When fashion references your cultural heritage, it can raise issues for your wardrobe—not to mention your sense of self, says Divya Bala.
Miuccia Prada called it right when she once said that, to her, fashion is a language. It transcends verbal barriers quicker than Google Translate, communicating your taste, mood, financial status, politics, and travels with little more than a quick once-over.
When it comes to my own sartorial language, I like to think I’m multilingual. Frayed denim and a preference for open-toe slides speak to a childhood lived in Sydney; an abundance of tailored separates and trench coats hints at a few years in London; and in a patois far less pronounced, a few accents—mostly sparkly— speak to my Indian background.
I’d be lying if I said my childhood’s annual pilgrimages to Kerala and watching ’60s Bollywood films with my parents had absolutely no influence on my taste. Rainbows of sari-clad women dancing on top of hills for reasons I still don’t understand have all played a part in the way that sequins, saffron hues, raw silks, and draped silhouettes draw me like a moth to a flame. However, classic teenage rebellion saw me renounce as many styles signifiers of my heritage as I could—kids just want to fit in, after all—and the hangover effects have seen my small but determined collection of what I like to call “desi dress-ups” relegated to the far eastern corner of my closet.
The only pieces allowed to join the style conversation from time to time? A behemoth collection of gold costume jewellery—door knocker earrings, multi chain chokers dotted with jewels, jangling bell-trimmed cuffs found on family trips across the Rajasthan desert and countless far-flung-market finds. They make me feel “exotic” in the best way possible. But anything even slightly more literal— Gucci turbans, Rihanna’s henna-tattooed fingers, Stella McCartney’s shoulder-draped sari-esque dresses, Manish Arora’s explosion of sequins and Indian tribal references—are all perfect for a bicultural stage personality such as singer M.I.A., but on me, they tip the scales towards tourist territory, at least in my own head.
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