New Internationalist

Culture

Issue 302

Jimi Hendrix,
ManFriday
and salvar kameez

If it’s true that you are what you wear
then Urvashi Butalia would rather expand into Indian clothes
than contract into denim.

I have had a long and troubled relationship with jeans. I can’t quite understand why this should be so. They don’t really enter my life. But they don’t not enter it either.

In my youth I wore salvar kameez – the loose north-Indian ‘trousers’ and long skirt – as did many of my contemporaries. Others wore saris. Occasionally a brave woman wore a skirt. And how we laughed at her, calling her all kinds of names, such as ‘Chutney Mary’ – a derogatory term used to describe Indian Christians. Of course I would never dream of doing this today.

Through school and college we knew of jeans, but they were clothes that people somewhere ‘out there’ wore. We scoffed a bit at the men in the university, for they’d so easily given in to wearing ‘Western’ clothes, while we women wore Indian clothes. There was the occasional foray into ‘bell bottoms’ and stiletto heels, but that we thought excusable. No jeans though. Perhaps this was because we felt proudly Indian, or because there was no television, or because we simply did not have access to ‘imported’ things – India was fiercely self-reliant about everything at the time.

So my first ‘serious’ foray into jeans came – horror of horrors – as late as the age of 24 or 25, when I spent some time in England. At first I wore salvar kameez and the occasional pair of trousers. Everyone else wore jeans. I wanted to be anonymous, so I went out and bought a pair. They did little for my black hair and dark skin, but at least from the waist downwards I looked like everyone else. I began to understand that with jeans you joined a club whose members were making some sort of statement about egalitarianism – although, of course, they weren’t equal at all.

I suppose our Indian equivalent would be wearing khadi, the homespun cloth popularized by Gandhi. When they were fighting against the British, our parents and their contemporaries forswore foreign cloth. They only wore khadi. In a sort of leftover from that time, I wear only – or at least largely – handlooms, cottons, no synthetics and no ‘foreign’ clothes.

But some 20-or-so years ago, when I began teaching at the university, I was required – as were most women teachers – to wear saris. I was determined not to. I made my own private rebellion by wearing salvar kameez, and made of homespun cloth at that. Initially, the head of my department was horrified. They were not dignified, he said. But then he gave in, and today every teacher in the institution wears salvar kameez. Not wanting to be like everyone else, I thought I’d take the rebellion further. So I wore jeans. I suppose that in wearing them there was an element of not wanting to be like everyone else – except that in this way everyone ends up wearing jeans.

Many of my Indian friends tell me that they’ve now stopped doing so. One of them says it’s because ‘my stomach hangs down to my knees’. Although she believes they do make jeans for structurally-defective people, she hasn’t a clue where to find them. The local shops stock jeans only for skateboard-hard-stomached people. Another says she’s never worn jeans because ‘they’re simply not made for Bharat Natyam hips, and that’s what we have’. Bharat Natyam alludes to the classical dance form, usually practised by well-endowed, broad, big-hipped women.

[image, unknown]
Maybe not made in America,
but no match for salvar kameez
on the streets of Bangalore.
PHOTO: CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS

One of the things that held me back from wearing jeans – when I got to know about them that is – was the fact that, try as I might, I could not achieve a flat stomach. And I could not stand for the discomfort of constantly having to hold myself in, pretending there wasn’t a mass there when there was. And then, living in India, you can wear jeans for only four months of the year – the rest of the time they’re just too hot and uncomfortable.

But it’s clear that jeans mean a great deal to many people. A friend of mine, a writer of stories and plays, recounts how she inherited a pink pair from a friend. They were filthy and worn, but she refused to wash them. Then one day, when she was out of the house, her sister put them in for a wash. Out they came, clean and sparkling. Manjula, my friend, has never forgiven her sister because, she says, they were supposed to have been worn by Jimi Hendrix!

A doctor friend of mine – a gynaecologist – once commented on how strange she found it that many of her women patients had rashes in their crotches because of the tight jeans they wore; and how, after being examined, they had to lie on the bed so that their stomachs could flatten out enough for them to get back into them.

I’ve got nothing against jeans. If people like them, why shouldn’t they wear them? Just because I can’t get into them anymore, that doesn’t mean I should get holier-than-thou about those who can. I think bodies take the shape of the clothes their owners wear. Indian clothes, especially for women – at least the kind I wear – are so comfortable. They’re loose and sometimes even elegant. They hide a multiplicity of evils. I wear them all the time. Why stuff one’s body into a tight garment made of a thick material that in all likelihood is in just one shade of blue?

Once you’ve got used to wearing loose-flowing clothes it’s quite difficult, mentally and physically, to gear yourself up to wear jeans. A colleague of mine here in Delhi says she dare not let herself stop wearing them because then she’d just let herself go – and there’d be no controlling the space the body would take up. This way, she says, it stays contained, she walks straight, and at least there’s an illusion of a not-so-big stomach.

But, of course, there are jeans and there are jeans. The young man who works in our office hails from a small village in north India. He’s our general Man Friday. He studied only up to class ten, and although he can address envelopes he mostly makes the coffee and runs errands. Every time I go out of India I ask him if he’d like anything from ‘outside’ and he asks for ‘jean-pant’. I keep trying to tell him he can get them in shops here; that mostly now they’re made here anyway. But no. He wants them from outside.

Some of my reluctance about jeans is, I think, because in our part of the world they have yet to become workaday clothes. Just as in the West they may have been symbols of ‘downclassing’, here they’re quite the opposite. They’re a sign of upward movement, or aspiration, and therefore objects of desire. They’re only sold in fancy, posh, boutique-type shops. Our Man Friday would never dream of stepping into one of these. How could he? He’s a ‘country bumpkin’. They’d be nasty to him. The smart and fashionable lot who buy jeans would laugh at him. So he asks us to get them for him from outside. This way he can avoid those fancy shops and get a pair of ‘imported’ jeans to boot.

And, in the end, that’s why I won’t wear jeans. It may well be that I no longer have the right shape for them. But, more than that, I can’t think of them simply as jeans. They’re symbols of the West. They’re meant to ‘declass’ you, yet they’re advertised as ‘mean’ – something that gives you some kind of power once you step into them. I tell myself that hundreds, millions of people have lived without jeans all their lives. All over India people still find the most comfortable form of dress is some sort of light fabric draped over their bodies – whether it’s the dhoti, the lungi or the sari. If they have to wear sewn clothes then there’s the salvar kameez, the lehanga (a long skirt) and many more.

Small comfort. For with television the day cannot be far off when jeans will enter the nooks and crannies of this country, and everyone will suffer together in the heat, feeling they’re being very smart. Just as the local sweeper, who cleans the roads near our house, does every summer now that he’s taken to wearing blue jeans.

Years ago, Indian workers protested against the exploitative policies of British indigo planters – yes, in a way it all started here, with indigo. We’re good at claiming such histories. Little did we know that indigo would come home to roost in the shape of blue jeans.

Urvashi Butalia is a writer and editor. She works in Delhi with Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house, which she co-founded in 1994.

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