February 2, 2015

Fabric Stories: The Tales that our Clothes Narrate

I sometimes wish that I had been a textile and costume historian, spending my days dismantling an item of clothing's physical and historical architecture to understand its story. Whether it is the fabrics we gravitate to or the labels we choose to endorse (or not) or the color-palette of our wardrobes that we carefully calibrate over time, our clothes stories are entirely specific to us. The stories that the antique clothes therefore contain reveal much about their owners, inviting us to metaphorically unravel the item of clothing, discovering the stories hidden within its folds and threads and colors.

Many years ago, my late paternal grandmother presented my mother with an intricately patterned gold zari and purple brocade lehengha that had formerly belonged to her. Whenever I unwrapped the lehenga from its covering itself made from a thin muslin age-stained ivory sari, I could not help but gawk at the sheer artistry of the garment and muse about on what occasions and in which contexts it had been worn. Afterwards, whenever I visited fashion museums or vintage stores, I felt as if I was in a library of clothes and that there were multiple clothing narratives to access.

Patriotic Lehengha

My grandmother's lehenga was on my mind when I encountered this exquisite silk brocade gold and silver-embroidered one displayed at the India Art Fair as part of the Bangalore-based Museum of Art and Photography (MAP)'s booth. If you look closely, the lehengha is embellished with the Indian tricolor motif, a fact particularly significant given that the item of clothing dates from 1940 and only seven years prior to Indian independence. Who was the lehengha's owner and where did she choose to wear it? I fancied that she had worn it at her wedding, determined to infuse even her wedding trousseau with patriotic colors. 

Museum of Omani Dress

Similarly, when I visited the Museum of Omani Dress in Muscat sometime ago, I met its founder, Julia al Zadjali, who has spent a decade documenting, collecting, preserving, and researching Omani dress. I have spoken to her about her project several times in the last few years and it's always fascinating to hear how it has evolved over time whenever I meet her. This time though, I significantly saw the clothes in person, including an intricately embroidered Baloochi [an Omani community] dress as well as embellishments used to adorn the dresses and accompanying jewelry. What struck me on both occasions at the Fair and in the Museum was how seeing the item of dress/costume as tangible entities made me even more inclined than ever to tease out the stories contained within them.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni's novel, Sister of My Heart

I hope I will get an opportunity to more often and closely see examples of vintage dress this year but in the meantime, I know that I will definitely be spending plenty of time researching and writing about the subject. To kick things off, I recently contributed a long form, critical essay about the significance and representation of the sari in immigrant Bengali communities of America in Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni's novel to the anthology, Exploring Gender in the Literature of Indian Diaspora. I have always found it problematic seeing novels by South-east Asian women writers bearing covers of gorgeously hued saris (and/or mehendi-decorated hands/artfully heaped piles of spices) when the literature actually had little to do with the subject of women wearing saris. Why is the sari the only and most convenient visual, exotic shorthand for depicting Indian/Indian immigrant women? I personally was more interested in exploring whether/how the sari is depicted in these authors' books and more significantly, what it means to the characters themselves. Does the first-generation immigrant woman choose to hold on to wearing the sari as a means of reiterating and preserving home, much like the food she cooks and consumes and the cinema she watches? And what exactly does the second-generation woman feel about the garment? I also meditate upon the notion and image of the saris being wrapped up and stored in suitcases, where they are fated to spend much of their lives. The suitcases and saris are synonymous with travel and migration and when you open the suitcases and encounter the stacks of saris within them, it is as if you are peeking into another, former life, even. "Past is a foreign country, they do things differently over there": it's interesting how the country you once considered home becomes a foreign country and the sari an emblem of foreignness, rather than familiarity.


If you are interested, read more of my clothing-related musings here, here, and here...

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