Dhoti and shawl to my pancha samkaram. Since I've ben back from Europe I've yet to see a dhoti on the street so this may prove interesting, especially considering I'm a burly Scot :)

  17. People tend to forget that wearing formal clothes to Office/workplace is different from being made to wear it at 'home'.I wonder how it could be equated.or does Aham feel that a girl should consider her marital home as a 'work-place'instead of 'home'.

  18. @Sita

    I am against any force in terms of clothing but this whole post is a bit misleading by taking burqa and sari in the same context,i dont see you pointing that out,sari is a traditional dress of our country now worn by young women on traditional occasions(and yes a lot of middle aged and older women wear it on a daily basis also and it also depends on social status middle class and lower middle class women do wear it regularly) and talking about daughter in laws forced to wear saris that nowhere near the truth,in my own family there are lot of young women who wear western attire outside and at home along salwar/indian clothes and yes now a days traditional clothing is expected to worn in traditional/religious functions and that is not restricted for women, men are expected to wear traditional clothing during such functions,nobody sees that as an oppression its called tradition/culture,Indian culture is too open to restrict its own people to wear what they want ,I in now way support anything forced upon anybody,but comparing saris with oppression is not correct

    P.S: you wanna know how formal dressing is oppressive? there are workplaces i know where a particular uniform is compulsory if the employee does not wear such a uniform he/she is fined,and I am talking about a workplace where uniform has no meaning unlike for a police officer,its all in the perspective,personally i feel people should not be forced to wear something unless the purpose is to help people.
    And I would like to know how compulsion of formal clothing at workplace and supposed compulsion of a traditional dress at home is any different,please do elaborate.

  19. Fair enough. I didn't mean to say that burqas and saris are always the same thing. There are times when they are used in the same way, however.

    I'm glad that your family does not force daughters-in-law to wear only sari, but there are families that do and do so in a very oppressive way. Hopefully that is rare and is changing.

    I have seen women writing to Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker in regards to this issue and she has posted news articles about the worse ways that women do still get treated sometimes in India.

    It is not meant to say that it always happens or even that it is common, but for those girls it does happen to, it can be an incredibly difficult life.

  20. I totally agree that you should feel free to wear whatever clothes you choose for whatever reason you may select them, emotional or otherwise. Good for you for doing what works for you and not forcing concern upon yourself where it is unneeded.

    As a fat woman, I just want to take some issue with the "problem" of your sari making you look fat! Fat or thin, you'd still be a lovely woman, and so would anyone who is internally lovely! I think you look great!

  21. i love to wear traditional cloths...that does not mean i wear wrong cloth in wrong place..........when i am off i like to wear shorts.......i my wife is alos free to wear what she wants......if she want to wear underwear that is fine too.....but she chose not is not sex that ties the conection between us........we love to express love in our own way wihtout sex.......i am planing to wear turban in the coming and understanding and caring is more importent to me than any thing......

  22. kanchipattu saree is sutable for you,it show's slim

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  24. Associating Saree with Oppression is a wired thing that you have wrote above...may be it has offended some Saree loving womens...because I feel where ever I have travelled in India or Abroad Girls are crazy about Saree....Whatever girl wear at home but they make sure in any festival they should wear saree...and for that they are very conscious..matching Bindi,Jewellery,bangles etc my wife is crazy when it comes to saree she took atleast 1 hour to wrap and get ready with Saree then there is a photo session with my mom and wife wearing saree...where ever she goes for more than a month she carries two Bags packed with saree..and her jewellery...however she hardly wear them beside festivals but she always try to find an excuse to wear them...I am from rural India ..Right now In USA..but I always found this saree thing make Womens crazy...I have also seen love for western cloths in Indian Girls..but when it comes to Saree I think it is something close to their Heart or you may say It is the only Attire which supports 16 type of Shringar (Makeup) that may be the reason..

    1. Well, you know, I wrote the post because of people expressing offense that I love sari. Some people do associate them as a tool of oppression. I'm sad for that, and glad that many do not. But there are plenty of people who do see saris as a symbol of oppression.

      I adore them and take any excuse to wear them!