While chatting on the phone with my mom a few days ago, I mentioned that we were headed to an Indian wedding this weekend, “and I’m going to wear a saree!”
She paused for a moment and then said, “isn’t that culture— cultural –” She paused for a moment to find that exact phrase, and it’s no wonder. Cultural appropriation wasn’t really a *thing* when she was younger. It’s a newer concept, thought about often by people who try not to offend, usually noted by white people to other white people about non-white people things.
I assured her I had done my research. When my husband and I were invited to the wedding, I originally had googled “what do I wear to an Indian wedding as a guest?” and the vast internets told me that many [non-Indian/white] people wear traditional Indian garb as a way of embracing the culture. Everything seemed to point me in the direction of it being great to wear a saree to a wedding, no matter who you are. A saree worn at an Indian wedding by a non-Indian person is seen as a pretty outfit and is definitely not only okay, but encouraged.
I get it. I know why it feels not okay. And I’m possibly hypocritical about it. My husband has a facebook friend who is a Christian and likes to post pictures of himself wearing a tallit, a fringed garment worn by Jews, sometimes referred to as a prayer shawl. I wear my tallit at synagogue if I attend any morning prayers, starting from the day I became a Bat Mitzvah. I hold the fringes in my fingers during certain prayers. I use the corner fringe to kiss the Torah when I am called for an aliyah. I definitely find it bizarre, and dare I say, inappropriate, for someone who isn’t Jewish to be wearing a tallis. Is it that it's a religious garment? Or is it that I'm overly sensitive to appropriation of my own culture? But I digress.
All of the articles that said it was okay or encouraged to wear a saree to an Indian wedding if you’re not Indian were written by Indians. The sites with paragraphs about what not to wear said things like “don’t wear red, because that’s reserved for the bride,” and “stay away from white or black, as these are colors for mourning or funerals.” Other articles mentioned to wear bright colors – this is a celebration!
The groom in this wedding is an old co-worker of my husband’s. There’s a group of them that had their first law jobs together at a law firm that didn’t treat their employees well. The group bonded hardcore, as people in that sort of bad work environment tend to do. Still, they don’t talk super often, and the wedding invite was a little bit of a surprise, as no one knew the groom was even dating anyone. Suffice it to say, I couldn’t really just text him and ask. And I’m pretty sure he’s nicely busy right now, a few days before his wedding.
Without conclusive evidence that I definitely wouldn’t offend anyone, I found out one of the other attorneys in this friend group called the groom. “Hey man, what are we supposed to wear? Indian clothes? Western?” The groom, who is perhaps a bit aloof to begin with, said he didn’t care and that people would be in both. When we scoured the website for any clues on what to wear, it says “Attire: anything from prom to your own wedding.” I decided not to wear my wedding dress.
But I had decided I wanted to wear a saree. The men in the friend group weren’t as excited about dressing in traditional Indian garb, but I and the two other women going – one of them an attorney at the firm where everyone worked, and the other one a wife of one of those attorneys that is also an attorney herself - decided we would go try some on.
Luckily, there’s a saree store pretty close to where we all live, and we went there after work. I got stuck in traffic from my commute, and the other two girls got started. When I arrived, one of them was wearing a beautiful and flowing orange saree with a gold blouse, and the other girl had already tried hers on, she held a blue saree in her arms.
A lady was helping them and we were all talking, and I asked her whether it was definitely okay to wear a saree even though we weren’t Indian (one of the girls I was with is white, the other is black). She assured me that it was definitely okay, and that it was honoring the Indian culture. She said how beautiful we would all look. Then again, she was also about to make a fairly big sale.
When it was my turn, the lady took me over to where the sarees were. “The ones that already have the clips so you don’t have to know how to drape them.” She looked at me with a critical eye and then said, “size pink.”
As I write this, I’m mostly sure that this specific store only carries specific sizes of each color of the easy-to-drape sarees for convenience, but at the time, I was definitely wondering if everyone at the wedding would see me in pink and know exactly how much I weighed.
She clipped the saree at my waist, on top of my jeans, folded the fabric so it hung perfectly, and wrapped me. Even on the easy sarees, I’m not sure I could recreate that. It fit perfectly – I am definitely a size pink.
Then, she looked me up and down again, handed me a gold beaded blouse, and ushered me into a dressing room. I started to try it all on together and immediately realized the blouse was too small. She brought me a larger size. Also too small. I half opened the door from the dressing room to let her know I needed a larger size still and she said “Really? That one really doesn’t fit? So I showed her. There was no way that thing was going to hold my bust. So then she brings in the next size up, and it finally fits around the bust, but the arm holes are huge, and instead of being close to my skin where the top hits my stomach, it’s way too loose. “We are going to have to do a LOT of alterations on you.” Lovely. But she says she can have it ready by the next day, which is great, because the procrastinator in me is leaving for the wedding the morning after that.
Once we all decided on our tops and our sarees, we were brought over to the jewelry area. The woman seemed a bit sad when I told her that I couldn't wear the larger earrings she kept showing me because it would bother my ears, but I was excited about the small but intricate ones I picked out. She did, however, seem to agree that with how adorned my gold top was, that I didn’t necessarily need a necklace.
Bangles, though, we were not allowed to not do without. She sized our wrists and on mine, she kept having to try sizes down. I wasn’t size pink in bangles, but rather size 280, whatever that means. I picked out some nice gold ones. She also briefly showed me hair jewelry but told me it was “optional.” Since I was already spending a good bit, I took the option to not.
After we each paid, the two of us needing alterations to our tops were measured. One woman, the one who helped us earlier, had the measuring tape and was measuring around the top of our chest, our busts, and our stomachs, and another employee had alteration slips where she was writing down the information. I am sure Indian women, like all humans, have breasts that come in all shapes and sizes. I also know that the woman writing down the measurements confirmed it multiple times incredulously. “Are you sure? That seems too big on the middle measurement?” A third woman came over to help measure me, too. Alas, it was correct.
Other than the fact that apparently my body type simply doesn’t get to wear un-altered saree tops, we left feeling pretty confident that not only were we appropriate in wearing sarees to the wedding, but that we were embracing the culture. And still knowing that we’d need each other's help in getting dressed, and that we also needed to all walk in together. Just in case.
When I texted a [white] friend this morning that I had gotten a saree, I heard back what I thought I would hear – “is that okay to do?”
I believe this concern over ensuring we don’t accidentally offend anyone is a good thing. Being hyper-sensitive to making sure everyone is comfortable is good and necessary, after a time where it wasn’t even thought about.
But in this world of politically-correct occasionally-overbearing rules, we can’t forget to embrace each other’s cultures and experience them. Eat food you've never had. Go to church with your Catholic friend. Attend a Bat Mitzvah. Be the only white person somewhere. Be a minority. Attend a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting. Be open.
Don’t rely on people of one demographic to know what’s appropriate in another.
If you want to know something: ask someone of that ethnicity/religion/sexual orientation. And if you're asked a question? Answer. Don’t be offended. Don’t encourage a lack of knowledge.
America isn’t a melting pot. We don’t all just mix in together to one homogeneous culture. We are, in the words of a favorite English teacher, a tossed salad. The cucumber retains its distinct flavor from the tomato, but a cucumber in tomato juice is tasty and perfect. We're more delicious when we mingle.