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Ethnic Elegance

July 2005
Ethnic Elegance

Does Indian fashion have a place in America? Here's a primer to assembling a wardrobe that is both traditional as well as urban chic.


While most people think of the sari when they think of traditional Indian clothing, there are a wide variety of ethnic outfits available as chic alternatives that are easily integrated into a more traditional, Western wardrobe. Indian clothes continue to lend a feminine allure that is attractive. For some, it is a fashion statement; for others, it is an opportunity to bring out their inner diva; and for others still a way to negotiate their bicultural identity. What is it exactly about Indian clothes that manage to attract a sophisticated urban crowd while still being something your mother would want you to wear on a second date? That, of course, is the powerful, sensual enigma that is the hallmark of an urban desi wardrobe.

Kurtis, an offshoot of the traditional kurta, or shirt worn by both men and women, have seen a revival in the last few years. Kurtis vary in length and cut and may be worn at or above the waist. A shorter hemline is usually more conducive for a "city girl" look. Effortlessly paired with jeans or tailored pants, they can be the perfect sparkle to your everyday wardrobe. Designers use a variety of fabrics ranging from cotton, crepe, and georgette to satin, silk and georgette. Embroidery like sequins, handwork, chikna, zardosi, ethnic block print, beadwork, and rubber print are just a few options.

These items can easily be mixed and matched into a professional wardrobe or are perfect with boots and a leather jacket for an evening out. Soft makeup, bangles, gold hoops or chandelier earrings, and a beaded purse complete the look. A stole or duputta can also be loosely draped around the shoulders for a more elegant look. The result? An image which is both feminine yet conveys a sense of independence and urban hipness. Combining rich fabrics such as silk and crepe and very sheer fabrics like chiffon assures each piece is unique and authentic. Delicate embroidery offers a soft touch to each piece, creating a soft feminine glow to the woman who wears it. Bridal and formal options too have widened their net, as creative metropolitan denizens explore options outside the traditional and red and maroon color scheme. Gold hues have also gained popularity among today's crowd, offering a touch of warmth and celebration appropriate for any festive occasion.

The chanya choli, also known as ghagra choli or lengha, is another popular choice often used as formal or semi-formal attire by many women. The choli is a fitted blouse that ends several inches above the navel. Longer bodice pieces can also be worn for a more understated look. For a more daring look, backless cholis can also be worn and similarly accessorized with jeans. Halter neck cholis, cholis with beadwork, and tieback cholis are some of the sleek options available today. The lengha or skirt is usually full length and flared with several folds like a sari. The outfit is often accompanied by a dupatta, which is often draped across the bodice and double folded at the waist similar to a sari.

The Kacch region of Gujarat and Rajasthan, historically famous for its textiles and skilled artisanship, also offers a variety of ethnic block prints and in vibrant, tie-dyed hues. The Rann of Kacch, known for its endless desert and solitary way of life, has been captured by photographers and journalists across the world. Not surprisingly, it has also been the inspiration for many fashion designers who have combined the unique block prints, ethnic designs and patterns characteristic of this region, which were famously recorded on ancient Indus valley seals. Fragile skirts gather at the ankles in numerous folds. Anklets and stacked bracelets are the perfect accessory to the completed piece.

Last but not least is the perennial salwar kameez, which has become the habitual mainstay of both rural and urban Indian women. Originally worn in the Punjab region, this piece has become a mainstay of Indian couture. Both elegant and feminine, the flexibility of cuts, textures, and styles can be uniquely tailored to any woman's body shape and height. The outfit, which consists of loose trousers and a low-waisted tunic, has several variations to ensure appeal for every palette. The pants should be several inches longer than one's height and is a perfect choice for petite women who want to create a more sophisticated look. It also gives an illusion of being slightly taller than one is. Soft silhouettes can be used on every body type, hugging every curve or creating long, slender lines for a leaner look.

In recent years, the traditional salwar has been replaced by elegant trousers, which offer the illusion of full-length by not tapering at the ankles. Coupled with a low waisted tunic these "parallels" or newer salwar kameezes are here to stay. These may be fitted to the contours of your body or be worn loose. Beadwork, lace, sequins and slits have been popularized by designers such as J.J. Vallya, Ritu Beri and others.

Tunics may be worn short or long (similar to kurtis). Necklines also vary to suit individual tastes and are usually decorated with intricate and ornate stitching or beadwork. For a more subdued, delicate style, diminutive sequins and stitched patterns along the hem and necklines create a gentle glow. Fitted, loose, and sleeveless styles with slits emphasize the curves along the hipline combining the straight lines of the waist with the flared contours of the lower body. A sheer dupatta, gracing the bodice or worn at the shoulder, looks particularly nice with a fitted parallel salwar kameez.

These days, the best designers try to integrate patterns and fabrics from different regions of India, often traveling to remote parts for creative inspiration. In the final analysis, though, fashion and style like all external adornment must be a physical manifestation of an inner light. It is this radiance that Pratima Raichur, an expert on Ayurvedic beauty and healing, speaks of as an "inner vitality so compelling?that our attractiveness transcends all modes of fashion and all popular ideals. It is unmistakable and unforgettable." Because Indian clothes manage to bring that light to the surface with a subtle delicacy, they not only spark attraction from others, but also heighten our own sense of well-being and spiritual harmony.

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