I remember my face lighting up when a relative (sarcastically) complimented me for having ‘matured’, and having outgrown the colour pink. I remember grinning naively, basking in the compliment, only to realise seconds later that I was dressed entirely in this ‘childish’ colour, with accessories to match. The embarrassment was enough for my cheeks to turn as pink as my outfit. I was nine years old.
I often think back to this incident and wonder at this contradiction designed for women. Dress up, but not too much. Wear pink, but accept the stereotype of being feminine and docile. Growing up, in my teens, there was also this strange pressure on us to not conform to any label that had been slapped onto our foreheads. The infamous phrase ‘pick me girl’ that is doing the rounds of the Internet now, was in fact an ideal we thought we were supposed to aspire to. We were naive, embryonic feminists who believed if we spoke loud enough about liking the colour blue as much as the boys, and hating pukish pink, we’d be respected more. Ironic, considering the long-standing historical association of men with pink, which up until the nineteenth century was a colour derivative of the aggressive and masculine colour of red.
There were many restrictions on what I could or could not wear when I was growing up – many of them still apply. No skirts or dresses above the knee. No strappy or off-shoulder business. And certainly nothing that showed cleavage. Many of these rules were put in place for my safety so that I wouldn’t grab any ‘unwanted attention’. I prided myself on being one of the ‘good girls’ at school – happy that I was never called out by a teacher for the length of my skirt, or slut-shamed for wearing kajal and a coloured lip balm. I would particularly ensure that when I had leftover kajal due to an Odissi performance the day prior, I rubbed my eyes till the black left the canvas of my face. Nonetheless, outside of school confines, I loved playing dress up – experimenting with tying up ma’s dupattas into elaborate gowns and sarees, and trying to put on make-up using my toy sets in front of the mirror. This love for fashion and make-up was always stopped short by my anticipation of judgement from others. “Is it too much?”, “Will they think I’m vain?” – these thoughts would travel along with me in my pockets. “Where are you going all dressed up?” was a question I was asked often, and most days I’d want to just skip across the threshold of my house without having to answer it.
My entrance into college changed things. Here is a space, exclusively for women students, opening its arms wide to welcome me and all my fashionista fantasies. People from all walks of life can enter this space and be free of the male gaze (for the most part), and can sit comfortably with legs sprawled, almost everywhere. Crop tops, shorts, winged eyeliner, bold lips, and kurtis in all prints abound in this safe haven. My love for wearing desi prints that no one understood in school, has been easily accepted in this Delhi college. In fact, I have been frequently complimented by my friends and other students for my ‘Fabindia-esque’ sense of style. This space helped me embrace my feminine side and experiment with Indo-western styles. College is also the first time I have dared to wear tops with straps that are only half an inch wide.
This much-loved freedom is, sadly, available only within the four walls of the college. Stepping out through the back gate alone is inviting the gaze and lecherous remarks of men lurking nearby, and on the way to college, the backpack must be held firmly to the chest to hide the fact that we are women. We must sit ‘properly’ in the metro, and not roam around without trusted adults at night, especially if we are not swathed in fabric from head to toe. We must also conform to identities we have unknowingly committed to since Day 1 of college: the girl with dyed hair must be a feminist and wearing a septum ring is an obvious sign of bisexuality. While many of these stereotypes are adopted willingly, once a fashion choice has been made, you are bound to the associated typecasting. The ‘tomboy’ must always wear shorts, and the ‘girly’ girl cannot be seen without lipstick. I remember one day I decided to dress in a casual manner, wearing a simple pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The shock on my friends’ faces and their apparent disappointment immediately pushed me to go back to my dressier, ‘feminine’ ways.
As a dancer, I was inducted into wearing traditional attire early on. But today’s ‘desi’ aesthetic must involve ripped jeans or linen pants, block-print kurtas, and silver jhumkas. Apparel and make-up that is considered fashionable are the domain of the privileged. Kurti sets that are obviously from flea markets and cannot masquerade as clothes from more expensive shops are not considered fashionable. Salwar-kameez sets must fit the trends seen on Instagram. This fetishisation of traditional clothing that Gen-Z is now indulging in is in some ways refreshing, but also reeks of privilege and a false nostalgia for a time in our urban childhood that prized the Western lifestyle over whatever our parents forced us to wear to weddings. This sudden euphoric love for the ‘desi’ is not as inclusive as it sounds. Those from a rural background may regularly be confronted with strange, set moulds for this ‘desi aesthetic’ that many of us city girls aspire to, which requires them to shed their own ideas of what ‘traditional’ means, if they are to be considered fashionable and cool. Being close to your roots and wearing traditional is celebrated, but only if it looks classy and aesthetic online. Our choices also reflect the ‘superiority’ that some regions (mostly north) of our country have managed to establish over others in terms of fabric and patterns.
College has helped me realise that ‘dressing appropriately’ can be incredibly subjective, and I am now more likely to go to the mall in a kurti than I was before. On a daily basis, the freedom that a women’s college offers feels liberating. But we are still increasingly conscious of how we present ourselves to the world. Since access to women’s colleges is restricted, the fascination with what goes on inside these educational institutions is manifold resulting in myths such as: all women from these colleges are feminists, wild, unruly women who wear body-hugging clothes and are not suitable ‘marriage material’. Wild rumours such as there being “lesbian parks” in women’s colleges also frequently circulate in other co-educational colleges, for what you do not understand, you try to demean. So when there are inspections, or inter-college festivals, we have to be careful about how we dress, and ensure that invited artistes for events are publicised as sati-savitris and that the posters circulated about their events show them in modest apparel, even if they do not regularly present themselves as such.
On the face of it, clothes are survival essentials that come with no added baggage. But much of how we view other people, and are in turn ourselves judged, is on the basis of presentation in terms of apparel and accessories. While women’s colleges are certainly a step ahead of other institutions in creating spaces of liberation and encouraging freedom of choice, this rare advantage must expand itself onto the landscape of our entire country. My own journey to accepting my interest in fashion and ridding myself of the false beliefs that this interest is necessarily narcissistic, self-indulgent, and unimportant has not been a smooth one. I still find myself falling into the trap designed to ridicule women and queer folk, especially, who express themselves via fashion. I do not believe in judging others and their sexuality on the basis of their clothing choices, but recognise fashion as a deeply empowering exercise for myself. Thinner straps do not mean that I am ‘promiscuous’, but rather a way for me to show to the world that I am now comfortable with my shoulders being seen, and like flaunting my collarbones for no other reason than liking what they look like in the mirror. For queer folk, wearing rainbow-coloured earrings or socks can bring joy and be used to subtly come out to the world around them. Fashion must not be used as a license to police, discipline, and criticise, but rather to connect, communicate, and inspire. I do not plan to stop my journey of experimentation and creativity with fashion any time soon, for there is joy in creating art, be it on canvas or on the body.