Gender, Community Identity and Norms Regarding Women’s Sartorial Choices: Responding to Designer Sabyasachi’s Remarks on the Sari from an Anglo-Indian Perspective

Jyothsna Latha Belliappa

Abstract


In this paper I draw on accounts of women teachers from the Anglo-Indian community to respond to a debate that occurred in the Indian media in 2018 regarding the representation of the sari as the ‘national dress’.  This debate occurred following the comments of celebrated fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee at Harvard University, USA, where he stated that Indian women who do not know how to tie a sari should be ashamed of themselves. Mukherjee went on to equate the sari with national identity, thereby otherising the sartorial traditions and cultural identities of many linguistic, regional and religious minorities in India including Anglo-Indians. Mukherjee’s position is not isolated. It is seen that women’s bodies often become the sites on which national and community identities are inscribed. For instance, until a few years ago, some Anglo-Indian schools in Bangalore required women teachers from the community to wear Western dress. Based on women teachers’ accounts I argue that popular and powerful figures like Mukherjee attempt to inscribe national or community identities on the bodies of women by prescribing their clothing choices. Although women themselves evoke different strategies to conform with or to challenge these prescriptions, this enactment of agency does not always protect their identities from being threatened by majoritarian tendencies and leaves them vulnerable to harassment and prejudicial behaviour. 


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