Crossing cultures through fashion
The term well-dressed has multi-layered connotations—especially in today's diverse world, where the concept of fashion is constantly changing and there are no fixed standards or norms. Sometimes fashionable may mean simply trendy while at other times it describes a person who carries his or her clothes with style.
I am not a fashionista by a wide stretch of the imagination. But I am aware that the clothing industry today offers multiple choices in designs and styles. There are many crosscurrents in the contemporary fashion world: a strong touch of nostalgia is inspiring many ateliers, who are recapturing traditional motifs and symbols, whereas others are promoting "modern and edgy" designs. With increased exposure due to travel, fashion ads and the Internet, women now have more access to a diverse array of styles. They are thus free to dress as they choose and conform to their own image of what looks best.
Interestingly, my views on fashion have been largely influenced by my mother who always appeared to be elegantly dressed. She could even be described as fashionable in an era when women were not exposed to glossy fashion magazines and designer apparels. In contrast, all throughout my teenage years, when girls become conscious about dressing up, I never fitted the description of a stylish person. This may have been partially because early on I realised I did not possess the natural flair and style that my mother did. It was also a time when most women were redefining their priorities and actively trying to reject the stereotyped image of a woman as an object of beauty alone. Hence, in my youth my fashion mantra was to wear what I liked and felt comfortable in—not paying much attention to the latest trend. This does not mean that I was not interested in nice clothes or chose to be "frumpy". I loved bright colours, traditional saris and simple jewellery—but the objective was to be "understated" so that my clothes didn't define my personality. However, with time, I have realised that clothes can make a loud personality statement, even without a fashion tag attached to them!
When I first moved to the United States I was extremely conscious and proud of my origin and was constantly trying to establish my South Asian/Bangladeshi identity in public by wearing a sari. There was a sense that I might lose my ethnicity if I wore western clothes. (Today I am embarrassed when I think how ridiculous I must have looked walking down the University of Pennsylvania campus in a sari on a snowy day!). It took me a long time to reject the idea that wearing traditional clothes is the only way of highlighting one's heritage. I have finally come to terms with the fact that one has to dress for the occasion and the season, while retaining one's individuality and ethnicity.
On the other hand, there is something to be said about the sense of togetherness one feels when dressed like most people in a public space like a grocery store or a shopping mall. Conforming to the prevailing dress code gives one a feeling of anonymity that is reassuring in today's environment where "otherness" may be viewed with suspicion. At the same time, I believe that now, more than ever before, it's crucial to recognise and project "otherness" as an essential part of our multicultural world! Hence, I make a point of wearing a sari when attending events like a book launch, a political fundraiser, a concert, a lecture or seminar or a social dinner. Places where I believe it is important to underscore my identity as a Bangladeshi-American woman. Clothes for me have thus become a potent tool for making personal and political statements. And I find myself going through the arduous process of balancing my style with my split identities, as someone who is straddling two cultures and continents.
Whether clothes make a person or not is debatable. We cannot, however, deny that the clothes we wear make a bold statement about who we are. The message I want to convey through my dress style is that people of different cultures can cross over and coexist. By making a smooth transition between the sari and the slacks, I believe, I bring together the traditions of the two countries I call home—Bangladesh and the United Sates. It may be too simplistic to think that this mundane act will lead to an enhanced understanding of the two cultures. But I keep hoping that the benign gesture of switching identities through fashion will contribute in some small way toward breaking artificial barriers of unfamiliarity.
Milia Ali is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.