Tropical, Political Clothing

For the next six weeks, I live in Kolkata. Not even in Junior High did I think so hard about what clothes I wear, how they fit my body, and what my appearance conveys about my identity, my values, and what interactions I am seeking out and hoping for.

The wearing of clothes in Kolkata is complicated territory for me. Indian women typically wear longer sleeves, longer shirts, longer pants and skirts, and scarves. Women cover up here, even in the heat. Occasionally I spy a woman who might have short sleeves on, but she will then cover up her shoulders with a scarf.

As a western woman, I am closely observed by men, women and children, and I might even say continuously judged (or so I suspect). I am conscious of the brands I wear, the electronic toys I possess (iPhones are rare), and how my shoes are different–and how each of these things implies lifelong privilege which I had never scrutinized. This week, I am newly aware of my shirt’s neckline, the degree to which my shoulders and my prominent bosom are covered. I am aware of the stares and how I represent a brand, the western woman.

For my internship, yesterday as we toured the Sonagachi red light district, I was wearing new pants, purchased in India, hoping they would be more heat adapted. Sitting in the sex worker’s health clinic talking with peer educators, the pants stuck to my thighs in the heat, and when I went to cross my legs as I sat on the floor, the pants ripped at the top of my thigh. My classmates swore that my long top covered the wardrobe malfunction, but I still felt quite self conscious and vulnerable as we walked through streets saturated with brothels, a curiosity for the population. It makes for a good cocktail story, and for layers of feeling in the moment.

I understand that there are two markers of sex workers in Kolkata–you can identify them at night because they wear western clothes and a lot of makeup. You might call it a theatrical performance, an impersonation.

The multiple ironies, including me trying to fit into Indian clothes so I send a message of modesty, are not lost upon me.

I ponder the challenges of functioning in a society where women’s modesty is always monitored–how that pressure must shapes lives. I look forward to returning to tank tops without worry back in Philadelphia. I also have new sympathy for those who will never blend into their environment, be it due to race or culture. Finally, I am grateful for the heat and these insights.

One thought on “Tropical, Political Clothing

  1. I love that you’re writing about clothing. Reason? I’ve faced similar scrutiny (being observed and judged (or so I felt)). On two occasions when shopping for shoes, the female clerks made comments regarding how feminine I am. “That’s not lady-like,” they said, referring to my shoe size (40 / 9.5). Yikes.

    When I got my haircut about a year ago (my hair was much shorter), I asked for something feminine, and the woman said, “Let your hair grow out if you want to look feminine.” Ouch.

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