Sunday, 31 May 2015

Don't Appropriate My 'Dress and Trousers'

A new trend in the fashion industry has supposedly emerged called the 'dress over pants'. Kendall Jenner was recently seen sporting a long white tunic over a pair of white trousers and suddenly articles were calling her "excruciatingly cool" and a "pioneer" of the outfit.

The tunic-over-pants actually originates from the shalwar kameez* which Asian women have been wearing for centuries since the Mughal era. They wore them when they first arrived in Europe and America and they wear them to this day. But no one is taking photos of them and praising how "chic" they look. What's more, they can tell you about the humiliation they received in the Western world. How their garments were compared in relation to Western clothing and deemed "backward" or "unfashionable". So do you see how it's wrong to applaud Kendall Jenner's stylist? It's just another example of cultural appropriation existing today: only when a white celebrity wears another culture's clothes, it is deemed a fashion statement.

As a daughter of Bangladeshi migrants, I was brought up wearing shalwar kameezes. My grandmother wore cotton sarees* and after having six children, my mother began to wear printed maxi dresses. But whilst they wore an over-garment when they went outside, I was expected to wear a shalwar kameez. I owned several in different colours, prints and materials.

I slowly began to dislike them when I joined primary school. When there were any school assemblies and we were told to bring in our own clothes, I would be one of the few girls in shalwar kameez whilst the rest wore t-shirts and jeans. My sisters and I were not allowed to wear jeans because they were "tight" and "not cultural". It was only during Eid and Christmas parties at school that I felt I could proudly wear my shalwar kameez - this time a sequined number. But as I grew older and witnessed more of the world, I began to long for t-shirts and jeans. I saw them on my friends and on my teachers, on strangers in the streets and on television actors and asked myself, "Why can't I own a pair?"

I didn't know then that I was being brainwashed into thinking I needed to adopt a certain culture in order to fit in. I didn't know the Western world always had a knack at showing off things they possessed to intimidate its colonies. To intimidate me. They made us realize that we were not "white" and we will never be regardless of our expensive polo shirts from Oxford Street.

When my parents eventually allowed me to buy two pairs of straight-cut jeans and three t-shirts from Asda for my residential trip in year 6, I was ecstatic. I would finally look like the other girls! During the next five days, I acted as though I had always worn t-shirts and jeans. The reality hit me when a week later I was dragging my feet to my grandmother's house in a black shalwar kameez with printed roses. Looking back, I wish I could tell myself all the things I now know about my culture:

"To my twelve year old self,

Hold your head up high when you wear your dress over your trousers.
Be proud that whilst you live in one country, your mother's country still welcomes you.
Look how beautifully your shalwar matches your kameez, how the chador hangs on your shoulders and rests on your chest in an embrace.

It isn't a prison. It is freedom."

I'm 19 now and I still wear shalwar kameezes at home. I love them. They are a part of my identity. Over the years, I have come up with several styles. I can present myself in a shalwar kameez with a chador* flung across my chest before my parents and siblings, or throw the chador quickly around my head before opening the front door, or I can wrap it neatly around my neck before greeting guests. I no longer desire t-shirts and jeans because, for me, they symbolize the power Western culture held over my origins as a British-Bangladeshi.

Therefore it is unfair that Kendall Jenner is able to wear an outfit and be praised for her ingenuity when Asian women have been fighting for this right for decades. The unjust glamorisation of diverse cultures by Westerners is worryingly abundant, adopting clothing, hairstyles, speech and art, and Kendall Jenner is a representation of this insecure world. They compared my culture in relation to theirs before I was even born. And when I was, they didn't see a British girl wearing a shalwar kameez, they saw a brown girl peculiarly wearing a dress over trousers. This is why I ask them not to appropriate a culture they were initially ignorant to accept.

*** Glosses:
- shalwar kameez: outfit made up of a tunic and trouser
- saree: 5-8 meters of material wrapped around the waist with one end draped over the shoulder
- chador: piece of cloth matching a shalwar kameez, typically known as dupatta


  1. Hi Rima, its zaynab tyty from Instagram

    I totally love this article, sometimes we don't necessarily have to conform to what the society is doing if it would erode our personal identity.

    I cant find you on goodreads sadly, but here is a link to my account.

  2. Thank you for this, I've never read anything like this before. I wish I read it when I was younger. When I read the title of this I thought 'hey we (asians) wear a dress over trousers! Wonder what this is about. I wish alot of young girls read this.

    1. Thank you sincerely! I wish someone had told me as well when I was younger too.