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Kameez Envy

Kameez Envy

June 23, 2010

Am I still Indian if I can't wear the clothes?

Like the fabulous Gori Girl, I have a serious case of sari envy. In the mornings, I run past an Indian bridal boutique, my feet slowing as I take in the richly hued fabric sewn with tiny gold discs and glass beads. On weekends, I linger longer, pointing out my favorites to my husband, playing dress-up in my head. Behind the saris, though, are yet more gorgeous outfits: shalwar kameez glimmer in the half-shadow of the closed store, clinging to the mannequins just-so, their lines smooth and unflawed as a perfect cup of chai. On those runs, I promise myself I’ll come back when the store is open and try one on, just for the fun of it. If it’s a good fit, I tell myself, I might even buy it.

Lucky for our finances, the money is safe. I never walk to the boutique during open hours. Most days, the kidlet and I walk on the other side of the road, if not in the opposite direction, because my ego can’t handle walking into the store. My ego? I know, I know. It’s stood up to many things: women giggling at me in stores, men using my questionable ethnicity as a pick up line, even slights on my cooking. Truly, though, I can’t walk into an Indian boutique and try on a shalwar kameez--because I’m the wrong shape.

There’s a stereotype about Indian women: young women are short and sapling slender with thick black hair; older women are short, fat, and losing their thick black hair because it's busy migrating to their chins. While the stereotypes aren’t entirely true, there is one common factor--height.

I fit neither profile. Although I’m happy most of my hair is still on my head, my measurements are, in some ways, the bane of my rather pedestrian Indian life. I’m 5’9, have broad hips, and take a US 6. My shoulders are broad, my arms muscular from a combination of baby-toting and Pilates. My legs are relatively slim, save for my calves. My calves are thick, not sinewed, but well-muscled runner’s calves that eschew fitted pants of any sort. In European or Western clothing, I’m fine. Indian clothing, not so much. Modern shalwar kameez pants are, for me, a sad fashion catch 22: if they fit over my calves, pants reach only just past my knees; if pants reach past my knees, I can barely pull them over my calves.

According to my mother--and mothers everywhere--it’s what’s on the inside that counts. My Indianness is, or should be, innate. I should know it without the trappings, without worrying about my coloring or my calf-size. Yet when in doubt, acting like a duck, or an Indian, makes me feel more Indian, more like I belong. But there is only so much dal a girl can eat, only so many bangles she can wear (I did get lucky in the bangle department: I have small, flexible wrists and can wear most kids’ jewelry). Worse, my pale-as-milk sister-in-law wears shalwar kameez and saris more often than I do, because, skin color aside,  she fits the profile: she’s slim and short, with regular-sized calves. While I have three saris tucked away in my overstuffed wardrobe, Susan* has an entire chest brimming with saris and kameez that would make most women weep.

Boston and Cambridge have a lot of Indians. There are at least four Indian restaurants in nearby Harvard Square, another two in Davis, and more opening all the time. Exit my front door and walk in any direction and you’ll eventually hit an Indian restaurant or grocer. They’re as ubiquitous as poor weather days and Red Sox caps. Unlike home, not many of the younger women wear kameez in public. Once upon a time, I’d look at any Indian woman and turn green (or at least a paler shade of camel) with kameez envy. Recently, though, I’ve noticed a trend: more and more of these young, modern Indian women look like me. True, they have darker skin and much better hair, but they’re also tall--each generation is a little taller than the last. Most sport the legacy of a fit and healthy lifestyle: some have yoga arms and shoulders; others have runner’s or dancer’s calves. Indian women, as a whole, are changing. Some may be half-Indian like me, others just a genetic jackpot of height and muscle. A new stereotype is emerging, fast enough that one day soon, I may actually fit some semblance of “Indian figure”. So while I mayn’t be wearing kameez today, I might just find the perfect fit tomorrow, or the next day, or the next...

Do you wear shalwar kameez? Do you have trouble finding kameez that fit? Or are you a sari girl?

