By Sharanya Manivannan
Originally published on 2 March 2016.
Shortly after I first moved to Chennai from Malaysia, in late 2007, I attended a job interview wearing a knee-length skirt. Some months later, I found out from one of my colleagues that a rumour had been spread that I had said during the interview, ‘I like to dress provocatively. I hope that won’t be a problem.’
This incident was what first informed my functional professional aesthetic. Along the way, there were more: everything from roving eyes, which were better teeth-grittingly ignored than called out at risk, to overtures and statements that were outright sexual harassment, to other women who found it prudent to send me text messages letting me know my bra strap had been visible. Constant scrutiny is the wrong kind of attention, and I learned that I could deflect it by being neither pleasing nor provocative.
I call this aesthetic, with its slight edge of unkemptness, my Karaikal Ammaiyar approach. Karaikal Ammaiyar was a sixth-century mystic who asked for a boon that her lovely young self be transformed into a wraith so that her time could be dedicated to her vocation, undisturbed. In a male-dominated industry, in a conservative city, for any woman who needs to earn her living, she is a viable fashion icon. In order to be taken seriously, in order to be left alone, in order to be perceived as neither desirable nor desirous, I twist my uncombed hair into a bun and leave my face bare and bespectacled, throw a loose tunic over pants and slip into pre-distressed chappals. Make no mistake about it: it is a cultivated look. It is a form of armour.
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Vanity is at once discouraged and encouraged in women. Among the conflicting social messages we receive, we are told that to care too much about one’s appearance denotes shallowness of character or lack of intellectual gravitas, but that to not appear pleasing is to be lacking in social graces or emotional stability. There are women who seem to be smitten by trends; there are women who establish a more individualistic style; there are women who seem to have no clear taste; there are women who frankly seem to not have an aesthetic sense – and each of them is perceived and pegged in a different way. Our wardrobes speak volumes for us. In the long history of female silencing, the wardrobe was an instrument long before the pen, which did not find its way into the majority of our hands until rather recent centuries. Little tells us more about the power of this instrument than the moral and cultural policing of women’s attire.
‘Pleasing’ – denoting acceptable attention that puts other people at ease. In India, a sari in most contexts is ‘pleasing’. It speaks of the woman’s urge to please, to appear serious, shy, subordinate, unchallenging. So why then did I find myself lodging a complaint at a Chennai hotel a few years ago because the management had assumed I was soliciting, based entirely on the fact that I had been sitting alone in the lobby in a sari? I had been waiting for my friends for a night of partying. The sari in that context was not pleasing. It was subversive. The undertone was this: women who go clubbing don’t wear saris when they do because doing so would be to insult the garment and corrupt its inherent morality by bringing it into an immoral sphere. Their lifestyles were acceptable so long as they were compartmentalised. To not compartmentalise – to confuse the decorum of the sari with the abandon of the pub – was to be profoundly lacking in morality, i.e. a whore.
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When I moved to Chennai at the end of 2007, I left behind (in Kuala Lumpur) almost everything that I owned. Any such statement carries with it an undercurrent of tragedy. This is true – I moved to India under tragic circumstances, replete with personal losses, traduced by a brush with political dissidence. But when I think of the other leavers I know and the things they have left behind – photographs, title deeds, beloveds buried in cordoned soil – I feel guilty. How much can a person own, by way of material possessions, at age twenty-two? In my case it was mostly this: clothes, jewellery, shoes, bags and more clothes, clothes, clothes. These were what I left behind. They do not tell the story of all that I lost, but in their deceptive frivolity, they do harbour its most poignant parts.
I had gone from politically curious to politicised during my last few years in Malaysia. I had grown up there – and lived there roughly from the age of five to twenty-two, excluding a furlough of several months in my late teens when I made my first attempt to live in India (and failed, fortunate to be able to then go back to Kuala Lumpur). The short version of events is this: my student life over, I was living on a tourist visa in the country that was my home, and, unable to take the stress of having to border-run to Singapore to renew it once a month, I had come to India (the country of my citizenship), thinking I would lay low, find a permanent way back ‘home’, and return. But this was at the end of 2007, when the Hindu Rights Action Force was protesting the illegal demolition of temples in Malaysia. The mainstream Malaysian press was not reporting these incidents; I had been maintaining a blog on which I collected information about this very issue for two years, and was contacted by the Indian media about it. I wrote an editorial during this time about race and race-based policies in Malaysia (specifically, that any nation that operated on a system of racial supremacy and inferiority was under apartheid), which caught the attention of its government, to my immediate personal detriment. This is why I left my things there – I had not expected that I would never go back. Malaysia closed its doors to me. I stayed on in India because there was simply nowhere else to go.
