When I arrived in India, no one complemented me on my clothes. Granted, I wore my “bird-watching pants”– quick dry and oh-so-flattering. The pants were made even more flattering due to the weight lost with my post-MCAT movement and trek, so that they were held on by a belt, creating the high-fashion look of a khaki-colored bag bunched around my waist. And my shirts–all quick dry and awkwardly clinging to the curves and ridges of my torso. Yes, I was the perfect picture of elegance.
The women of India all wear saris–beautiful dresses made from yards of brightly colored fabric. For a more casual look, they wear Punjabi dresses–long tunics over matching or color-coordinated pants with a sweeping scarf trailing behind them as they walk. They wear bangles on both wrists to match their dress, gold necklaces, earrings, and nose studs, bejeweled hair clips, and a bouquet of fresh flowers in their hair. This is the fashion of rural south India. And yes, the women here are the perfect picture of elegance.
On laundry day, my beloved bird-watching pants were out of commission and, rather than digging out my scandalous ankle-bearing capris or my parachuting pants (both also quick dry), I found the one long skirt that I brought with me (funnily, with a “Made in India” tag marking its origin). As I walked down the steps of my quarters and into the crowd of elementary children, girls surrounded me and, grabbing at my skirt, exclaimed, “very pretty dress madam!”
I wore the skirt daily for my interviews with the community health workers from the surrounding villages. A few of them complemented my pretty, long skirt or mentioned its length, as it too sat low on my hips (no belt loops) and nearly dragged on the ground as I walked (I had to be careful not to raise my arms to swiftly lest I show the lace trim on my quick dry panties). All of the women, men, and children laughed each time I nearly tripped on my skirt while making the attempt to both talk and walk up or down stairs.
This past weekend, I visited the city of Nandyal for meetings and to buy a few necessities. Knowing the embarrassment and offense my clothes would cause in my interviews with widows in small, rural villages, I took the opportunity to expand my wardrobe. I let my intentions be known to the director who told me that his wife, Lata, would help me.
I expected to be taken to a store or tailor, but instead the tailor came to the director’s home and took my measurements. She brought with her a large bag of individually wrapped collections of fabric. From these forty-odd bags, I made a selection for my Punjabi dress–a purple silk top with sequined and embroidered blue leaves climbing from the base, purple-blue silk pants, and a blue scarf with a gold sequined trim. Lata arranged to have the dress made that day and brought back later that evening so that I could have something presentable to wear to the three-hour church service the following morning. She also arranged to have a sari made for me as a gift–a soft green chiffon sari with pink embroidered flowers. This would be finished by Sunday evening.
Saturday afternoon, a woman named Pushpa took me shopping for sandalwood soap, bangles, and barrettes. We went first to a supermarket and then to a woman’s accessory shop where I browsed through barrettes and bangles, searching for the least embellished. I found dark blue bangles to match my dress, matching barrettes, and three hair clips that Pushpa picked out for me insisting I needed one for bathing (brown and simple, my choice), one for everyday wear (glitter), and one for occasions (a rhinestone bow). All this I bought for 100 RS.
When my dress finally arrived and I adorned myself with matching bangles on each wrist–my god the reactions! Everyone told me how beautiful I looked and commented on the new clothes. Pushpa noticed that I wasn’t wearing a hair clip and, after lunch, solved the problem by bringing me flowers from her garden to wear instead.
When I arrived back in Muthyalpadu and went to the girls’ hostel, I was again immediately complemented by the children and staff. The girls reached into my bag, pulling out my camera and insisting on taking photos with me and of me. They sat me down, did my hair, arranged my scarf, and gently touched my cheeks as they told me how pretty I looked. Then the photo shoot began.
Living in Portland the last several years, I have neglected fashion (I wear make-up three or four times a year and many of the clothes I wear are either several years old or come from REI with the exception of a few dresses-my newest obsession being L’Agence). But being in India has made me a little self-conscious. I don’t want to offend and, after wearing the same few quick dry clothes for over a month, I am ready to look and feel just a little bit feminine.
Tomorrow, for Children’s Day, I will wear my sari for the first time. Usha will come in the morning to dress me (alone, I attempted to try on the sari. I ended up putting the blouse on backwards and for the life of me couldn’t figure out how to enclose myself in the fabric). Its amazing the reactions to my efforts to look just the slightest bit Indian. The mehndi on my left hand is “very beautiful” and my dress is -gesture- “so nice.” I enjoy the femininity of my new wardrobe and am happy to see one more barrier crumbling down.
Photo shoot with the kitchen staff