How fashion helps us embrace our complex cultural identities

Author : Reshinthine Purushothaman

Is everyone staring at us? The giddy excitement of our first trip to the shopping mall after arriving in Australia was cut short by the realisation that heads turned wherever we went. Almost everyone. Not for long. A brief glance. Curiosity mixed with silent surprise coloured their faces. A group of schoolgirls giggled and muttered to each other as they stared intently. I quickly realised that they weren't staring in a good way.

The tingling sound of my anklets hurriedly followed the confident strides of my Amma’s footsteps. I held on tighter to her sari and tried to hide in the sway of her pallu. But it is hard to be invisible when you are wearing a bright pink salwar kameez.

Although no one said anything… the looks were enough to let me know that we were different. And I did not like the way we stood out.

I went home that day and divided my closet into two. I removed my anklets, bangles and jimki kammal. My traditional clothes were hastily put away on the left side of the closet. As the years went on, I slowly stopped opening that side.

I never wanted to feel like that again.

The feeling of being stuck between cultures, countries and languages is something members of the diaspora are too familiar with. Even when I tried to melt into my environment by following Western fashion trends I did not fit in (Who am I kidding? My strict Indian parents never let me wear anything remotely fashionable). But wearing my cultural clothes came with the anxiety of being perceived as different; As not Australian. In all honesty, sometimes, I didn’t feel Indian enough to proudly wear my kameez.

Clothes aren’t just clothes. Through our clothes, we reveal a part of ourselves to the world. We communicate in a way that transcends the need for words. The impressions imposed by our fashion are linked to how we want others to perceive us.

Over the time it took to embrace both my cultures, fashion served as a tool to explore expressing my conflicting cultural identities. I wanted to learn how to celebrate my roots as someone who lives far from home. I started off by experimenting with prints and patterns that drew me closer to my Indian roots. I wore my bangles with my watch, my kurtas with my jeans and anklets with my sandals. My sense of style evolved with my cultural understanding. I delved deeper into the significance of my cultural clothes and found beauty
in the tiniest details. My clothes allowed me to start conversations and appreciate my rich cultural background. Slowly but surely the two sides of my closet started to merge.

The expression of dual-cultural identities through fashion creates a monumental impact not only on a personal level but also on the diaspora. Fashion helped bridge the dynamic interplay between who I am and who I wanted to be. It helped me to realise that I can be an Australian-Indian person. I do not have to fully fit into either side of the hyphen to celebrate them both.

The personal decision to embrace our cultures through fashion makes a statement. It cultivates conversations and inspires confidence. Like a piece of garment, it allows us to overlap and interweave the threads of our identities.

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