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I no longer live in the Chennai I moved to in 2007. That city was one in which wearing jeans or sleeveless tops was considered provocative, low-rise panties did not exist to be purchased anywhere, and if one were to ask for the top with spaghetti straps from the mannequin, the sales assistant would openly tell all her colleagues, who would join her in gawking at you. These were not isolated incidents. The city shamed me into hiding my body, and, by extension, hiding my heart. The clothing-based moral shaming I experienced came from strangers and acquaintances alike. The whisper of a young man walking by me on the sidewalk: ‘Why is it you don’t want to wear decent clothes?’ The request from a lecturer that I, clad in jeans, not sit on a stoop outside a women’s college in case passers-by mistook me for one of their students. The way a former friend pointedly remarked, as I sat beside her combing my hair in an auto-rickshaw, that she had heard it said that ‘only prostitutes groom their hair in public’. The subtexts may have been varied, but the cumulative effect of the shaming was the same, and so was the message: peacocks are weighted by their own plumages. Discard it or be discarded.
In 2015, none of the above applies any longer. This city, this Chennai, has a far greater aesthetic tolerance and diversity than could have been imagined possible. More and more, we have begun to see it: hints of skin, bright colours on the face, so many titivations that could only be dismissed as ‘shallow’ by someone who has never been denied the pleasure of the self-expression they provide. If a red lipstick is wonderful anywhere in the world, it is most wonderful of all on the mouth of a woman who has claimed her own voice.
Two factors influenced this change, which feels sudden, not gradual. The first was economic liberalisation. Literally speaking, once the mall culture came to the city, exposure to variety created demand for it, which in turn created a demand for tolerance. The city was forced to adapt to women’s desires to look as they wanted to, not vice versa. The process is incomplete: we still play out inherited norms and expectations, some of which appear under the guise of choices, and as we do so we also play into the broader negative effects of style-consciousness, including mental and physical health-related issues, such as body dysphoria and anorexia. The second, very interesting, element that led to this change was the rise of e-commerce. Internet shopping made everything more affordable and accessible, thus diversifying our tastes, our options and what was available to us. Now we can shop without having to negotiate moral policing, body shaming or other forms of coercion.
And yet, just a month or so before I wrote this, the front cover of a popular Tamil magazine featured what its editors thought to be a great social blight: women wearing tight leggings. As many outraged people pointed out on social media, the women in the photographs were considered obscene, but not the photographer who waited for the moment the wind might flip their tunics up to reveal the shape of their bottoms.
So, still, we carry shawls to cover ourselves with when we come home late at night, because we know: the city has changed only her visage. Her nature, however, is not so easily pegged.
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As I write this, I am thirty years old and single. Not single suddenly or single incidentally, but single in a sustained way, the way of a person who because of committing to integrity to self, art and world simply did not commit to a mistake. You understand what I mean, though: by saying this, I have chosen to present the trajectory of my life so far in a dignified manner, shorn of its heartbreaks. One can be glad not to have committed to a mistake. That does not mean one hasn’t made many.
Women everywhere are socialised to dress for their beholders: partners, prospective partners, the judgemental eyes of society, the critical gazes of in-laws. In India, marriage brings with it certain aesthetic requirements and rewards. These vary from community to community, but a married woman may wear some or many of these: nuptial chain, nuptial toe-rings, nose ornament, prominent bindi, wedding ring, vermilion in the parting of her hair. All of them are signifiers: she has been accepted into another household. She has been accepted. To not marry, or to no longer be married, is to be excluded in ways both subtle and obvious.
When a woman is widowed – and again this varies from community to community – she may have her bangles broken, her nuptial chain removed, her head shaved, her wardrobe changed to one of pure white, her forehead and the parting of her hair rubbed clean of vermillion.
So who does a woman dress up for when the elegant partition of marriage has not dropped its opaque curtain somewhere in her twenties? ‘For myself ’ is a dishonest answer. I dress up so I can represent my art – which itself is a response to being a woman in my time and place, and the causatum of my choices and circumstances – and I dress up so that I do not shame it. I dress up so I can engage with the world and command attention. I dress up for the compliments. I dress up in order to feel sensuality, and in doing so to transmit it, to attract its natural corollary. ‘For myself ’? If not outrightly dishonest, that answer is at best inadequate.
