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Letters From Mumbai

Photograph by YANN LECOEUR

The Expat’s New Clothes

Living in a region where you dress differently from everyone else, you begin to notice the little things. Our woman in Mumbai undergoes an education in Indian fashion.

If there is one overarching, overwhelming “plus” to living in Mumbai, it is the ability to wear sandals at any time, to any event, no exceptions. At some point in the West, it became cool to hate your feet—to be icked out by toe hair and to insist on wearing socks for sex. We’ve made sandals on men something of a running a joke, and women are warned about the dangers of too much toe cleavage in the workplace.

In India, however, the foot is just fine. Sandals, or chappals, are not only de facto footgear, they’re intimately tied up with national identity. When Gandhi’s pair went up for auction a few months ago, the controversy wasn’t over selling his personal items, it was over selling his sandals. Gandhi made them himself—no musty British footgear for him—and when they sold for over a million dollars, they went to an Indian entrepreneur. India equals sandals, at least in a few minds.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sandals since I moved to Mumbai one year ago, but they are just the beginning of my fascination with Indian attire. There’s something about living in a country where everyone—everyone—dresses differently from you, that turns your eye to exactly what they’re wearing. Suddenly you’re back in seventh grade, trying to figure out which pants are cool. First you see only saris, saris everywhere, in every color. Then you start to observe the distinctions: sexy saris, dowdy saris, cheap saris, workaday saris, laborer saris, bridal saris, Catholic nuns’ saris. No one is there to tell you what’s what, and you’re forced to figure it out from scratch.

 

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Most Indian men, at least those I see about town on the street, dress in what I call the “dude uniform”: a light-colored button-down long-sleeve shirt, slacks, and black sandals. As far as uniforms go, it’s pretty functional, working equally well for home and office, and requiring little in maintenance.

Younger guys, however, replace the sensible slacks with over-the-top denim: emulating their favorite Bollywood stars, they buy jeans that are dyed, streaked, distressed, and bedecked with clasps, latches, snaps, and pockets. Most of the time the pants are flared, giving them a bit of a disco feel.

On top, they wear a variety of shirts that make European clubwear appear dignified. Most are made of synthetic materials; gold lamé and neon orange are popular at the moment. Solid one-inch-wide black and orange vertical stripes were big in Fall 2008, but 2009 seems to favor a trompe l’oeil sweater-vest-over-T-shirt garment, usually in pastels. As far as I can tell, it’s the guys scraping by who wear the flashiest clothes. Too far down the socio-economic ladder and your duds turn to rags. Too far up and they become the dude uniform. Somewhere in between, though, is ‘70s gold.

The Mecca for gauche togs is a five-minute walk from my apartment, on Hill Road. I once tried to buy a exceptionally flamboyant shirt to send to my brother. Perhaps realizing my intentions were not true, the vendor set his price high and, despite my haggling, never brought it down. In the words of a great country music singer, I guess it takes a lot of money to look that cheap.

Slightly worse are drop-crotch pants, something never spotted on an Indian girl but which Israeli tourists seem to purchase by the crateful.Few men, except for the elderly and the over-educated activist type, wear traditional Indian clothes. Women, on the other hand, tend to split their wardrobe between Western and Indian wear. In my office with maybe 50 young working Indian women, only one wears a sari to the office. There’s a subtle code (one easily cracked through the internet) about how saris are worn: Gujuratis wear the loose end coming forward over their shoulder; Bengalis drape it over twice; Konkan women make a little hood. My favorite, though, are the Marathi laborers. With one or two twists of fabric, they bring the end through their legs, resulting in something resembling pants, the best of both worlds.

My own experience with a sari lasted approximately eight hours. Once a year—more often if they could get away with it—the Indian staff at my office forces the foreigners to play dress up. This year, I shambled in looking like I had learned to drape a sari from YouTube (I had). Immediately a swarm of concerned co-workers descended on me and transformed my wreck into a work of art. In the process, they revealed the secret of the sari, how six meters of fabric can be twisted and turned and made into a timeless outfit flattering to any woman, of any age, at any time: lots of safety pins.

The alternative to a sari is a Punjabi suit: a tunic over either baggy pants (salwar) or skinny ones (churidar). Draped over the chest is a long scarf, the dupatta. Unlike the sari, which threatens to unravel on the unpracticed Westerner, Punjabi suits are easy to wear. Only the dupatta poses problems as it threatens to fall off, get caught in doors, or dip its ends into the toilet bowl.

While some people mix-and-match, many women have strong feelings on the sari/Punjabi suit divide. A colleague told me of her mom, who wore a pair of jeans exactly once in her life. She claimed it gave her a rash; now she won’t even handle them in stores. My tailor says his wife wore a sari the first year of their marriage in an effort to be a dutiful wife. But once she saw that her husband was going to stick around, she gave up, used the material for dishrags, and hasn’t changed out of a salwar suit since.

Of course, women also roam Mumbai in jeans and T-shirts and cotton jersey dresses. When I first arrived, I was vigilant about what I wore—God forbid I show a shoulder or a knee. Eventually, I realized that the number of stares didn’t fluctuate based on what I wore, and it was a liberating experience: freed from sweaty jeans, I could find refuge in linen shorts. Glory be!

Though I tend to wear whatever is in my closet and made of cotton, there is a range of clothing made specifically for western tourists to India. At the innocuous end, you can buy novelty T-shirts, including the charming “Taj Mahal: Man’s Greatest Erection for a Woman!” Slightly worse are drop-crotch pants, something never spotted on an Indian girl but which Israeli tourists seem to purchase by the crateful. At the hideous end, there are multicolored, inside-out striped hemp pullovers, for those who came to find enlightenment but lost their way.

Oddly enough, the farther you get from the center of India—as you reach the remote mountains in Ladakh or the hills in Assam—the kids get cooler, or at least more Urban Outfitter. In Mumbai, the monied classes prance around in Levis, Italian leather sandals, and Ralph Lauren polo shirts. In Shillong, they’ve got skinny jeans, knock-off Converse sneakers, and undersized Guns-and-Roses T-shirts. Sometimes even with chunky plastic glasses. It’s a little bit of Brooklyn next to Burma.

 

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Soon after I arrived in Mumbai, I was adopted by a kindly Jewish grandmother. Born in Baghdad, she now carries American, Israeli, and Indian passports, and lives in a giant apartment above the best non-veg restaurant in town. Her fashion sense is impeccable and greatly influenced by the fact that she has a daughter in Milan. Every time I see her, she ends up doubled-over laughing as she recounts one of our first strolls through downtown Mumbai. We were walking down a street when a slightly tubby man burst through a crowd and sprinted past us. He was wearing nothing—nothing—but a green ribbon around his business. I turned to her in all seriousness and asked, “Is that normal?”

Turns out, the answer is no. He wasn’t wearing sandals.

Jil Wheeler is entering her third year in Mumbai and her seventh year living abroad in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. She does not own a monkey, yet, but if she did she would call him Asher. She is known across the Indian subcontinent for her ardor for mutton biryani. More by Jil Wheeler