*Name changed to protect the fashionable


  • Colleen
    26.10.12 11:35 PM
    Hi Peta,

    I can relate! I'm actually an American married to a Punjabi. So I wear a lot of Salwar Kameezes. But no ready made suits fit me. I've got American sized shoulders: very broad. And a very athletic build. In even the largest sized bangles are hard to get on. So every time we go to India I get new suits tailor made and they all fit perfectly!
  • abhay
    10.12.11 08:37 PM
    Hi All,
    I m from India. Running a boutique.
    My Mostly clients like to wear blouses with fit.And its difficult to stitch like.
    But they are happy b,coz they find there blouses are best for occational wear.
    Need not to b worry. always wear a fine stitched blouse n feel good.
    saree with indian blouse is a complete dress but other short blouses (singapori) r not perfect for sarees.
    Try for best designer blouses for ur sarees.
  • Hema
    07.02.11 02:18 PM
    During my mother's generation, salwar kameez was a forein concept.. saree was predominant in south india.. But our generation is into salwar, even uniforms were salwar kameez.. mainly coz its very comfortable and you dont have to be aware that anything is getting exposed..

    But i do love sarees.. when I was still in my senior high, draping a saree would be a challenge. Let alone a saree, i cannot handle even a half saree(Speciality of south india, esp for teens). Eventually I got used to it.. Anyone can look slim in a saree, regardless of age. Just hang in there and some day you would appreciate it when you drape it neatly with all the pleats
  • sonali
    09.12.10 04:50 AM
    hi... just wanted to tell u that salwar kameez suits everyone... u may be thinking of churidar when u talk about not fitting over your calves because they are tight fit. salwars are roomy and u should have no problem fitting in them. you can also get sleeveless kameez that will not restrict your shoulders.

    plus you can also get them customised as per your measurements on ebay and other sites.

    don't think u can't wear it. just try!
  • Nicole
    11.11.10 12:42 PM
    I love saris..can't wear them because they make me look fatter than I am and I hate wearing salwars because I just can't handle the dhupatta but the fact is they are both amazing. :)
  • Grace
    26.10.10 10:14 PM
    I am horribly late on this post, however I don't necessarily agree with the profiling.

    I find that shorter or even just thinner women suit sarees very well and sarees suit those women much more than salwar kameez.

    I am the same height as you but very, very healthy (Indian - fat lol).

    I love salwar kameez, my sissters say they make me look fat but I find them to be so comfy and pretty and wonderful.

    I guess with the cost of buying Indian or indian inspired clothes in Western countries it is not really possible to have them made!

    Lucky for me, all of my suits have been stitched by tailors in India and purchased from stores in the gulleys of Hall Bazaar, Amritsar!!
  • AnandamofGhats
    18.07.10 10:33 AM
    I am 6.0'and I had the same problem earlier in my early twenties. But now Ive lost most of my puppy fat and though I have broad and fat hips, I easily get on in a saree. Salwar Kameez is the best dress as far as I am concerned because its really comfortable and does not show any of your body( unless you want to). More than Salwar Kameez I go in for a Kurta with a high neck( its good if you have slened shoulders and big breasts)and patiala pants( very very comfy).

    I go for cotton saree with broad zari work as it goes well with your height. I like Maria's comment (wonder how you use the toilet in a saree) but I tell you once you get used to it its just like a skirt( ofcourse you need to adjust the upper part after using the loo :)

    @Peta: you are still Indian if you really want to and its not what you wear that makes you one :)
  • Bijal
    07.07.10 07:54 PM
    Great article...I'm definately a Sari Girl.
    If you're really stuck I'm sure I can find a few people who can stitch you a shalwar kameez, that way it'll fit you perfectly.
  • keerthana
    25.06.10 09:34 PM
    Don't worry, you are still an Indian :D :P
  • Gori Girl
    Gori Girl
    23.06.10 09:54 PM
    Actually, if you look on Ebay, you'll find some places that sell the material and charge only $10 to $15 to stitch it to fit. Pretty good deal, IMO.