In my mid-twenties, swollen with sad love, I bought my own metti – matrimonial toe-rings that are a part of the Hindu wedding ceremony, slipped onto a woman’s second toes by her husband. I bought them for beauty, but I also bought them for symbolism. I was married to my art, and I meant it. My nose has been pierced since I was fourteen years old, and I currently wear a large bespoke piece of ruby, zircon and gold, considered old-fashioned and highly unusual in my generation. I made the large red bindi a part of my look sometime in my teens, and my spiritual journey eventually led to my replacing the sticker variety with holy vermilion. I look, in short, like ‘a married Tamil Hindu woman’. It is not, for me, an aspirational look.
I removed my metti a year ago. Someone told me that I was sending out the wrong signal. Not morally or socially but emotionally. The toe-rings, too, were armour. I listened. On some days, I miss their weight. I have nothing against wearing them, or anything else, when I am moved to.
But most of all, I dress up for my friends. My friends are my significant others, and for them I conduct all the rituals that we are socialised to think belong only to the sphere of dating. For my friend who thinks my rose and cardamom perfume smells like chewed betel nut, I wear the vanilla one. For my friend who visits once a year from afar, I wear my long hair in a braid. For my fiercely intelligent friend with whom I write, who wears dresses every day, I shave my legs. Let me paint a picture: two women in sundresses in a garden cafe, earphones in, pounding away at keyboards, stopping for cake and conversation.
Romance is ambient. Night rain is romantic. Music in languages one doesn’t know is romantic. Religious talismans – that kind of devotion known as bhakti – are romantic. Romance is a woman who spritzes her wrists with something that gives her pleasure before she sits down at her desk to write a poem about the way long loneliness caramelises the way one sees the world. You will not be surprised to know that I frequently buy myself flowers.
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With one of my closest friends, however, I do not usually make a conscious effort at embellishment. This is an act of solidarity. My friend is a transwoman who is out to a few people, but who, for professional and familial reasons, maintains two visages. Most of the time, she wears unisex kurtas and nothing but a touch of lip balm. Some of the time, and seldom in public, she is in skirts and lipstick, her recently pierced earlobes sparkling with baubles.
To compare the pain of her subterfuge with the daily battles ciswomen wage with regards to their appearances is to trivialise the former. And yet, there is solidarity. There is deep empathy – I, who was taken out of my skirts and not yet allowed into my jeans, know her, she who makes bespoke shoes in ‘men’s’ sizes that she does not wear and has a Pinterest board full of desires.
Transwomen occupy interesting spaces in India, culturally accepted yet socially unwelcome. Traditionally, transwomen as a community have some measure of societal legitimacy, and were ascribed roles and professions including blessing newborns and dancing at weddings. This means that, in groups, they may be able to roam freely in public spaces such as streets or beaches dressed in saris and other normatively feminine ornaments, but, with the exception of a few transgendered people who enjoy celebrity status, I have never seen a transwoman in her wardrobe of choice in a restaurant. Class divisions also remain rigid, and elite and middle-class spaces remain unfriendly. Every time we meet, my transwoman friend – cross-dressing as a man – suffers the indignity of being called ‘sir’ by strangers.
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A woman can wear a war for a very long time.
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I could never forget my Indianness while living in Malaysia, and so I not only embraced it but made it an act of defiance against the state sanctioned and socially enforced racism. How I did this was, among other ways, through my appearance: this was when I began to wear the sari to readings and public events. I wore tube tops as blouses under them sometimes, and enormous spools of jasmine around my chignon at other times. Sexy, traditional – I don’t even know the difference, although I am made mischievous by the knowledge that other people think they do. Even after I moved to India, when the sari should have bored me, I didn’t stop. The sari does things for me that no other outfit can. When I was commissioned to perform at Westminster Abbey in front of an audience that included the British Royal Family for the 2015 Commonwealth Day Observance, my friends and family asked me – what will you wear? For me, it was never a question.
I stood there on the Sacrarium Steps, the site of a thousand years of coronations, as a brown woman in the twenty-first century, a happenstance of empire. And I did so in a soft chiffon sari in a deep red, with a brocade border of black and gold. The colours and ciphers of Shakti, the divine feminine principle, herself.
