I’ve been thinking for some time about the trouble that clothing causes in our culture. I always thought fashion was a bit of a nuisance, but my time in India really expanded my thinking. I don’t mean to say that those who like fashion should not enjoy it–of course they should! Self-expression is varied. But if our clothes arean expression of ourselves, then I think we need more options.
Some days I like to dress up–it feels right. But most days, especially when I’m working, clothing feels like a tool. I need it to serve me, not the other way around. To that end, I’m developing some standards to work with:
it should keep me warm and dry and covered to meet basic modesty standards of our society;
it should be comfortable and easy to work in;
it should have a sustainable supply-chain life from fiber to manufacture to sale;
and I shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time or energy or money on it. It takes time and energy from other things that I think are more important. I get frustrated when dealing with clothing becomes an obstruction in my day.
In addition, I have a medical condition which causes significant weight fluctuation, and I want my clothes to accommodate that without my having to maintain wardrobes for every size my body can be.
Before my trip to India that wouldn’t have occurred to me. But Indian women’s clothes, notably the sari, dhoti, and lungi but also the salwaar kameez and kurta pajama, are designed to be flexible.
Saris are six to nine yards of unstitched fabric, wrapped around one’s body in a variety of ways. They are always custom-fitted because in essence the garment is created anew each time you put it on. The catch is the choli, a short and tight blouse usually worn underneath. Those become tight very easily. The men’s equivalent, the dhoti, is also a long length of unstitched fabric, usually 5 or 6 yards. Here is a good dhoti-wearing guide, if you’re good at following words with no illustrations. Lungis are like sarongs, a shorter length of fabric knotted around the waist for casual wear; salwaar kameez and kurta pajama describe essentially the same outfit: a pair of baggy pants, a long tunic, and (for women) a long, light scarf. The baggy pants (salwaar or pajama) are big enough to accommodate a pregnant belly, with a yoke at the top and drawstring for fitting. The tunic (kameez–related to the French chemise–or kurta) is loose and long, often with slits from the hem to the hip for easier movement. In any of these clothes, an extra inch or two at the waist does not mean a trip to the store, just a slight adjustment when you put them on. They are elegant, and in the case of the salwaar kameez, easy to learn to wear.
Observation: the easier it is to put on, the less flexible it is about fit and size.
Several years after returning from India I found myself needing a new wardrobe for a new career. I went shopping, but not with much enthusiasm. I got some good, serviceable work clothes. But it didn’t feel right wearing them. On top of that, they didn’t quite fit right because my weight kept changing. I had never spent so much time worrying over my clothes as I did that first year out of school. At the same time, I was trying to live according to my values. Something wasn’t matching up.