A couple of weeks ago, I was riding the Amritha Express train home from work when a well-dressed young man approached me and asked the usual questions. Name, country, duration of stay in India, reason for staying in India, salary. Then he came out with something new: “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but your fashion is… very bad.”
He went on to tell me where I could buy nice clothes in Thiruvananthapuram – clothes like the glistening shirt and pants he wore – and places that would style my hair better. He was really trying to help, and I appreciated his directness. It’s true: I haven’t changed any part of my wardrobe (except underwear and socks) in about two years. I’ve had a scruffy full-face beard for months which is, as mentioned before, more ‘serial killer’ than ‘lady killer’. My hair sits tousled, and quite possibly greasily, in a mop on my head, having been attended to only by occasional 50-rupee barbers of limited styling repertoire and ability.
What is fashion, though? For this trendy young guy from Kochi, it was particular styles of clothing and appearance that are currently in vogue in Kerala. When I went to Mumbai, however, on my two nights out – for a nice dinner and for throbbing techno and dancing, respectively – I wore a collared shirt and plain pants that would have been fashionable in Kerala, but stood quite at odds with all the t-shirts and jeans that surrounded me. Back home in New Zealand, both or neither of these styles might apply (I haven’t been back for a while).
The bottom line is that fashion is always changing from place to place, from time to time. It’s even a different thing in Thiruvananthapuram from what it is in Kochi – a distance of some 250 kilometres.
As such, I’ve never really worried about it. As long as I can function in my everyday life – go to my job, visit my neighbours, go out for a drink – the style of the clothes doesn’t bother me. Still, I find it fascinating the way people wear different things in different cultures. The fact that elderly Japanese women often colour their hair blue, green, purple and pink. The fact that ‘stubbies’, or the shortest of shorts, are acceptable for Kiwi blokes during summer. The fact that politicians and other dignified gentlemen in Kerala often wear mundus. In other words, I’m interested on what other people are wearing, but don’t pay much attention to my own appearance.
Where necessary, though, I’ll adjust to fit in. Beyond the fact that fashion is interesting culturally, I follow it to at least look somewhat like the rest of the herd. Here, being so different already, it’s doubly important for the sake of being treated remotely the same as a local, or avoiding constant attention. I speak in a different way, I move in a different way, and I dress in a different way. Just enough to blend in a little. I rely on my personality and sanguinity to do the rest.
Sometimes, like on the train that night, this isn’t enough to impress a stranger. He isn’t the only person to have commented on my lack of fashion sense lately; my dear friend, whose moustache, hairdo and clothes are pukka Malayali and exactly what men here aspire to, teases me frequently about all of the above. He has also offered to take me to a good tailor and get some nice clothes made up. I wonder: maybe I should pay a little more attention to how I present myself?
Yesterday, I trimmed my beard back to a more palatable moustache-goatee-chinstrap combo, washed my hair and scrubbed my face. This morning, I put on a neatly ironed white dress shirt and a clean pair of black pants, and wore shoes as opposed to sandals to work. Next month I’ll go with my friend to get shirts tailored, and my next haircut will be from somewhere in the city rather than my barber up the road. It's a start on the road to impressing folks everywhere: first Kerala, then the world.