When I wear a sari, it is never just culturally quaint. It is with awareness and aliveness. It is a powerful garment and, like all power, one must wield it with grace or not at all.
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The memory of the things I left behind when I moved to India haunted me for several years. I had not been wealthy, but I had great taste and, more than that, great luck. In Tamil there is a word, kairaasi, that captures it. It means that I could source amazing deals with the talent of a water diviner. Most of what I owned cost no more than ten ringgit each, but all of it was beautiful. All of it I wore. I thrived in that beautiful wardrobe of mine. There was one semester in college when I was told that a small group of girls would wait by the gate to check out my outfit for the day. I was wild, vivacious, sensual – I was cowboy hats and jacquard jackets and thigh-high leopard-print boots. I was bohemian paisley and chunky necklaces and cascades of filigree, tassels and fishtail hems.
And then, for a long time, I couldn’t be.
In my first few years in the city, I maintained a collection of clothing that I joked were for ‘eventual migration’. I would buy things that I knew I could never safely wear in Chennai – not just because they were pretty things, but because my body longed for them, even if there was a paucity of safe spaces or reasons to wear them. What happens between a woman and a dress can be sheer choreography. We dismiss that desire too easily as vanity. Vanity that is a cardinal sin, linked to narcissism, superficiality, the inability to connect to others. But who’s to say that it’s all about attention or other people? Who’s to say it isn’t about, in fact, intangible things: the fabric of life, literal and otherwise? It’s the necklace one buys for oneself on the day of an old love’s wedding. It’s the satin slip one sleeps in alone. It’s what happens behind my transwoman friend’s locked door when only the mirror is her audience, her admirer, her witness.
So I would buy these beautiful things, and simply keep them safe. For the first time in my life, I wore pants every single day. Even a long skirt would register femininity, a dangerous thing. I wore ill-fitting kurtas half on purpose and half out of shame, that emotion that was the sum effect of both lascivious gazes and moral reprimanding. I didn’t have a choice: I didn’t know the city, didn’t understand its codes, belonged to no cliques. So, each day, as I caught auto-rickshaws and walked down busy streets and conversed with strangers and colleagues and attempted to make friends, I donned this shamed and shabby skin with all the effort of a person learning a new dialect. Not coincidentally perhaps, I was also doing this literally – trying to scrape the sweet native patois from my tongue in exchange for the Madras bashai that would allow me to negotiate the city with a little less difficulty. I closeted my true self, with all her many accoutrements, in order to be safer. Until – strangely – I became safe.
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Fashion is about far more than vanity, or morality for that matter. It is about identity, memory and emotion. It is a background score to every interaction, conveying ambience, setting the scene, foreshadowing, foregrounding. Every mood-lifting ensemble is a victory. Every garment touched longingly and placed wistfully back on the shelf is a compromise – resignation that sometimes means ‘not yet’ and sometimes means ‘never’.
I don’t know how else to put it, but at some point, either the city became safe enough or I became strong enough. I stopped thinking twice about whether a sleeveless tunic would be read as a comment on my sexual availability. I paired saris with spaghetti-strap blouses and tube tops to formal events. I wore a miniskirt to a poetry reading once and posed cheekily in front of a jackfruit tree in the courtyard and learned to enjoy – and not be shamed by – some people’s reactions.
Half Karaikal Ammaiyar, half cynosure.
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In astrology, there is the concept of the rising sign (known in the Vedic system as the lagna), the zodiac sign in which one’s ascendant – the division between the recondite twelfth house and the public first house of one’s chart – falls. The ascendant is thus liminal, the point at which the inner self is presented to the outer world. In simplest terms, the ascendant is one’s appearance – the first thing another person encounters as they form their impression of you. There’s no way around it, not even in metaphysical terms – one’s visage is one’s calling card, one’s conduit, one’s key.
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The truth is that even if I retrieved the wardrobe I left behind, I would no longer be able to fi t into most of it. The body changes. Only one’s nature is a constant, through vagaries of influence, catalogues of choices, seasons of taste.
The wardrobe, you understand, was only ever a metaphor.
Sharanya Manivannan has a book of short stories, “The High Priestess Never Marries”, and a book of poetry, “The Altar Of The Only World”, forthcoming from HarperCollins. Find her on Twitter or on her blog.
This essay is excerpted from Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, edited by Catriona Mitchell, HarperCollins India, 288 pages, Rs 264.