Courtesy of Meera Estrada
Growing up in Canada in the 80s, my Indian culture was the butt of many jokes. I’ve been teased about my bushy, “curry-smelling” eyebrows, and even my “dirty hands” — aka discolored leftover henna from family weddings. Yet despite so much cruelty endured, my love for Indian aesthetics never wavered. I adopted it very early in my everyday wardrobe, starting with my payal (anklets), which I started wearing after a trip to India as a teenager.
My family saw and experienced a lot on this trip, which ended up changing my life and altering my personal style in many ways. Our first stop was in Mumbai, home to Bollywood’s elite, where we stayed in some of the most lavish hotels in the world, giving me a taste of luxury living. We also visited my parents’ humble childhood homes in the villages of Gujarat, as well as many places in between. Across the country and its vast socio-economic divide, one thing that stood out to me the most was the expression of personal style through jewelry. Be it bracelets, a nath (nose ring) or a payal, these accessories were worn by everyone.
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During this same trip, I also dug deeper into my family history as Dalits or “Untouchables”, which is the lowest social stratification of the Hindu caste system. For a group that continues to be shunned by society in overt and subtle ways, accessories – no matter how simple – take on more meaning. After seeing them worn by my family members, they have become symbols of self-love and empowerment. They meant that we, too, were beautiful and dignified, no matter what society considered us. When my dad bought me my first set of payals, I put them on and have worn them every day since. Even in our cold Canadian winters, my payals are tucked away safely under my socks or tights.
In my late twenties, I really came into my own in terms of fashion identity. I saw clothing and accessories as a way to express myself and started to incorporate even more Indian accessories into my Western looks, including traditional belts, bracelets, headpieces and earrings. . Even today, as an on-air personality in Canada, I almost always wear Indian earrings or bracelets (and, of course, my salary) on set with my western clothes. I hope my fellow South Asians will be proud to see these cultural plays on national television. I also want non-Asians to see how they can incorporate these pieces into their style too.
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There has been a lot of talk around cultural appropriation in recent years, and several non-Asian friends or followers on social media have expressed hesitation in experimenting with Indian fashion and accessories (this Diwali episode of And just like that, when Carrie and Seema visit the sari shop, comes to mind). However, I personally believe that cultural exchanges box to be beautiful, especially in fashion, and I’m happy to see these looks embraced by non-Asians – as long as they’re worn in a respectful and appreciative way, knowing that my culture is absolutely not a costume.
Today, with shows like Mindy Kaling’s I have never and, more recently, Netflix Bridgerton, we are starting to see Indian representation globally like never before. It’s exciting because not only are we celebrating Indian culture and fashion, we’re finally celebrating dark skin Indian beauty also challenges the prevailing ideal of fairness, both in India and abroad. I can only imagine how much more confident I would have been growing up had there been shows like this, which make me feel seen today.
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Asian celebrities like Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani, Lilly Singh and, now, Bridgerton stars Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran also proudly display their heritage at star-studded parties and on red carpets. They bring greater exposure to Indian designers, fashion staples and the aesthetic that I love so much.
Getty Images Poorna Jagannathan, Mindy Kaling and Richa Moorjani attend the Phenomenal x Live Tinted Diwali dinner.
I now feel like my two worlds have converged and I am able to embrace my cultural identity without any compromise. When iconic Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherji teamed up with H&M for his spirit of adventure collection, I was giddy with excitement. Just a few weeks ago, when I left for my first vacation after two and a half years of confinement, I was finally able to wear the collection to the beach (and not just in my bedroom). The pieces have received many compliments and “where did you buy thisyou?!inquiries, and I am grateful for the conversations they have sparked.
I hope all Asians, during AAPI month and beyond, will be proud of our roots. Embracing these expressions of our culture through our style and fashion choices, whether considered “trendy” or not, is only empowering but worthy of celebration – always.