My love affair with clothes started early.
I don’t exactly remember when, though I do remember the first garment I was deeply enamoured by. It was my mother’s shiny black velvet kurta that was adorned with bugs embroidered in gold zari and iridescent sequins. She always wore it with a dull-gold raw silk Patiala salwaar and looked nothing short of a vision. This kurta, that was so dear to my mother, only saw the light of day once a year on New Years eve. It was her version of the loyal, timeless, and ever-flattering little black dress.
As much as I loved seeing this exquisite outfit on my mother, I yearned for the day the kurta would be handed down to me. Growing up, hand-me-downs constituted a substantial portion of my wardrobe. From my elder brother’s baggy sweaters that he’d outgrown, to my aunt’s flowy old dresses, my current eclectic aesthetic is a product of the mishmash of prints, patterns and styles that I grew up wearing.
I have never known to look at clothes as disposable commodities. In my home, as in most Indian households, clothes that wore out were cut up into kitchen towels and wipes, used for dusting and mopping. Clothes that were in decent condition, but which no one wore anymore found their way to people in need.
This was my first experience of ‘sustainability’ years before I even knew and understood what the word meant.
Sartorial sentimentality: Emotional significance of clothes in the Indian culture
Historically speaking, ours is a country where our relationship with clothes is largely driven by emotion rather than function alone. For centuries, major cultural events such as religious festivals and life-cycle rituals have been associated with gifting and wearing new garments, thus rendering them sentimental value. During the Swadeshi movement, the khadi became an emotional symbol of national assertion against the British Raj. During partition, the clothes that people carried across the border, became few of the only tangible memories of their homeland.
In her book, Recycling Indian Clothing, Global Contexts of Reuse and Value, author Lucy Noris establishes how Indian wardrobes are largely made up of “rarely worn wedding saris, piles of unworn gifts, favourite clothes that are past their best, and unsuitable and unwanted garments” owing to the emotional attachment the wearer has with these garments.
Patching pieces of the past: The art of repurposing textiles in India
Much before the Hindi term jugaad became the buzzword that it is today, Indian women had mastered the quintessential desi art of frugal reinvention — of ‘upcycling’ old clothes into exquisite, one-of-a-kind new textiles. For a long time, the act of recycling and repurposing old clothes has been a means for Indians to preserve their history while also being thrifty. Furthermore, many Indian states have made a thriving business out of repurposing old clothes using craft techniques unique to their culture.
In the eastern Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Orissa, and Bihar, the technique of kantha embroidery is used to patch together old bits of textiles, and turn them into unique furnishings and wearables. Various tribes across the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan use the techniques of patchwork, embroidery, and mirror work to create vibrantly adorned works of wearable art using old fabrics. In Jammu and Kashmir, the nomadic Bakkarwal and Gujjar tribes embroider old felt blankets using acrylic yarn and convert them into colourful rugs. They also make intricately embroidered caps, bags and accessories using old fabrics. The famous hand-stitched Godhadi patchwork quilts of Maharashtra and Goa are made using old sarees and dhotis.
Spotlight on sustainability: Fashion’s green agenda
Sustainability is now a crucial point of discussion and focus for the fashion industry, with discerning consumers increasingly demanding brands to be kinder and fairer to their workers and the planet. In wake of the coronavirus pandemic, even as fashion brands are struggling to stay afloat, sustainability will remain an important agenda. A recent Business of Fashion article quotes global luxury group, Kering’s Head of Sustainability, Marie-Claire Daveu. “In times of crisis, it’s more and more important to show you can run a good business and at the same time protect people and the environment for the long run. Profit and purpose are not fighting.”, says Daveu.
Critics of sustainable fashion bash it for being an elitist idea that the common man cannot buy into, both literally and metaphorically. However, if history is proof of anything, it is that our ancestors have been great proponents of reusing and repurposing — the pillars of conscious consumption. This was a way of life for them long before it became fashionable. They have taught us to make the best of what we have, and, in doing so, have helped us discover and retain bits and pieces of our own past.
In 2018, when I married and moved out of my family home, my mother sent with me a large trunk of gorgeous heirloom garments — clothes that belonged to her, my grandmother and my great grandmother. I searched eagerly in it for that velvet kurta, but couldn’t find it. I immediately asked my mom, and she told me she hadn’t seen it in a while, and would look for it.
I still haven’t been able to get my hands on that precious kurta, but I am happy to wait for it.
Of all of my mother’s clothes that are now bequeathed to me, that will be the most special. It reminds me of the reason I fell in love with clothes. It was never about the trends or the labels; it was about feeling and emotion. It was about beauty and wonder. It was about creativity and expression.
And these are really the things that money can’t buy — they’re priceless.5