Indiana Daily Student

Column: Studying Indian culture through clothing

People are quick to cast aside fashion as frivolous or shallow.

But in a new place, clothing choices are an interesting way to study culture.

In a collectivist society like India, style is less about self-expression and more about status symbols.

The more affluent a person is, the more likely he or she is to wear Western-style clothing.

Some women choose to wear salwar kameez, or coordinating sets consisting of a long top, loose salwar pants and a dupatta, or scarf.

Manual laborers and servant-class women wear ready-made cotton saris, usually brightly patterned but devoid of expensive embroidery.

Men from lower classes also wear more traditional Indian clothing. Most don dhotis, an unstitched piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and knotted in place.

I’ve noticed people treat me differently based on what I wear.

Aunties are more likely to strike up a conversation when I’m wearing a kurta, a standard top for Indian women of all ages and classes. This is especially true if I’m wearing a matching dupatta, or took the time to accessorize correctly.

As laundry day approaches and I’m forced to revert to my Western clothing, auto drivers are more likely to stop to see if I need a ride.

And, of course, they try to charge me three times the normal rate.

I’ve noticed there has been a shift in recent years in young people in the United States wanting to buy less name-brand clothes and more secondhand items.

I don’t see that happening anytime soon in India.

The information technology boom has created a burgeoning middle class in Hyderabad and other cities around the country.

Huge stores selling Western brands including Puma and Adidas can be found in Hi-Tech City and Banjara Hills.

Inorbit Mall, celebrating its fourth birthday this week, houses the biggest clothing brands from India, America and the United Kingdom. During the weekends, it is filled with giggling teenagers and families on shopping excursions.

If it wasn’t for the metal detectors and security guards waiting to frisk mall patrons at the entrance, it would almost be easy to forget Inorbit is in the middle of India.

Even shopping at a Western-style complex can be a cultural negotiation.

My love of neutrals clashes with the explosion of color found on most kurtas. I think I’ve managed to create the least-colorful Indian wardrobe possible, although it wasn’t entirely intentional.

Yesterday, I emerged from my bedroom for breakfast wearing a black top covered in a gold peacock-feathered print with purple trim, paired with black leggings.

“So much black,” my host mom teased upon seeing me.

I suppose some things never change.

— kmthacke@indiana.edu

Follow travel columnist Kate Thacker on Twitter @katelynthacker.

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