Growing up I had very few, ‘English Clothes’, as my sisters and I used to call them. Seems so funny to think about it now but back then I was totally happy in my sheltered life, living in a large house with a rambling garden in a small village in the Lincolnshire Wolds of England. Attending an an all girls Grammar School, my life was school, home and school again and in the moments in between I lived for books and reading. At school there was a uniform and at home there were comfy shalwar kameez – so you see, there was just no need for too many other sartorial choices.
I like to think I saved my parents a small fortune by not being a shopping obsessed teenager nor caring to keep up with the trends. I had no interest in ‘going to town’ as my classmates used to call meeting up and wandering around the nearest town square. Sometimes my best friend Erin would come over and we would lie on the grass reading each other’s diaries, sharing the same chit chat of school girls all across the world. I think I owned one pair of jeans and a couple of oxford shirts, which in the name of ‘modesty’ were two sizes too big. Oh yeah and these awesome pair of black ‘outdoor, extreme weather, pocket for every eventuality, waterproof, trousers. These my sister had bought for an outdoor camping expedition she was part of, and like the amazing big sister I am, I stole them from her.
Mama was never a huge shopper either, always being of a more practical mindset. She only bought what was needed and even as a mother of four daughters, never indulged in preening and posing us in extravagantly pretty clothes. Clothes were a practicality – did they cover us sufficiently and were they comfortable? That is, until the long summer holidays, when – like many diasporic families – we would journey back to the ‘motherland’, in our case – the Valley of Kashmir, India.
This is where I saw my mother soften. On our shopping trips in Kashmir, home of Pashmina and Shahtoosh wool, she would sit down in front of shopkeepers who spread their wares for her and I felt her relax. I watched her fingers feel the fabric, heard her voice confident in Kashmiri, asking for a better quality, their best cut, which embroidery was ‘hand stitched’ and which was ‘machine’ ? (the former being more sought after).
It was in these same small shops, I fell in love with the motifs of Kashmir: The embroidery reminiscent of gardens and flowers entwined with paisley or ‘badam’ as it is called in Kashmiri literally ‘almond shaped’ and the ubiquitous Chinar leaf. The colours and designs were such a pleasure to watch unfold. The materials, the exact type of ‘stitch’, either thick curlish and bold or thinner and ethereally subtle. I am sure a certain passion for clashing colours and patterns was also born on these shopping trips and oh, the designs and combinations – soft navy blue wool, with the neckline, an up-side-down spade shape filled with hues of blush pink and dark purple and in between sprouts of forest green. Another, lipstick red silk mix with embroidery like tulip heads in a repeated pattern, giving it the look of art deco mixed with turkish tile. Yet another sunshine yellow bursting with happy petals of all the shades of purple in ombre. Heaps upon heaps, and no two were the same. I imagined the artists, masters in stitch and needlework and I fancied them making not shawls but intertwining maps, each telling a story.
One year, Mama let us choose our very own and very first Kashmiri shawl. I chose a pink magenta with a needle stitched design of pale blue, sea-green and flecks of orange. My younger sister an aqua marine blue and my third sister a turmeric yellow. I often think of those first shawls how we chose bright colours with such girlish delight. I was 12 years old, it felt like my first piece of ‘grown up’ clothing, the first time I chose my own style. I still have it. And that ‘hottest of pinks, as my closest friends will tell you, is still a colour I can not resist.
Back in England, these shawls and dresses would be packed away, the loveliest of which to be worn to ‘dawaats’ (dinner invitations) with my parents and one or two saved for Eid. To be seen wearing the full ensemble of long knee length dress with ‘jasmine’ pants underneath (long before jasmine pants became a ‘thing’) on a UK high street was just unthinkable, as awkward as it would have been being caught on the street wearing my PJs (long before wearing PJs out became a ‘thing’)!
Once a school mate had ‘caught’ me like this and asked if I didn’t have any ‘normal clothes’ another time a teacher, fumblingly commented that he hadn’t recognized me in my costume, (costume? really?). So you can imagine how much I loved the anonymity and ‘normalness’ provided by my school uniform.
In fact, it is difficult to describe how much I used to dread school ‘non-uniform’ days. Being one of three non-white girls in a sea of around 800, it was a nightmare trying to figure out how to blend in with everyone without the comfort of those mandated threads.
But one year, something changed. It was 1997, I was 14 years old and I couldn’t bear the thought of a button down shirt and awful pair of high waisted jeans (again before high waisted jeans were a thing). I know! I would wear those black hiking trousers I had stolen from my sister. Hipster or flared trousers were ‘in’ and if I just unzipped one particular zip near the ankle, the legs took on a flared shape. I was probably wearing the dress part of a shalwar kameez at the time of trying on said trousers and must have seen something of a good connection, because I decided to try on one of my favourite Kashmiri dresses with it.
