The unwritten dress code

There are many Indians around here. I have often noticed that many young Indian girls (4-12 years) who stare at me. When I look at them, they turn away and then continue looking at me. In the bus. On the roads.


I think it is because I do not dress like a typical Indian. I see most of these girls are wearing salwar kameez or pattu pavadai or at the most, jeans. I look like an Indian but defy their stereotypes of an Indian woman. They see clothes like this only on TV. They do not dress like that. Their moms do not dress like that. None of their relatives dress like that. The men wear shorts & jeans but the women don’t. I don’t know what their parents tell, rather demonstrate via attitudes about people who wear western clothes but I have a fair idea. I believe people can wear whatever they want but sticking to only traditional clothes reinforces conservative values and patriarchy. 

Pattu Pavadai

Last time, I was in India, I was out with my friend and we made a quick detour to pick up something from their uncle’s house. When I was waiting at their place, I felt I was transported to 1970’s middle class India. That uncle’s daughter also, kept stop looking at me. It was surprising to see a young girl wear salwar kameez and pin her duputta inside the house while watching TV. This was not a school uniform. I do not remember dressing like that when I was a kid.

Salwar Kameez. The cloth draped over the white top is the duputta.

Also, there is something like an unwritten dress code among the different races here. Most Indians stick to Indian clothes. The rest wear short clothes. They are not stared at because they are well non Indians.  It is easy to make your kids believe “we wear this & they wear that and they are not one of us.” When an Indian defies it, it is a different matter. It makes these kids question the unwritten dress code and the stereotype. It may go either way – ” Chee (eww), look at the clothes she is wearing” or “why am I not allowed to wear that?”

I sure hope I make at least some of these young girls question and break out of those traditional moulds. They can always argue ” If that girl can, why can’t I?”

12 thoughts on “The unwritten dress code

  1. Really? Indian girls don’t wear shorts and skirts-in Singapore? That’s quite a revelation for me. Singapore is far more modern and cosmopolitan than Kuala Lumpur, I would think, and there are lots of Indian girls who wear shorts and skirts here. At least, that I know of.
    But I agree-it is far more common to see east Asian women in shorts. The general rule of thumb for what to wear in Malaysia would be the more — an area is, the more relaxed the dress code. Unless you’re in kl. Then anything goes.

  2. My husband likes to dress very differently. He is an artist and really into fashion. He wears really daring things like shoes with angel wings on them or leather pants. Lots of colors. And ray-ban sunglasses in crazy colors. He is always getting stares from everyone here as they think he is surely not from Mother India, they think he must be some ABCD, they say. They talk about him right in front of him and he understands and he will sometimes talk back and shock them.
    One time my husband picked out this beautiful shirt as a gift for his cousin (arranged marriage type, It professional) and his cousin returned it because he said “pink is a gay color and I can’t wear it at my engagement”. LOL.
    Back in India, when we visit, my husband gets a lot of stares with his dressing style. He also has a huge tattoo sleeve of Shiva which is like an art. And then there’s me of course, a foreigner wearing traditional Indian clothes. So people literally stare at us for as long as they can trying to figure us out, you can imagine! It’s sort of funny. Sometimes when we see people staring for longer we pretend to say what they’re thinking.
    Kids stare the most especially….

    1. Ha ha, kids stare the most because they are not yet conditioned that it is not polite to stare. I think it is human nature to stare at anything different. In a multi race country, you would think, people are used to seeing so many people from different races all the time everywhere, you would think they do not stare. But they all do, every time they see a person of different race. Adults may be quick and inconspicuous but you got to be experienced to catch it in East Asia. Middle east and South Asia are more open about it.

      If I feel people staring at me, I look back in their eyes.

      1. I learned to do that also – to stare back. At first all the staring made me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable; as I was taught that staring is rude.
        But then one day I just decided to give the stare back, and it worked. It’s like some weird game.

  3. I was nt allowed to wear jeans in college. after I got a job it gave me sense of independence n also frends who believed in doing wat one wishes changed me. I wear western dresses now. bt wearing skirts is a strict no. my frends who go to discos wear all kinds of dresses. I too stare unknowingly sometimes wen sme1 s in skirts shorts nt bcoz I despise it. bt bcoz I wonder how wil I look if I wear it and also wondering wil I ever wear it…

    1. Why are skirts a big no when sari is like a wrap around skirt? Skirts need not always mean a mini.

      In India, people will stare but Indians here don’t stare at other races because everybody is wearing them all the time. If an Indian wears it, it is different.

      1. n also I remember wen my cousin who stays in america came to my home she had to wear a veil. she was told by her parents to put on a veil which she never does on the jeans n top she wore.

  4. It is funny how the clothes we wear also end up being stereotyped with which part of the world we come from, or what nationality we are. Wonder when people will open up their minds, hearts and eyes to change and embrace the same.

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