    That is, if you have someone to measure you properly. I'm not sure I'm doing it right, which is why I try to buy off the rack.
  • Maria
    23.06.10 08:42 PM
    Like Gori Girl said, stitching one wud b ideal. Though US tailoring prices might b a bit over d top. I used 2 get all mine stitched in India.
    And Peta, to hell with ppl who stare at u. judging from ur pic, the only reason they must b luking at u is bcos of ur gud luks. so flaunt those well toned shoulders and wear dat tiny blouse wid confidence. Try adding some 'sindur' for the ultimate Indian wedded
    look :)
  • Gori Girl
    Gori Girl
    23.06.10 07:44 PM
    Sometimes I wear a support tank top and tie dye bell bottoms. I like the salwar kameez better.

    Have you tried getting one stitched to your measurements? I'm comfortable tailoring sari blouses myself but I haven't tackled the kameez yet. I'm not the most confident seamstress. LOL
  • Peta Jinnath Andersen
    Peta Jinnath Andersen
    23.06.10 04:28 PM
    @Gori Girl - ah, the shoulders! I had broad shoulders to begin with, and now I take Pilates and heft the baby, they've gone up almost a full size! Are there are other outfits you wear while dancing? I think jeans and a t-shirt could make quite a statement, though.

    @A Singh - the same boutique has some male clothing, but I have to admit I skip past it pretty quickly. I'm all about the bright colors! My brother occasionally wears a kameez to a wedding (including the henna for his own) though.

    @Maria - I have one sari with the tiny blouse, but I've been too shy to wear it, pre- or post-baby! I think that's because I rarely wear Indian clothes more than anything, though. When I do, I get stared at by Indians, and it makes me yet more shy. Joe is trying to convince me to find some everyday wear, though, so Baby gets a sense of another part of his cultural heritage.
  • A Singh
    A Singh
    23.06.10 02:20 PM
    Let's not forget how good a salwar kameez can look on a guy too!
  • Salwar Kameez
    Salwar Kameez
    23.06.10 11:57 AM
    Yes, its very much sure that this Indian outfit is accepted by wide array of people.
  • Gori Girl
    Gori Girl
    23.06.10 09:32 AM
    Me! Me! I just bought my first salwar kameez! I don't feel right dancing bhangra in jeans and a t-shirt.

    And boy, was it hard to find one that fit right in the shoulders and bust. I went for the baggy pant. I couldn't pull the churidar style up at all. Forget dancing in them. I would rip the knees right out within the first ten minutes!
  • Maria Francis
    Maria Francis
    23.06.10 08:11 AM
    Well since I spent quite a lot of time in India before Singapore, I have had my fair share of sari wearing, draped by my mum. I have worn salwars for all 4 yrs of my college life. Though I am not fond of it cos its not a very suitable outfit for Kerala's scorching heat. The only diff with sari draping in India and Singapore is the existence of a blouse in India :D
    In Singapore , most of the younger lot wear sari with a a tiny cloth that is a poor excuse for a blouse.LOl... Not criticizing . Because I have done that too, pre-baby days :)
    Not many ppl wear traditional stuff here too, except for functions.
  • Peta Jinnath Andersen
    Peta Jinnath Andersen
    23.06.10 07:36 AM
    Thanks! I do find saris a little difficult, but I love them--possibly because I don't wear them much.

    I'm not sure I've ever met an Indian woman who feels like she's "just right". Most of us seem to have some physical baggage; I think it just stands out more for me because I'm half Indian, so a little more worried or sensitive, or something. At 5'9, I'm definitely the tallest Indian woman I know.

    Thanks for the kind words! Are there many Indian women in kameez or saris in Singapore?
  • Maria Francis
    Maria Francis
    23.06.10 05:45 AM
    I am definitely NOT a sari girl. God knows how anybody ever goes to toilet with that! But I do love to collect saris. Lovely post..I related with whatever you said. I am a 5'6 and have always felt a bit too tall. But luckily more Indian girls are like me now...and LMHO at "and losing their thick black hair because its busy migrating to their chins"
    Keep the good posts coming Peta :)

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