This isn't the first time I'm posting my qualms with the New York Times Travel section on the Roti. Maybe I'm slowly developing some animosity towards travel writing, but really this time my problem is more about the going-ons they mention in passing than with the travel-journalism which fails to comment on it...
FIVE years ago, a typical night out in New Delhi was a family trip to the latest Bollywood blockbuster. Then came the so-called children of the liberation. The young heirs to India's new market economy grew up on Indian MTV, made more money than their parents and now wanted to party.
Flushed with disposable income, they carved out a kinetic new night life in south Delhi, an upscale collection of neighborhoods stretching from Humayun's tomb in the north to Qutab Minar in the south. "Delhi is no longer a snake charmer city," said Sandeep Gandotra, a nightclub promoter who is planning to publish Delhi's first party listings magazine.
The south Delhi scene has even spread east and south into the neighboring suburbs of Noida and Gurgaon. The most popular club is Elevate (Centerstage Mall, Sector 18; 91-120-2513904; www.elevateindia.com), in Noida, a four-story, techno-playing joint that forbids traditional Indian attire like saris and is known for its pickup scene. The taps flow until 4 a.m.
This article has stirred some discussion on the South Asian Women's Creative Collective listserv, where some members have chronicled their own experiences trying to get into uber-chic Delhi hotspots and getting the boot by managers and bouncers due their donning of saris or shalwar kameez. Because THAT attire did not reflect the "scene" or "tone" the management was looking for. It also connects to a discussion ensuing on another blog about how even in the Desh, desi clothing is increasingly being referred to as "ethnic" in marketing & advertising [read: exotic, foreign, maybe backward or "other"?]
So I try to rationalize this: India is trying reinvent its image as chic and sleek with a blossoming nightlife. Even nightclubs and lounges in NYC can be selective about dress code. But I've been to NYC hotspots clad in a kurta, and it wasn't the least bit an issue...
Then, my fashion design-school drop-out intuition tells me to completely stop over-analyzing and look at in broader perspective: India has a fashion design market that is BOOMING, in part due to Indian designers' interest in reinventing very desi clothing detailing, styling, and sensibilities with Western(ized) customers in mind...they're catering to that new hipster crowd with disposable income in the newly developing glossy ready-to-wear boutiques like never before (say bye bye to tailors drinking chai in your drawing rooms ladies!). And these nightspots are just following suite, since after all, those people are their patrons.
But even if this is a trend why does it need to be a mandatory dress-code policy? Why can't individuals choose to dress desi when they are in fact in the sub-contintent? What does it signify? And how does this harken back to the colonized past when signs would read "no dogs or Indians allowed" or when going-Oriental was an elite fashion trend amongst the British in South Asia and back in the English mother land?
Personally, this isn't the first time I'm battling with these questions. Let's consider how "ethnic chic" plays out in Western nations. With Madonna's mispronouncing her way through Sanskrit verses, Gwen Stefani's donning of the bindi and saris (sarong-style mind you), the late-90's mendhi henna tattoo trend, and most recently the kussa slippers that can be found in every store in NYC from Chinatown to Bloomingdale's--let's just say I feel constantly bombarded. "Ethnic chic" clothing has been plastering itself all over Elle, Vogue, and the like.
This all makes for a very complicated conversation when you consider that around the same time the bindi was new and cute on Gwen Stefani’s pale skin, it sparked the 1997 “Dot-Busters” movement when seen against the brown skin of South Asian Hindu women in many parts of New Jersey and NYC. Some Americans responded to this “body jewelry” negatively to the point where it sparked violence and hatred, simultaneously others looked to it as the newest trend. It seems that this Western embrace was not of India or South Asians in or out of the Diaspora, but rather, aspects of Indian fashion, only in the form of "Western packaging" (read: Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Princess Di, etc)
So it seems aesthetic elements from the Indian subcontinent have frequently been finding themselves incorporated into a globally eclectic approach to dressing—bright colors, mehndi designs, bindis, chandelier earrings, intricate embroidery, and creatively draped fabrics have carved their own space in the fashion world. This is ironic considering it is these very elements of their native culture that emphasize their inherent “Otherness” and have typically made South Asians in the Diaspora feel alienated. What was once weird and ridiculed by the kids on the playground is now interesting and alluring because of the way it is packaged and marketed specifically for consumers in the Western marketplace; creative advertising has made these elements accessible in ways that South Asians themselves just cannot parallel.
By fusing aspects of the familiar with the unfamiliar, these styles are reinvented and lose any “traditional” connotations that previously made them seem inaccessible to audiences in the West--and perhaps this has reprecussions back in South Asia as well. The phenomenon of fashion crossing multiple borders and being reinterpreted by intermediaries to reinvent itself as "fashion" is poignantly analyzed by Carla Jones, Ann Marie Leshkowich, and Sandra Niessen in Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress as follows,
The garment has to cross a border to become ‘fashion,’ in a way that it could never have been while South Asian women wore it, and the only person capable of taking it across that border was a privileged celebrity and outsider. Another affect of the garment’s journey was to make it seem newly chic to those women who had always worn it in their everyday lives. The irony for them, however, was that pride in their garment’s new fashionability could be interpreted through Orientalizing logic as a kind of enlightenment, a consciousness about the value of their garment that could only come from the Western fashion establishment telling them what was precious in their cultural heritage and what was not. The effect, then, was that these very women could appear to be imitating Western fashions even as they were said to be wearing their own traditional clothing (pg. 20).
So I wonder how this may manifest itself amongst the Delhi nightlife crowd? Is it possible that another Western pop icon's obsession with desi chic could influence fashion trends in the circles of the Desh's elite hipset and change club dress code policies? Because after all, isn't this all about who they're trying to keep out and who they're trying to get in--elitism at its best. Ugh--Clothing can be used as such a signifier!
I wonder if they would refuse entry to a guy wearing a classicly Western Nehru collar jacket! All I know is, if I'm ever faced with some bouncer who won't let me through clad in shalwar kameez, I might need to ditch the shalwar and create a makeshift dress--That stint in fashion school was oh so useful! :)