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Young, Desi, and Fashionable

September 2003
Young, Desi, and Fashionable

Generation ABCD is all around you. They're the first group of Desi-Americans born in this country in such high numbers, so it's getting harder to miss them. The generation now in college, recently out, or almost in is growing roots that are starting to show. By fusing the American culture that many of them were born into with the Indian culture they now have the confidence in (due to the increasing numbers of our people here), young Desi-Americans are creating their own identity. With identity comes culture? or, in this case, pop culture.

So when you call them Gen-ABCD, it's no longer a tongue in cheek remark because pop-culture is a sign of creation, not confusion. They now have student organizations at almost every major college in the country, Desi nights at clubs in almost every large city, and DJ's in those clubs who play bhangra and rap remixes.

Desi-American fashion trends and styles are in! To the uninitiated though, these trends are no different than some of the Indian influences on the American pop culture ? such as bindi and henna (temporary tattoos). The line between those influences and Desi-American pop-culture, however, is hazy. Indian-embroidered shirts and sari-skirts marketed by the likes of Abercrombie and Fitch, Urban Outfitters, and American Eagle only marginally entered the Desi-American closet. I bought my sari-skirt in high school mostly for its novelty, thinking I could wear it to our events with ambiguous dress codes. This, however, has only happened twice.

For the most part, pop-culture Desi-American trends are really fashion statements, born without the help of American advertising. The appeal seems to lie in things that are both truly Indian, yet cool and stylish by American standards. Nose rings, for example, are back on the upswing with the girls. While women in India have been wearing studs and rings in their noses since at least the 16th century, nose piercing was for the most part left behind in the migration to America. So even though our grandmothers wore nose rings, our mothers took theirs out. Now their daughters are proving that it's not what you wear, but how you wear it, that counts.

Shyla, 21, got her nose ring as a high school junior. "I thought it would look good," she shrugs. "I wanted it because it's a part of my culture." She also mentions that she wouldn't have gotten a tongue ring. Nose rings, after all, are like tongue and eyebrow rings in American society ? counter-culture remnants of the 60's. They embody youth, fearlessness, and shamelessness (which are often unjustly misconstrued as recklessness or teen angst).

But Shyla has hit on something. Not many Desi girls would walk through their front doors displaying tongue rings, or want to. Ultimately, nose rings are traditional and acceptable in the Desi community, and the wearer feels a more significant cultural bond, something other piercing can't offer. Now that Indians are becoming more prominent in this country, the early fear of being alienated for sporting a nose ring is diminishing.���Desi girls enjoy all the advantages by wearing them: they're OK with their parents, American society is beginning to accept them as cultural style symbols, and they continue to be very hip, and very sexy.

Om tattoos were born of the same account. A tattoo in America sends the same message of nonconformism as a body piercing. Among the most popular tattoos for American teens these days are exotic, ethnic designs, many like Eastern henna designs. To an outsider's eye, a tattoo of the letter Om fits this description: flowing, exotic, and a potent mystical symbol. From a cultural perspective, the tattoo is a commitment to the religion. Like the nasally-punctured girls, tattoo-bearers get the best of both. (Om tattoos are also used as gang symbols. The same appeal of religion and rebellion surely applies, but without knowing the nature of these gangs, it's hard to know the meaning they find in their tattoos)

Most Desi-Americans' clothing hasn't yet been affected at a basic level. For the most part, ethnically-inspired clothes are still big in the designer world, either with non-ethnic designers or Desi designers looking for an untapped market. Their presence, however, lessens the growth of grassroots trends, as they make ethnic clothing without the designer cut and flair unfashionable when worn as part of an American outfit.

Yet recently, the guys - surprisingly - have been popularizing trends. "I still see boys wearing chappals [casual Indian sandals] with jeans and white shirts," says Urmi, 24, although she approves of her own male friends' abstention from this trend. Comfortable and easy to slip on, they fit the life - and fashion style of many young Desi guys.

Kurta tops, ranging from casual and comfortable to sophisticated and sleek, are also being rediscovered. Whether white or vibrant, cotton or silk, a shorter cut kurta looks perfect with a pair of blue jeans. They're almost better than button down shirts: the casual kurtas look more hip, the dressy kurtas look more stylish. This fashion has recently become so popular internationally that fashion designers in India have started marketing high-end versions of the very humble shirts.

Girls aren't wearing pieces of their Indian dresses to quite the same degree, but they have been spotted making good use of their otherwise dormant fabrics. Pashmina shawls and Indian wraps are still doubling as winter scarves and as wraps for little black dresses. Desi girls are also doubling their choli suits for formal evening gowns, being that in cut and color, the current styles for both make them essentially the same. The choli advantage, however, is in the fabric and embroidery that makes the other gowns in the room pale by comparison.

Girls are also increasingly mixing and matching jewelry. Why keep Indian jewelry for Indian clothes and Western jewelry for Western clothes, when interchanging them doubles the options? Many girls wear Indian-gold necklaces, earrings, or bracelets out of habit or tradition. Large flashy costume jewelry, wrought metal pieces, and colorful folk designs, however, can turn an ordinary outfit different. Simple sterling silver pieces, on the other hand, give simple colored saris and salwar khameez extra class and chic. While designers have also taken up fusion jewelry designs, the real charm is in wearing something authentic or vintage in a new context. The trend can also be a source of great entertainment. Walking with payal through a college library can garner a girl a lot of attention.���

With the market growing, we may soon see designers, from here or there, specifically targeting Desi-Americans. Or, as Indian clothes bought and sold in America shows greater Western influences, maybe more clothes can be worn in different contexts. Any way it happens, there is much to be said for young Desi-American pop-culture fashion.

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