An obsession with the stories in our woven and unwoven threads
My first trip home at the end of my first semester at college, I heard the sentence “Why are you dressing so American?” more times than I would have liked. My suitcase was a mess of (un-laundered) grey, navy, black and brown clothes from cheap, fast-fashion retailers in the US. For my mother, these were not colors for the young and youthful. “Red, orange, yellow, pink! These are colors for you” she would whine to me and the very next day, I was dragged out of the house to a textile store to buy colorful clothes claiming that I didn’t “look presentable” but I always knew it was also an excuse for my mother to get some retail therapy.
My mother’s college days were filled with tales of her tailoring adventures where her friends and her would go through great lengths to be fashionable, embodying Western fashion but in Delhi. Cut-out collages from Western magazines weren’t just a papier-mache art form for that generation, it was actually a functional and ingenious way to shop, creating some timeless pieces. Armed with clippings of the fashion they wanted to emulate and the raw materials they had collected from different exhibitions, textile import-export warehouses and the “naap” or item-to-copy, my mom’s trips to the tailor still remain unchanged from her college days. Stepping into the tailor’s shop is where the real Pinterest experience begins. First, there is an exchange of pleasantries and a brief discussion on the success (or mediocrity) of the previous tailoring experience. After this, the cloth was revealed and the tailor would inspect its perfection, flaws, mundanity, in ways only a craftsman could.
His hands would travel the length of the cloth. He would admire the intricate details of each textile style — from the subtle and hard-to-notice stitches on chikankari to the colorful patterns of bandhani on silky thin material, to the raw beauty of simple summery cottons and winter pashmina, he examined his tools thoroughly . As a child, I would get bored and running up and down the shelves was only fun for a little while. My sister and I would admire the inhouse materials. Those shelves were a burst of colors that you would never imagine together. Sequins, glitter, chiffon, pastels and the boring but essential bases, the walls were adorned in a way that a child could only compare to a candy store. The tailor and his fellow craftsmen always made us feel at home, having known my mom since her college days. He had been involved in stitching her wedding clothes before the times of shopping off the rack or trusting a new “designer” tailor had become common.
I don’t think I fell in love with Indian textiles or this quotidian fashion at that age. It was always an annoying trip to the tailor, wasting time and money on items that may only be worn in certain seasons, certain occasions and most certainly only in India. Despite this mild disdain, walking down the streets of Delhi still feels like an adult candy store. Colors, styles, fabrics, lengths, you name it, has been fashioned out of cloth that may have cost them nothing or cost them everything. Now when I think of it, we were literally wearing our hearts on our sleeves. Each color gave off a certain vibe and was associated with different stages, events or times on your life. But no matter how you felt, the colors and the material told the world you were ready to face anything that came their way. Of course, there are some traditional colors like wedding reds, harvest yellows, summer whites and classic black but regardless of where you were going, the patterns, colors and textures always told a story. Materials gifted as wedding gifts or birth of a child, saris passed down from mother to daughter, daughters converting sari cloth into modern ensembles, functional winter sweaters given by a father-in-law to his son-in-law who has come over unprepared for the chilly winter evenings, or just simple knitted clothes from a grandmother, each story added a layer of personal connection.
Why wasn’t my mom impressed with my bargain fast-fashion shopping in the US? To me, American fashion just seemed to be a more functional approach to dressing especially to manage the harsh weather of this hemisphere. Perhaps my H&M jacket (made in Turkey or something) may become a vintage piece many years down the line, but would my story of buying a readymade machine-made but hand-stitched item be as enamoring to my child in the future? What’s vintage or antique was also once just current and trendy so why is my mother insisting on teaching me how to hold onto my Indian culture through items of clothing?
Somewhere along the way I’ve Come to understand her obsession. She’ll send me a suitcase filled with the clothes she’s gotten stitched for me while I’be been away. She’s slipped in a traditional Jaipuri blanket which is soft and beautiful, too delicate for me to use everyday but too soft to not fall asleep with. She’s adjusted her tailoring sensibilities to fit my New York or California dressing sense. To her, these materials are ways I can stay rooted with my culture and my family and make it all my own. It’s what became a rite of passage for her from her college days of finally getting her own clothes stitched to becoming a mom where her fabric shopping began including “what is useful for my kids in the summer” or “will this keep them warm (and fashionable) in the winter”. Remembering how my grandmother has a little suitcase of summer salwar-kameez material that she has given her daughters, my mom is trying to spread the utility and simultaneous beauty of these fabrics down to us. The hours of craftsmanship that has gone into each piece of cloth is admired when it’s unstitched and the tailor’s ability to transform that magic into a utilitarian stitched item cannot be wasted whether it’s for my sister in India or outside for me. Now, when I try to team my fast-fashion jeans with a subtly embroidered top and over-the-top Delhi street jewelry, I feel like I stand out just enough for the world to know who I am and where I’m coming from. I also stand out just enough for my mother to know that she’s managed to pass down this love for fabrics and admiration of this craft that I’ll be connected to home, despite the distance, in just another way.