Desi Fashion: Accepting and Embracing the Unique Clothing of our Ancestors

Photography by Dollar Gill

“The biggest act of terrorism is when forces from outside tell you that you need to change the way you dress, look, or behave” 

—Sabyasachi Mukherjee

What does fashion mean to you? To me, it is an art form. Due to different influences and trends, fashion is ever-changing. Clothes can be a powerful tool and asset to a person. They can emulate a person’s mood and aspects of their persona. Irrespective of someone’s personal taste, clothes have the ability to upgrade style as well as boost confidence and self-image. 

Having confidence in the clothes you wear has a lot to do with your level of comfort in them and your outlook on the particular type of style. Like an empty palette, you have the power to choose what makes you feel and look good. That becomes your brand, your style, your fashion. 

Having a huge impact on my personal growth, Desi fashion, in particular, is very important to me. How many of you have heard of the phrase “fresh off the boat”? It is a slur used towards immigrants. This is still widely used among brown people. The counter-slur for brown kids who are actually born in America is ABCD, American Born Confused Desi. Whichever side of the coin you can relate to, the fact of the matter is that the majority of us who grew up as brown kids in countries different from our heritage struggle with being bicultural. Embracing Desi clothes is one of the many struggles that we face–one I can relate to very well. 

Defeating negative stereotypes surrounding Desi clothes helped shape me as a person. I had to learn to balance the different standards of beauty and learn how to celebrate the fashion passed down from my ancestors in a country away from their own. 

This was both challenging and rewarding. 

Do you have a specific style? Do clothes hold any kind of importance towards your self-image or are they just garments to be worn?

In a poll on Instagram, I asked followers what their relationship was like with Desi clothes while growing up. Below are some of the answers.

“I love desi clothes but there was a point where I was embarrassed to wear it in public.”

“My mom used to dress me in desi clothes for school picture days as a kid and people loved it but now, I’ve noticed people call that fobby for some reason????”

“I always loved the fancy ones at parties but felt anxious about wearing casual ones at get-togethers because I didn’t want people to judge me or think I was “too brown”. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced it a lot more and feel beautiful in brown clothes too.”

“I struggled as a kid because other kids made fun of me, but I learned to love it as I grew up.”

“I’ve had a complicated relationship with desi clothes. For a long time, I felt really uncomfortable in them just because I feel like they were all so heavy…but recently, I’ve been exploring more brands that are kind of catered towards the South Asian American Desi experience…”

To some extent, many have experienced different types of hostility or prejudice while trying to incorporate Desi culture into their American lifestyles. Being bicultural means that many times we are playing see-saw with our feelings and opinions: on the one hand we are trying to “normally” exemplify the standards of dress in the fitted environments we belong to. On the other, we are either forced or are trying to immerse our own styles that originate from our ancestors. 

Factors such as body weight and colorism also play negative roles in feeling accepted. For many, Desi clothes can be uncomfortable solely because people feel as if they have to be a certain size to wear them and feel attractive. With the drastic emphasis of looks in Desi culture, clothing can be a burden because it becomes a measure by which someone is judged externally. Depending on your skin tone, judgement can also be placed upon the colors you choose to wear and how “dark” or “light” you appear. As absurd and outdated these traditions are, it can still be tough to feel “seen” even within Desi communities. 

Many of us are caught between wanting to fit the standard of beauty within one culture or the other. What we often forget is that we are allowed to accept the best of both worlds by cultivating our own experience. 

The word “Desi.” derived from Sanskrit, means “native” or “one from our land/country”. Desi is an umbrella term that refers to the people, cultures, and products of the South Asian diaspora, which comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. The term is especially used as an indicator for those who come from the trio of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Deriving from each other and having many commonalities within culture, these three countries are also known for their individual customs and heritage. These similarities and differences can be seen in the unique kinds of clothing that belong to each country.

Among India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, differences in fabrics, design, and technique of creativity,  are all distinct. Yet, over the years each have assimilated and adopted each other’s styles. This is why the umbrella term is used to address clothing from all three countries despite the individual differences. Nowadays there is no discrimination in the type of Desi clothes worn by different Desi people; all are seen as beautiful and unique pieces of fashion. There are also reciprocal influences between different religions, such as in the way Hindus and Muslims dress. The two most common articles of clothing that are shared by both religions are the Saree and the Salwar Kameez.

The saree is the most versatile and diverse form of dress hanging in the closets of all kinds of South Asian womxn. The way a saree is wrapped can be dependent on a variety of factors, such as the region the person is from or the weather, to the era the style of saree originated from or the preference in modesty.

 Here is a video celebrating the evolution of the saree through the different eras.

100 Years of Indian Saree

Personally, Bollywood was an aid in my journey of embracing Desi fashion. As a kid, I never disliked wearing Desi clothes but felt awkward when it came to being seen in them, especially in public spaces. I often felt as if others saw Desi clothes as “too flashy” or “extra” compared to American clothes. This all changed once I was a teen and started dancing to Bollywood songs with my close friends. Our parents would encourage us to dress up in Desi clothes and we would try to mimic the actors and actresses that we saw in movies. Not only was this fun but doing so made me feel much more comfortable with wearing kameez suits and lehengas. It also allowed me to be more open about my culture with non-Desi friends.

Once I got to college, I was able to immerse myself into a broader South Asian community. It was the first time I felt wholesome among other brown people. The negative feelings I used to associate with our culture decreased. I found myself participating in different events– which helped me outgrow any past judgements and fears I had with outwardly sharing my culture. These emotional changes impacted how I saw myself physically, once again bringing more confidence in myself.    

Desi fashion is so intricate. Each article of clothing, down to the thread, is sewn carefully. The effort of craftsmanship can be seen in the details of the products — not to mention the vibrancy of colors, multitude of sequins, gems, jewels, and various textures. It’s no wonder our countries are known for their textile and clothing industries! From the creation of the clothes to curating outfits, so much time is put into each process. There is definitely a sense of pride that comes with showcasing our style, as can be seen in the music video below. 

Maahi Ve MV

Speaking of which, I have never felt as proud to be Desi as I do today. The internal battles I faced with embracing my own culture led me to face different parts of myself. With support from those around me and positive exposure, I was able to adopt Desi fashion as a symbol of who I am. There is so much history woven into our clothing. Learning more about my roots enabled me to treasure the garments of our people and find a sense of joy in sharing it with those around me. Now it not only represents who I am but is a way for me to connect with others.

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