Dressing for change

Dressing for change

Beyond tradition

Dressing for change

Tall strides: Indian women today are comfortable with modern and traditional clothes.

Women in corporate India are opting for form-fitting business suits. In Sudan, a woman who dares to wear trousers is sent to jail. In the capitals of Europe, a Muslim head scarf becomes a political lightning rod. And across the Islamic world, a new crop of designers is nudging women to step out of fashion purdah with clothes that meld global catwalk trends with Muslim mores.

In old societies facing a flurry of Western goods and ideas, a woman often carries the competing demands of tradition and modernity on her back. How she dresses conveys a great deal more than her individual sense of style. She is sized up by what she does or does not wear, whether it is by her parents, in-laws, co-workers, loutish men on the bus, and even, as with the debate over the Islamic head scarf, by politicians.

Sometimes she conforms to tradition, sometimes she challenges it. Often she combines old and new in ways that can confuse or surprise.

Consider the case of India today, where a decade of roaring economic growth has been accompanied by new opportunities for the urban, educated woman — and in turn, offering her a vast menu of new looks.

“Almost every day I feel this country changes,” said Anupamaa Dayal, a designer based in New Delhi whose latest autumn collection is studded with short dresses and floppy tunics. “And who changes the fastest? It’s the woman.”

As a woman earns more money, power and freedom, it often engenders changes, both stark and subtle, in how she dresses. But more so than men, however, women find that their wardrobe choices are often calibrated by cultural expectations: modesty, authority, shifting ideals of femininity. What may connote tradition to a Westerner could telegraph a higher status to an Asian or African woman and her people.

in Nigeria, for instance, a college student may choose to wear skinny jeans or slinky dresses, but once she climbs the career ladder to a high-profile job, the Nigerian woman would rarely be seen in anything but customary Nigerian clothes, whose costliness and craft may be unclear to the Western eye.

Similarly in India, a young office worker today is almost always dressed in trousers or suits, sometimes ill-fitting on Indian women with wider hips. But a senior woman manager would more likely choose a flowing sari, or at least a sober Indian tunic and adjustable churidar bottoms.

“I actually do think the sari makes me feel a lot more authoritative. I think there is a change in my demeanor,” said Ambika Nair, who has worked as a journalist, lawyer and now runs the legal publishing arm of Thomson Reuters in India.

“And I don’t look at the sari or churidar as traditional, and I don’t think wearing a suit, particularly an ill-fitting one, connotes modern.”

In women’s wear, in other words, tradition does not always convey subservience. The most powerful Indian politician, Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born president of the ruling Congress party, is almost always seen in staid-looking saris that do not look expensive, but are in fact hand-woven of luxurious silks and cottons.

Certainly, in India as across vast stretches of Africa, South America and Asia, there are millions of women who still struggle to feed and clothe themselves. At construction sites across New Delhi, women laborers carry cement on their heads, and are so gaunt they look like skeletons in saris.

At the same time, the lives of Indian women are in a state of profound flux. Today, there are as many girls as boys enrolled in primary school. Women’s share in the workplace has risen. Women increasingly live on their own, travel widely, adopt children as single mothers, and even divorce. All the while, they have to deal with entrenched social and religious customs, sexual harassment, and sometimes, outright violence. New Delhi, notorious for its brutishness, stands out among major Indian cities for having the largest number of reported cases of rape and molestation during the past decade.

Dress becomes the most obvious symbol of the way women straddle custom and change. As prosperity creates a class of nouveau obese, a new consciousness about being fit has engendered a new female ideal: lean, taut and nothing like the curvaceous beauties of India’s past. Even the sari, that long, draped emblem of modesty, has been sexed up.
Cocktail saris, as they are known, are usually made of gauzy chiffon, sometimes studded with crystals, perhaps paired with a bustier. Brand-name bling dominates the zeitgeist of India’s golden age. Like the European gown, says Shefalee Vasudev, who is writing a book about Indian fashion, the sari is now crafted by big name designers.