That year, it was this black material with thick embroidery on it, in all the shades of red. From fire engine red to rusty ochre, the beautiful mix on the backdrop of black was exquisite . On one side the design fell all the way from the shoulder to the knee in a straight line but spreading away from the straight border, the design unfurled like flames of a fire, asymmetric and curling. That black on red with the addition of grungy black trousers was so perfect I knew I had to do it.
Dear reader, I don’t know who you are reading this, you might be a fellow 90’s child of the diaspora, thinking Yes! This was me! I had no ‘English’ clothes either. Or you might be almost half my age and wondering – What’s the big deal about a dress over trousers? But oh you see, it was a big deal. I was going to go to school, wearing me. A ‘me’ I hadn’t seen reflected or represented anywhere else around me. There was no instagram, no ‘ethnic’ style blogs to follow, this was not ‘in’. I didn’t live in a diverse city. I had no ‘desi’ friends, there was no ‘woke’ in my surrounding vocabulary, this was as Sleepy English Countryside as you could get.
I walked proud that day in the hallways. Felt beautiful. Nobody asked me if I had any ‘normal’ clothes, my best friend Erin squeezed my hand and smiled. My favorite teacher complimented me. A sassy girl from the local comprehensive school, who normally sat at the back of the bus with other ‘hard’ girls came up to me and told me I looked ‘cool’ this was akin to being recognised. Oh man, it was liberating. I was fourteen and with one idea I had just created for myself a new wardrobe, I couldn’t wait to go and see which other of my dresses would look ‘maazing’ on my funky trousers (that were so ‘waterproof’ I couldn’t walk in them without making a ruckus!) But for a long time that combination of ‘fire dress’ and hiking trousers became my power outfit.
The only time I came close to having a similar clothing related euphoria was when, five years later I decided to don the Hijab. Now that, is another story!
What is your relationship with clothes from your cultural or ethnic heritage? Do you love to wear and share or do you not really care?
Image Credits; Top Photo of my Sister on a beach in NYC
Photo of artisan in Kashmir, stitching embroidery outdoors by Sanjeev Saith .
Message for Sumaya. I have just read this with utter delight. Sent to me by Mrs Wilson who I met for lunch earlier. You will probably remember me as the new English teacher at BHS. I think you might have been in the upper sixth,
More importantly, congratulations for this beautiful writing and for sharing your experiences. I grew up in Nairobi and my experiences were not dissimilar. I remember the anonymity my grammar school uniform gave me because I had no trendy western clothes. Thank you for posting beautiful embroidery here. Hope you and your sisters are all well.
Needed to edit a couple of things!
Amazing memory I must say..I guess I experienced something like this myself back in late 90s wherein I couldn’t resist the fashion around and was still in school . My culture has definite perimeters.. thats wat I realised and I had limited choice to experiment with western clothes ..But later on my professional like gave me the space as a police officer wherein I tried to appear a tough guy..But I dint stop there …After my in depth reading of Sufi thoughts brought in another shade of modesty and wore scarfs and shrugs after donning jeans and long jackets and glares!!!I agree clothes just don’t reflect our culture and lifestyles but our inherent evolution of thoughts, tastes and contemporary moods in life.. now I again I m thinking of some new invention like some …. Business suit plus scarf as I will get back to my professional life ..But this time with a more entertaining role as that of a tourism director and I very much want to be a perfect epitome of modern thought blended with cultural ethos … Your write up here just encourages me to re-invent my dressing sense …And also it reflects how consciously and gracefully you are growing as a personality …Being the strong sweet mother of three in modern world of today and yet rooted in Asian values with your strong ties across the continent..Just love this article…
I could totally read your emotions back then through your story! Beautifully written mashallah 🙂
As a very non-fashion conscious teen I dreaded non uniform days too, one particularly desperate one I remember wearing the skirt I had made in textiles! I am cringing at the memory!
When your clothing culture consists of the great British high street which is an ever moveable feast of sweat shop produced disposable seasonal clothing, the continuity and certainty of something more embedded, meaningful and beautiful seems very enviable!
I had a pair of Guess jeans with zippers by the ankles! And I remember thinking one day, how cool and hip would I look if I just unzipped the ankles. Lol.
It’s amazing how much our confidence affects the way we are perceived (both by others and ourselves).
Loved this so much Sumaya. Beautiful description and voice. I too had these trousers *yes I said trousers* 😉 with ankle slits (no zipper) I absolutely loved. I was an 18 year old then, they were brown and dressy or at least as a novice country girl myself I thought they were “dressy”. My first “wearing me” outfit though was hilarious and absolutely me. I was 12 or 13 and I had purchased these rainbow tye dye leggings. I paired said leggings with my cherished homemade tye dye t shirt that was also rainbow but on a black background. Then I put one of those awesome kulot skirts over the leggings…Remember the kind of skirt that looks like a skirt but is actually shorts? AKA a skirt. My black above the knee skirt was my finishing touch. I remember thinking that I might get picked on but then thinking “I don’t care this outfit is awesome!” Thank you so much for helping me relive that. Also agree with Leila, when I am dressed the part it helps me even when I’m faking till I make it. Dress for success in your own authentic way!