The dress code for women at Shanti Bhavan, like many places throughout rural South India
is relatively conservative: absolutely no shoulders, no cleavage, looser clothing (ie. no
leggings and no tight tops) and nothing above the knees.
Female Teachers’ Typical Clothing
Many professional women wear kurtas, or long dresses with high slits at the sides which are
paired with leggings or pants. Kurtas are also often worn with scarves that are draped
across the shoulders as a display of modesty. This article of clothing is often worn by
teachers, as it is often considered to be casual yet appropriate in the workspace. One
important thing to note is that men also wear kurtas in India: in fact, traditionally women
would wear the female version called kurtis while men wore kurtas. However, the term kurta
is often used for the clothing article that both men and women wear. Volunteers and
teachers are often recommended to wear kurtas while at the school—although wearing a
kurta is not compulsory. In lieu of wearing kurtas, typically business-casual styles of dress
(as long as they adhere to the rules of no exposed shoulders, cleavage, or knees) is
acceptable. You will often see volunteers wearing trousers with a blouse, or long skirts
paired with both a blouse and scarf.
Aunties and Female Maintenance Workers’ Typical Clothing
The aunties, who are the caretakers of the children, often wear traditional clothes, whether they wear kurtas or saris (a cropped blouse that often stops underneath the bustline and is paired with a nine-yard long fabric which is wrapped around the lower part of the body and draped over one shoulder). The women who work on the campus to maintain the school building exclusively wear saris. In the surrounding villages, you will see women wearing sari uniforms for their place of work or wearing saris while doing outside field work.
Male Teachers’ Typical Clothing
Although men outside of the school often wear kurtas, teachers often just wear button down shirts with trousers. Often men will wear kurtas for more formal occasions, but the typical dress in classroom settings and around Shanti Bhavan is less traditional.
One thing that I have noticed being at Shanti Bhavan is that there is a mixture of Indo-Western fashion that women use in their day-to-day wardrobes. There is a local department store in the nearby town where we were encouraged to purchase items like kurtas or scarves, and I found myself finding innovative ways to pair newly purchased clothing with items I brought with me from the States. Because I initially packed very little clothing (mostly neutrals and solid-color clothing), it was easy to mix-and-match kurtas with pants I
brought from home, or to tuck my kurtas into my floor-length skirts to make it appear as though it were a tucked-in blouse. For me, because I did my best to pack light when leaving the country, it was imperative to me that I experiment with mixing Western and Indian clothing so that I could make several looks out of just two or three articles of clothing.
One thing that India has taught me is to embrace color, and vibrant color at that. I came to the country with mostly black clothing and have slowly (but surely) found myself adding vibrant greens, blues, and purples to my wardrobe. And it is simply because I have found myself being enthralled by the use of color that I have seen in South India. Here, women wear and experiment with vibrant colors and patterns in their saris, kurtas, and dupattas (a cloth slightly shorter than a sari which is often draped across the shoulders or used to cover a woman’s head).
A style pattern I first noticed when I got to the school was how teachers would look so put together even when mixing different patterns or colors. I soon realized that often the color or print of their patialas (loose pants that often have a wide waistband and pleats, or folds directly below the waistband) would match their dupattas. For example, I would see a teacher wear an orange Patiala with a matching dupatta, pairing them with a purple kurta. Being in India, I have experimented with color coordination and had a realization while in country that even though I seek to lead a minimalistic lifestyle, minimalism is not just relegated to black, white, grey, and dark blue. India’s culture is so vibrant—in both manners of dress and expression—that it is almost impossible not to be influenced by the vibrancy.
Challenges Living on a Residential Campus
Although it wasn’t too much of a challenge to adhere to the dress code during the school hours, it took some time to adjust to having to remember to follow the code even when working out, for example. Women are not allowed to wear a t-shirt and leggings unless there are shorts on top of the leggings, or if the shirt is at least thigh length. Meanwhile, there is an exception made for men where they are allowed to wear shorts several inches above their knees, without being told that they were breaking code.
However, this standard did not just apply within Shanti Bhavan’s gates, but also in nearby villages and towns. Men in one of the nearby villages frequently wear lungis (a piece of cloth that is wrapped in between the thighs, covering the behind and upper thighs) with nary a double take. It is simply a difference in culture (something I had to accept being in a rural area) where it was expected that I am more conservatively dressed than my male counterparts. I have only had one incident where my scarf did not cover enough of my trapezius muscles and I was told that I had to readjust my scarf in a way in which it would not fall out of place again.
Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation
One issue I was concerned about prior to coming to India was whether dressing as locals would be seen as cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the act of taking an item from a particular culture and wearing it without any connection to the culture in which it originally came from, or without having any knowledge of the significance that that item may have within the original culture. Cultural appropriation can span from facial accessories (such as bindis or tribal makeup) to items of clothing.
I was at first hesitant to wear kurtas, but found that my wearing traditional Indian garments was positively received. It was taken as cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation, meaning that I showed my respect for the traditional way of dressing, and for the culture, through buying from local shops and stores.
For me, cultural appreciation means asking questions and finding the meaning behind clothing and accessories—not just praising an item for its aesthetic qualities and attributes. Not only have people been so supportive of me wearing traditional attire in professional settings, but they have also had conversations with me about the history of garments, and answered my questions pertaining to South Indian culture. Cultural appreciation is not the equivalent to wearing a sari and bindi for Halloween and then stuffing it into a drawer the next day: rather I have tried on saris (with the guidance of fellow teachers and students) and have been taught how to tie a sari and the regional differences in which women wear saris throughout India. I have been sari shopping with fellow teachers who have taught me the differences in saree materials and their preferences for cotton or silk saris. I have frequented stores like Chennai Silks where I see sari blouse materials being sold and told how people often embellish their saris. With cultural appreciation comes cultural exchange, where locals invite me to learn more about their culture from their firsthand experiences. I have been able to learn so much more from spending time with them and going to stores like Chennai Silks than I would trying to look up all of this information on my own. And in exchange, I have cultural and comparative analyses in my 9th grade English literature class, where I have spoken to the children on key cultural differences between India and the United States. In this way, there is an exchange of ideas and conversation where people from different cultures can walk away learning more about a place or way of living that may be completely different from theirs. Or, perhaps, learn that they have much more in common with others than they had initially thought.
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