Dream Girls

cover photo

We made three women out of our fantasies and stray fabric. We dreamt of dresses that we couldn’t wear, the women we couldn’t be. An actress in an elegant evening gown, a seductive dancer in a cabaret costume and a lady extravagantly dressed in a saree were just some of our aspirations that we pointed out in glossy fashion magazines.

On life size pieces of calico, we drew our dream girls. We gave them shape, movement and vision. We even made their bodies – pink, wheatish and brick brown. We sourced old clothes and deliberated on which of those would be the best to use. A royal blue salwar kameez with lace was chosen for the understated evening gown. A green salwar kameez with a golden border would transform into a bikini blouse and a mini skirt for the dancer. An old black saree would be embellished and draped on the classy lady.

Like busy Pygmalions we worked in the community hall and brought to life the lovely ladies. We named them after famous Bollywood actresses – Katrina, Helen and Rekha. Each name and each garment represented a different ideal – dressing differently from the prescribed cultural expectations, dressing sexily yet confidently, dressing in rich clothes and jewellery.

After the dresses, we gave them their accessories. Strips of golden cloth became bangles for Rekha in her saree. We even made a golden pouch for her and decorated it with buttons and cloth flowers. We put a band of pearls on Katrina’s wrist and shoes of gold, black and red. We had to make sure that Helen in her dancing attire was most decorated – sequin earrings, mehendi for her hands and anklets for her feet.

Before we mounted them on frames, we perfected their hair. Different shades of wool and beige fabric left Katrina looking like Botticelli’s Venus. A stray bit of nylon rope the colour of tomatoes was unravelled to make the hair for fiery Helen. For Rekha, an elegant plait made of black wool and garbage bags.

When they were complete, we mounted them on wooden frames. Our dream girls were resplendent, confident and dignified, irrespective of what they wore. We stepped into their shoes and for a moment knew what it felt like.

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The dream girls resulted from a workshop conducted by Mary Whitaker in which participants recycled old clothes to create life size depictions of women in garments they felt they had no access to.

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Appropriating My Dress: Four snapshots

As a girl evolves into a woman, she inherits the codes of dressing. She alters her sartorial choices depending on the age, occasion, space and culture. It is a crucial lesson that she learns early from her parents, peers, educational institutions, popular media and religious establishments. Furthermore it is a constant negotiation with a highly codified system that defines women by what they choose to wear.

But who decides what a woman should wear?

Anjali Amma: My daughter-in-law has issues with me wearing a nightie (a nightgown) at home. Given my age (she is around 50 years old) and my position as a widow, she thinks I must dress more demurely. This was especially of concern to her when I went to Chennai to visit my relatives and wore a nightie on most days. They were shocked that I was wearing that instead of a saree and word reached my daughter-in-law who severely reprimanded me. I like wearing a nightie. It is far more comfortable than a saree on hot afternoons. I think I picked up the habit when I worked as a house cleaner and was requested by my employer to wear a uniform that resembled a dress. I myself have no objections when my daughter and son want to dress in any way they like. I have only rule: Dress how you like but don’t tease others about their dressing preferences.

Anjali Amma (left) learns a few tricks from Mary Whitaker.

Anjali Amma (left) learns a few tricks from Mary Whitaker.

Mary Whitaker: The choice of dress is mostly dependent on need or occasion regardless of how liberated the woman or free-thinking the society might be. For example, the formal attire in which a woman appears in at work would be very different from the daring options she might wear for a girls’ night out. In most cases, tasteful sense takes precedence. There have been times when I have seen haute couture garments or really risqué clothing and wondered how I might look in them. Either I cannot afford these clothes or am not bold enough to wear them, but I do try them out in the privacy of a trial room to see what I might look like in, say, hot pants. Yet over the years, I have become more confident about my choices. If I used to wear long skirts earlier, the hemline has gone up and though I was initially self-conscious, you realise it is only a matter of getting used to.

Usha wishes she was as short as the other participants.

Usha wishes she was as short as the other participants.

Usha: I usually like wearing a saree or a salwar kameez. I sometimes wish I was shorter (to which Mary remarked that her height would be a rage on fashion shows!). When I go on picnics, I change into t-shirts or trousers. My son plays a huge role in deciding what I wear, especially if I need to visit his college. He then insists I wear a trendy salwar kameez instead of a saree. Maybe he is afraid that his friends might judge us based on the way I dress. I follow his orders. (laughs) I might dress differently in say jeans and t-shirts if I was living in the States. I personally would have no objections if my son’s wife wanted to dress in western clothes. The next generation will have different choices than us and we should respect that.

Sure minded Nirmala explains her team's creation to the group.

Sure minded Nirmala explains her team’s creation to the group.

Nirmala: My husband has no problems with the way I dress. He insists that I try out modern outfits but I am comfortable only in sarees. It is fine to say that one should be trendy but it is really tough when friends, neighbours and relatives are ready to be so judgemental about you. I dress in my best sarees when I have to come for sangini meetings but I shall experiment with western clothes only if I lived abroad where everybody does the same. Nobody will be there to judge you!

The above discussion was part of a workshop conducted by Mary Whitaker on dream clothes.