Though I grew up in the mountain west and only moved east 11 years ago, if you took a look in my closet you'd think I'd been a New York Girl all my life. I remember one day walking through Loehman's looking for a spring dress, and getting to the dressing room only to find that I had, in fact, picked up six black dresses and one gray one to try on. In Manhattan, a black sheath is the perfect thing to wear to a spring picnic, apparently.
So when I stepped off the plane in the Ghandi international airport in New Delhi, India, a few weeks back, I actually thought I was hallucinating—I had left Copenhagen at 5 am, and, after stops in Ukraine for lunch, Azerbaijan for dinner, and an unexpected delay due to monsoon rain, had finally landed in Delhi at 3:20 am—everywhere there were women clad head-to-toe in flaming pinks and cerulean blues, with glints of gold and flashes of tiny mirrors momentarily dazzling my over-tired eyes. It was as if A Clockwork Orange was sharing a backlot with a Bollywood movie. Hello India.
As I have walked through the wild textile markets and enormous western-style shopping malls in Delhi, I've come to realize that the primary rule of Indian fashion is this: Anything Goes.
Indian women tend to wear clothing with a rather conservative cut: usually a traditional Sari—a long swath of floor-length silk or cotton wrapped and pleated in a complicated fashion at the waist, with the end thrown over the shoulder, and a cropped shirt underneath—or a salwar kameez, an everyday suit, which consists of a long tunic top or dress with a pair of leggings, jodhpurs or harem pants underneath. Initially I thought this conservative turn was a force of tradition, which is partially true, but after galavanting about in Delhi for a day in a knee-length western-style dress, I came to understand it was also a force of climate, and the joys of having light cotton or silk covering nearly every inch of your body became apparent—humidity plus grime plus bare skin equals disaster.
What Indian fashion lacks in choices of shape, it makes up for one hundred fold in color, pattern and bling, and somehow anything and everything goes in that department. Electric green floral print paired with purple and black geometric patterns and trim embroidered with pink, yellow and green paisley print? Sure! Bright pink and gold from head to toe? Obviously! Fifty pounds of rhinestones on the hem of your sari? Well, only on special occasions. Hot pink is the navy blue of India.
The combinations somehow rarely come across as grating, but rather as an exuberant expression of the colorful life and culture of the country. Walking through the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar this week, I couldn't decide which was more dazzling—the manicured gardens of azaleas and dahlias, or the equally bright bouquets of women strolling along the garden paths.
After that first day of coming home and scraping a quarter inch of sweat and grime off my legs, I did what any good fashionista would when faced with a conundrum of culture and climate—I went shopping. The women at the shop I visited excitedly pulled out combinations of bedazzled tunics and bright jodhpurs, handing me outfit after outfit of bolds and brights to try on. When I emerged thirty minutes later from the dressing room, they looked at me befuddled as I laid my selection, which I had culled from different outfits they had handed me, on the counter.
It was entirely black.