The designer sari, Vasudev wrote recently in the weekly magazine, Outlook, “needs smart events, five-star floors, chauffeured cars, high heels and endless personal fittings to look good. More than anything else, it needs a particular kind of body — narrow-hipped, small-busted, tall, taut and youthful.”

In some cases, globalisation has exported Western ideas of female beauty and pushed women to bare their bodies. Elsewhere, the onslaught of Western images and ideas has hardened tradition. In these places, women are often the ones who must look the part. It can be read as repressive, or as an assertion of cultural difference.

In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, the hijab, or jilbab as it is known there, is far more common than it was a generation ago. But it is hardly the dowdy wrap it once was. It could be a designer label scarf held in place with a funky brooch, or paired with a trendy visor to guard against the sun.

“We are no longer afraid to show who we really are,” said Liana Rosnita Redwan-Beer, a magazine editor in Jakarta. “We look to the West for style and trends, and we modify them to suit our modest needs.”

 Redwan-Beer, who does not cover her head, has hooked into this growing market. The tagline of the women’s magazine that she edits, Aquila Asia, is “modest and fabulous.”
The balance is particularly tricky for Muslim women living in the West. Rabia Zagarpur was living in California when she began dressing according to Islamic code 10 years ago. Going to the gym meant wearing a man’s oversized T-shirt. She despaired at the dark polyester abayas commonly found at Arab stores. She did not care for long shapeless skirts. Wearing a hijab also meant attracting unwanted attention in the months after the September 11 terror attacks.

“If you’re into fashion, there’s the dilemma that ‘Oh my god that’s a cute trend but I can’t wear it,”’ she said of her own experience. “It’s depressing to shop. And then of course there’s work. Corporate wear? What do you wear?”

 Zagarpur, now based in Dubai, began designing clothes for women like herself: track suits with longer, butt-covering tops, bold printed silk caftans, shirt dresses that can be worn over loose pants, even a one-piece hoodie hijab made of stretchable, breathable fabric. Last year, at a fashion show in Miami, models sashayed down the runway in her Rabia Z. line and platform-heeled gladiator shoes — heads fully covered. Fans write to express their relief. Critics sometimes deride her clothes for being too attractive.

“To me,”  Zagarpur insists, “being modest and chic is very compatible.” Chic seems not to have been the concern of Lubna Hussein in Sudan. In the summer of 2009, Hussein wore a rather drab and loose pair of trousers to a cafe in Khartoum. The police arrested her on charges of indecency. Trousers on a woman are against Sudan’s version of Sharia law and punishable by 40 lashes of a whip. Hussein invited friends to cover her trial.

She said she wanted them to see the abuse of women in Sudan. The court spared the lashings but imposed a fine of roughly $200. When  Hussein refused to pay, it sent her to jail.

Even a generation ago, most Indian women would have stepped out of their homes in whatever was customary to their region or faith: the tunic-pajama set called the salwar-kameez; or a sari, worn according to local style.

But in a society churning as fast as this one, getting dressed is no longer so simple, requiring women to make delicate choices all the time. A woman is expected to look a certain way, depending on the occasion — and the audience.

Suhasini Haidar, a television anchor, is pressed into wearing a sharp tailored blazer while on air; it is a look that is thought to convey a sharp contemporary appearance. But she knows that to an official government dinner, she must drape on a sari.

“There are several places,” she says, “where it would be rude to show up in western clothes.”

And then there is the Indian wedding, in its new opulent avatar. No matter how globe-trotting, the Indian woman will only wear traditional attire to a wedding, and, if she can, pay gobs of money for it.

Dayal, the designer, had long eschewed making traditional bridal couture. But realising the market’s enduring desire, she will introduce a line of luxurious bridal saris this fall, called Bronze Begum, with a nod to the age of Mogul splendor.

For Dayal, the sari is reserved for moments of reckoning. “When I most need my self-confidence, I must wear a sari,” she says.

“When I can take no risks, I must wear the sari — despite having Armanis and Guccis and hundreds of Anupamaas in my wardrobe.”

She offers a recent example: an interview to get her child admitted to a coveted private school. Naturally, she wore a sari.

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