The debate on Diet Sabya went from funny and cool, to murky and dirty real quick, taking away from the goal of actually coming up with a solution.
The internet is an amusing place, and its latest product has been a debate on NRI Fashion. It all started when the anonymously-run Instagram account, Diet Sabya shared a Netflix reel, demonstrating Bridgerton-inspired Indian outfits, and went ahead to call them ‘absolutely terrible.’ This sparked a discussion of Shakespearean proportions, imploring their community to weigh in on whether ‘NRIs really have no idea of Indian fashion’ or not. The following is a response a user made, which was later posted by the account on their feed, asking their followers to ‘discuss’. The full response read, ‘Even the most stylish NRI influencers wear super tacky Indian clothes. Something that Indians wore a decade back! They need to catch up!’ and thus began the chaos that has now implored me to write this piece. Indians back home announced that diaspora Indians were sloppy and distasteful when it came to Indian Fashion. In response to this, NRIs defended themselves, by talking about the lack of accessibility and logistical problems, therefore starting a debate filled with fury and judgment.
That said, this isn’t the first time when comments have been made on South Asian fashion in the West. When Parvati and Padma Patil wore pink and orange sets in Harry Potter’s Yule Ball, Indians across the world felt excruciating pain at being represented like this. More recently, when Sarah Jessica Parker aka Carrie Bradshaw wore a lehenga and called it a saree while dawning preposterous flowers on her head, Indians were enraged.
In fact, not just shows and movies, but Gucci not very long ago launched their new Kaftan collection that was primarily desi kurtas. The design brought Gucci a lot of flak, because not only were the kaftans awful to look at, but they also had an exorbitant price for no reason and were blatantly appropriating Indian heritage and culture, so naturally, Indians took offense, and who can blame them? I mean we’re not fools who wear flowers on our heads nor do we think of skirts as shorts, as Ms Bradshaw thinks of lehengas as sarees, so then why is this special treatment of ignorance reserved for South Asians? Moreover, we moved on from snake bindis, and gaudy gold jewellery a long time ago, but it seems like the West hasn’t, which is also extremely infuriating, because how would Americans feel if we roamed around wearing cowboy hats and motorcycle jackets, while calling it American fashion? Not very elated, am sure.
However, I dissuade from the point, which is that all these discussions until now on South Asian fashion in the West have been focused on popular culture, influencers, and in the larger scheme of things the appropriation of Indian culture, but the Diet Sabya discourse has shifted the gaze from racism, misrepresentation, and appropriation to creating a divide between diaspora Indians and Indians back home. Common Indian folks in both India and abroad have been pitted against each other in this futile discourse.
While, I understand that one part of it does make it fathomable because we’ve all seen our NRI relatives wear absurd clothes and call them ethnic wear, which is naturally annoying because in their pursuit for a ‘better life’ they shifted base, along with which they alienated their roots, making the rest of us feel as if we’ve been left behind, in an inferior place. Whether this sentiment is right or wrong, I am not sure, nor do I feel I am in a position to judge, but what I can vouch for is that it is a sentiment that is natural, and deep-rooted in the human tendency to compare. It also makes one feel like they are being caricatured and thereby disrespected, especially when their own people behave as if Indian ethnic wear is some sort of costume that can be worn on festive occasions exclusively. At the same time, if one is to think from the NRI standpoint, then they are always caught between two worlds because they are neither Indian enough, nor American/British enough, and blaming them for wearing outdated ethnic wear is like telling them that you don’t belong, not here and not there.
The disconnect between NRIs and Indian residents is not rare, but hostility between them is something that should be prevented at every cost.
This entire debate has become more about identity crisis, and less about fashion. The NRIs seek belongingness, as they grapple to form an identity for themselves, and fashion has always been a marker for who you are. At the same time, Residential Indians are seeking an identity for themselves on the global stage, because they’ve been told time and again, that the West is the superior place to be, and so they are scrambling to hold their ground on everything that’s theirs, and fashion is perhaps one of the biggest emblems of culture. However, these identity crises and insecurities are getting in the way of India Fashion, and all that it aspires to be. We need to carve an identity for ourselves away from our longitudes and latitudes. Fashion is a form of expression, and for it to stay like that, it must be kept away from dirty debates, and controversies.
In a snippet from the discussion under Diet Sabya’s post, Ishita Mangal, a fashion influencer based in Delhi commented, ‘They associate Indian clothing with the word ‘bling’ and want it to be all things bold and loud’ to which Jainee Gandhi, a personal stylist based in Ontario replied, ‘I think it’s unfair to make blanket statements. Yes, I agree with bling and bold, but there is a huge logistical problem…I have to spend 3k minimum on shipping and 18% tax on a bag that I saw on you’
Now, does this beg the question, of right or wrong, or the question of, ‘is there a right or wrong in the first place?’ because honestly speaking, South Asians on both ends of the debate have valid qualms with the issue of fashion, one party feels misrepresented, while the other feels like they don’t belong, therefore disconnect is evident, however, what the Diet Sabya discourse has done, is pit them against each other when in reality they should be working together to make desi fashion accessible, and accurately represented.
The problem doesn’t lie with NRIs, or the Indian residents, the problem lies in representation, in popular culture, in Instagram influencers’ accounts, and in the general mindset of the West that is still stuck in the snake-charmers’ India and hasn’t gotten over their white supremacy. NRI fashion is tacky, but NRIs are not to blame for that, and nor are Indian residents for venting their feelings, however, the debate on Diet Sabya went from funny and cool, to murky and dirty real quick, taking away from the goal of actually coming up with a solution.
Takshi Mehta is a freelance journalist and writer. She firmly believes that we are what we stand up for, and thus you’ll always find her wielding a pen.
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