THE FIRST time I arrived in India, four years ago, people told me to dress conservatively.
“Respect cultural norms”, they said. So I did, swathing myself in long pants and loose long sleeved shirts that I would never dream of donning in sweltering Singapore.
The result: being groped in a public restaurant in Kochi, having left my male companions for all of 20 seconds to wash my hands. I was mostly frightened by the leering smile of the retreating man, left examining my choice of clothing and feeling betrayed by kind advice.
Before living and working in Mumbai, I googled expat forums on housing and neighbourhood options. Everyone praised Bandra because they felt comfortable walking around in skirts and shorts, their sartorial choice for summer. I scoffed — typical foreigners, can’t live like a local, always trying to colonise small spaces for themselves. After two weeks of wandering in the torrid heat of a dry summer, a box of prickly heat powder and an outbreak of heat rash later, I was reconsidering my life lived in heat-trapping denim jeans and conservative tops.
I concocted little experiments: a modest above-the-knee dress to a film screening at Prithvi, in the safe company of a male friend. “An outing for your knees!” he ribbed.
It came to my notice that in specific spaces, the traditional dress code could be bent. Prithvi Theatre, the NCPA, fancy malls like Palladium, artsy cafes; everyone there dressed fashionably, from translucent chiffon to shoulderbaring tops. How did they dare to do it? Where did they go after they stepped out of the protective doors of these ‘global-cosmopolitan’ institutions? My roommate, an NRI born in Delhi and studying in New York, was a veritable fashion show. Walking in one day in a tube-top maxi, out in a stare-worthy skirt the next.
The turning point came with the rains. After falling sick from being drenched head to toe and having my wet denim stick to me for hours after, I had just about had enough. I asked my roommate, who was part of the well-dressed-and-invisible-on-rainy-streets category, “how do you survive monsoons without an umbrella?” In other words, how do you keep your clothes separate from the streets?
“I call for my boyfriend’s driver if I want to get somewhere, of course”, she said with surprise. Of course, the commonalities of an Indian upper middle-class life had eluded me. Drivers, taxis, that magic passage between home and destination that shielded and shuttled these clothes from the crass public eye. No wonder I was the only one standing on the street corner in a long-sleeved dress with my knees uncovered, being mistaken for a prostitute.
Emboldened by her outfits, missing my own sartorial freedom, and having realised two years ago that what you wear cannot protect you from the evils of men, I began bringing my skirts and dresses back into my everyday life. Nothing skimpy, all long sleeved and loose fitting — still considered modest for home — but “modest” is a hemline that adjusts itself according to the country it finds itself in.
Here, it finds itself at the ankles, soaking up the rain. It has since been a month of freed knees walking the streets where other bare knees do not ply and a week of stares which I conveniently shield myself from, with my dual-use umbrella. My heat rash is clearing up.
Funnily enough, I’ve not encountered any male misbehavior, unlike the days of being clad and clothed from head-to-toe. The only street calls I’ve received have been from concerned roadside shopkeepers, who can turn any situation into a business opportunity, asking sincerely, “Pants for you, madam?”
Wei Fen Lee is 25. She is a researcher and writer based in Singapore.