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Style File: Aarohi Narain and the role of politics and place in fashion

Photo by Isa Escalona ’18

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Aarohi Narain’s last name. We apologize for the mistake.

For this week’s File I caught up with Aarohi Narain, a senior International Studies and Japanese double major with a minor in English. Narain is from New Delhi, India and spent her junior year, spring semester studying at a university in Tokyo, Japan. We spoke about what it means to navigate Macalester in traditional Indian dress, cultivating confidence through timeless fashion and how post-colonial theory informs her understanding of her style in relation to place, identity and power.

IE: What influences your style?

AN: I look to people who embody the confidence that I aspire to. One of those people is definitely my mom. She was really fashionable. When she was my age, she was doing things that were ahead of her time. I have her pencil skirts that she used to wear when she was twenty-something years old. She wears pants with kurtas and she was doing that before people started to accept that as a form of “East-West fusion.” She has a really good eye for colors. She’s the reason I wear a lot of gemstones, semi-precious stones and jewelry, and emphasize material, like satins, silks and slightly heavier materials. It’s really organic for me. I don’t  follow fashion blogs or anything like that really. My interest is not in being trendy because trends will come and go. I want to have a wardrobe where I could walk into almost any setting and feel like I was dressed for that sort of setting. And clothes that don’t age. Hence, the rich colors and the nice materials, of few clothes, but nice pieces.

IE: Do you think your style has evolved at all?

AN: The first couple of years at Macalester, I didn’t want to wear as many Indian clothes. There would be a lot of staring and a lot of questions. There was one time when I was just wearing Indian clothes for the sake of it and someone asked me, “Oh, is there some special occasion today?” or when there was this one person who said, “You’re dressing more colorful these days.” Which was code for, “you’re dressing more ethnic these days.” That’s when I realized I had been wearing Indian clothes almost like a costume, but it shouldn’t feel like a costume, right? That’s when I started integrating more Indian clothes into my everyday wardrobe like wearing the bangles that I wear everyday and heavier earrings. A lot of people would draw attention to heavier jewelry that I would be wearing but that’s always felt right for me. In that sense wearing more Indian clothes and feeling okay about it and still realizing that it’s a political decision I make every morning.

IE: Something I noticed while thinking about your style: you wear a lot of heels. That’s awesome, especially at Macalester where that’s not the norm at all.

AN: So a lot of people will think it’s because I’m trying to compensate about this inferiority I have about my height, but I just like wearing heels, I don’t find them painful; it helps with my posture. The fact that a lot of people don’t wear heels on campus makes me want to do it more. And the associations with heels is hyper-femininity, but when I’m wearing heels it’s like I’m working within the framework I’ve been given but asserting my own idea of femininity. During the winter it’s kinda perilous and I wouldn’t recommend it but I still do it.

IE: We’ve talked a lot about clothes. What about make-up?

AN: I’ve been doing this winged eyeliner thing since I was 14, probably. This goes back to my mom actually, seeing her wear kajal, the eyeliner under the eyes, and she would have that on everyday. I thought then and I still think that my mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, so a lot of my initial makeup inspiration is from her. I always do the winged liner no matter what; that’s a staple. IE: What other interests influence your style?

AN: I guess a lot of post-colonial authors and post-colonial theory. It sounds kinda absurd. Like what I said earlier about it being a political decision when I do that in that morning when I wear these earrings, I am inviting inquiry whether I like it or not. With my clothes I’m trying to find where I would place myself. Not only in the fabric of Indian society or New Delhi society but also here and what it means to be negotiating between different places constantly. Even in India, a lot of people will stare and ask questions. You’d think being home, the questions would stop, but even in India my way of dressing is not really the norm. So for me it’s very tied into identity, place, space and gender of course. After study abroad I feel triangulated between three different places. Which again feels far fetched from the notion of clothes. For me, every day when I dress, I am negotiating those different experiences  that I’ve had, and I’m negotiating what it means to inhabit a brown body and a brown, female, hypervisible, simultaneously invisible, body.

IE: Do you feel like you dress differently when you are home than when you’re here?

AN: In general I try to craft an aesthetic that feels true to me regardless of the place I’m in. It shows up more in jewelry for me. So there’s lots of earrings I could buy in India and wear here which could be considered fantastical but they’re really commonplace in India. Like those really heavy jhumkas, India has hundred of varieties of jhumkas and you could get them for like 100 rupees on any roadside stop. My search has always been for unique pieces that would be unique regardless of whether I’m in India or if I’m here. I don’t want Urban Outfitters desi. I’m not interested in the elephant pants. I have zero percent interest in that. I’m trying not to pander to the audience here. At the same time, I’m not trying to inhabit the stereotype of the foreign returnee who is always dressing scandalously.

IE: You said you feel triangulated between three places. What did you learn about your style while in Tokyo?

AN: I remember the first day that I got to Tokyo and I was at Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world. I was in a sea of black and beige and white and light pink coats and I was the only one wearing a deep burgundy coat. This is a generalization but most people wear pale pastel tones and if I would wear one article of clothing that was a bright color they’d say “Woah, that must be your favorite color, you’re always wearing it.” A lot of comments about my make-up being really heavy. It made me reflect a lot on color, color in all of its various connotations and meanings. One thing that I appreciated about Tokyo that I do aspire for is that almost everyone was wearing heels. I would literally see women on bicycles riding to the train station in their heels. So if anyone thinks it’s a feat for me to be wearing heels just around Macalester campus, that’s nothing.

There was this one time my host mom really wanted me to wear a yukata for my graduation ceremony from the university. A yukata is like a kimono but the light version of a kimono. It’s less ornate and generally more like the summer version of the kimono. I was really opposed to it because first of all, I have no right to wear it. Secondly, my body was really not what they had in mind when creating that article of clothing. I remember when she was putting it on me she would keep commenting on my physical features like, “Your waist is so slim,” or “Your bust is too large.” I don’t think she was realizing it but she was reminding me how much my body did not belong, and extrapolating that my body does not belong in Japan. I try to find clothes that I feel I belong in. IE: Is there anything else you’re looking forward to trying?

AN: Something that still bothers me is that I don’t know how to tie a sari for myself. And I love wearing saris but I have no idea how to do that for myself. And I’m wearing one for graduation but I’m gonna have my mom help me wear it. So I think I want to become adept at that as well as exploring my personal style within saris because there’s a lot of varieties. You have your shiny Bollywood style where there’s a lot of back showing and what not, or more conservative kind of older styles that tend to be in heavier materials like silk. Right now the sari is still kinda costume-y and I don’t want it to feel that way. It’s always like an heirloom thing with saris. My mom still has her wedding sari. Also I want to wear more cool pants. Cool pants and saris.

by Isabela Escalona iescalon@macalester.edu

October 5, 2017

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