In Janaury, R and I got an email from Judy Frater, director of Somaiya Kala Vidya , asking us if we would be interested in some tickets to see two of her proteges debut their creations at Lakme Fashion Week. Judy is an American who has been living in India for many years, and focuses on traditional weaving and education in Bhuj, a small town in the Kutch district of Gujarat. R is a traditional fabric FANATIC, and I always love to learn new things and see beautiful handiwork, so we responded with an enthusiastic “YES”!!! and marked it on our calendars.
The date actually snuck up on us, and if I hadn’t programmed it onto my calendar, we might have missed it. Good thing we didn’t, because it was absolutely fantastic.
There were four of us escaping the humdrum of the week for the magic of fashion make-believe that evening: me, R, P, and H, and we met up first at a fun restaurant in BKC near the Consulate called “NRI”, or “Not Really Indian”. Name and un-PC nickname notwithstanding, the staff was attentive and kind and the daquiris were pretty fabulous. I have to give a shout-out to the waiter who was nice enough to let me talk him into serving us the cassava fries before the designated 7 p.m. time — Africa anywhere on a plate makes me happy. After a yummy pre-show dinner, we headed on over to the Jio Center to crash the event in our Ann Taylor and Nordstrom Rack fashions and gaze at the high-end duds. No disrespect meant to Ann or Nordstrom – we looked awesome.
Lakme Fashion Week is fun. There’s always something kind of crazy in the design world, and there’s so much to take in. We had a few brief moments to check out the outdoor displays before heading into the runway area and taking our seats.
We ran into Judy on the way in, and she was her usual sari-clad, cheerful self. She was so excited for her artists. We thanked her for the tickets, then headed for the nosebleed section to go sit down. Wedging ourselves in between the beautiful, young, and fashionable, we settled in to watch the traditional textile show. A band of local Kutch musicians played traditional music.
The lights dimmed. And then, the creations appeared:
It was over too soon. The last model strutted down the runway, the lights switched on, and everyone rose to vacate to let the next collection prepare for its debut. Next we headed over to the stall area.
Every designer has a stall where they show their collections and take orders. As tempted as I might be, I’ve never had the courage to brave both sticker shock and some random stranger calling my measurements out to her assistant in front of a bunch of size zeros, so I’ve never taken the custom plunge in public. Grab a card for “later”, forget about it, that’s my personal strategy.
People talk about how silly fashion is, how it’s frivolous, and I think that’s fair. I also think it’s unfair. Many designers over the years have taken on social issues such as child labor, racial discrimination, and poverty, to name a few. In India, one of the issues that I’ve written about before is gender-based violence. In an effort to explain, help combat, or justify, it, individuals, groups, schools, and public and private organizations and entities have often pointed to what women are wearing. Recently in Mumbai, two schools issued dress codes for female college students, prohibiting shorts, sleeveless tops, and ripped jeans.Even more recently, a female administrator at a local college cordoned female students off in the cafeteria and said that when female students wear the same uniform of “men’s clothing” consisting of a pair of pants and a shirt that it causes polycystic ovarian syndrome. And this was at a technical college. A display next to the door of the building where the display stalls were located called attention to the issue in an interesting and creative way.
After visiting all the stalls, we came out the opposite door and were met with another display calling attention to a current social issue.
Sponsored by Diesel, the Italian fashion brand, was a display that obviously addressed one of the more contentious issues that has recently been blowing through the world consciousness. Walls.
I don’t think I need to tell you what popped into my mind within 1 millisecond of seeing this. I’m pretty sure it was the first thing that popped into yours, and into my friends’. And suddenly, I felt hyperaware of a lot of things. I was aware that we were some of the very few Americans present. I was aware that people probably knew we were Americans. And I was aware that as we stood there in front of the display, that they were wondering what we, as Americans, were thinking.
We were there on a night out. Girl time, a few drinks, some fun fashion, meeting a fellow countrywoman who is doing amazing things preserving cultural history and engaging in economic empowerment of those in areas where the economy isn’t robust, and sharing her passion for India and Indian textiles. We wanted to just have fun. But staring us in the face was a commentary on world affairs and current debate in our country.
If you’re not an expat, or you’ve rarely traveled abroad, you probably don’t feel it the way I do, but the truth is, if you’re an American, especially one associated with the government abroad in some way shape or form, whether military or civilian, you run into this sort of thing a lot the longer you reside outside the U.S. After a while, you realize how different your experience is from other expats. If I were a Swede, or a Botswanan, or Vietnamese, I seriously doubt I’d run into public or private commentary on my country, its policies, and its culture.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. It won’t be the last. America is on many people’s minds in many countries for the position we play in the world, and everyone has an opinion.
I’ve seen people pretend to lift their leg like a dog on dishes with an American flag on it. I’ve had a waiter go off on me while I was about 8 months pregnant and out with friends, asking me if I felt guilty that my baby would live and the poor Iraqi babies in the area we’d just started bombing in response to the 9/11 attacks probably wouldn’t. I’ve had people accost me on the bus to tell me what is wrong with American foreign policy. I’ve also had people tell me that the best year of their life was the year they spent in Michigan on a student exchange. I’ve had people tell me that the American volunteer in their village helped spark a passion for reading that propelled them into the upper echelons of society when they realized reading was key to learning and learning was key to success. And I’ve had people ask me wistfully if I could get them a Reese’s peanut butter cup, because they remembered the American soldiers in their town would hand them out to the kids. Most of these conversations happened before they even found out I had any connection with the United States government whatsoever. They were completely unsolicited; honest, and each one of them hit me deep within my soul in some way or another.
It won’t change anytime soon. So even if I want to just have a fun evening and forget what’s in the newspapers, what’s on TV, or on Twitter, I don’t always get that luxury. I’m American. It follows me everywhere.