The long and short of what to wear
My experiments with clothing in Bombay and beyond
By Stuti Johri
Everyone was naked. Everyone except me, that is. I was in a dull orange swimsuit, not realising that saunas were meant to be experienced without. Served me right for once snickering at less well-travelled Indians who wore jeans and salwar kameez to the beach.
Everyone was staring. In a room full of people in the nude, I was the odd one out. Nobody seemed to care, but I was already the only brown person in the room, and didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself. After taking a couple minutes to feel comfortable, I quietly stripped down. When in Sweden, I suppose. I had never been more grateful that my attempts at convincing my family to join me in a holiday activity had failed.
Everyone was…friendly? Lucas told me about leaving his job at Barclays to become a full-time tour guide, and Mikaela complained about her two children, who I recognised from her descriptions, having almost tripped over them while entering the sauna. For the first time, it dawned on me that a world exists where nudity is not automatically sexual. For the first time, I wasn’t conscious about my body - I barely thought about it after the first few minutes. The safety I could take for granted in that sauna was an experience I didn’t know I needed.
I wonder if girls’ exposed shoulders are really what schools should go after.
It was my first time on the other side of a 10th grade classroom. Some kids called me ma’am, others asked if I was old and/or qualified enough to be addressing them. I was there representing an NGO for women’s rights in India. “Why do you need an NGO for that?” one boy asked, gesturing at his female classmates still furiously noting down the contents of the blackboard I was about to erase. “Here, see, womens writes!”
As I explained provisions of the Indian Penal Code which concerned activities the girls in that class had grown so accustomed to they didn’t even consider the possibility they could be criminal offences, some boys remained convinced that feminism had gone too far and insisted on playing devil’s advocate.
“How many of you think carefully about what you wear when you leave the house in terms of how likely you are to be harassed?” I asked. All the girls raised their hands. The boys looked around in a stunned silence.
Years of secretly travelling by the Mumbai local to buy myself more time (Bandra to my home = 90 minutes by road, seven minutes by local; thank you gods of traffic) meant I was intimately familiar with essential short-cuts when I started my 9 to 5 at a corporate law firm. A few days in, I also became intimately familiar with the way my body was received in the back lane that leads to Bombay Central.
The blatant stares felt like little insects running over my body. I usually had earphones in to tune them out on my five-minute walk to the station. That day, I’d spent eight minutes in front of the mirror, preparing myself to be unapologetic about the grey skirt, a corporate law staple that would’ve abided by my school’s four-fingers-above-the-knee rule. Back straight, walk with purpose. A little head-bob for extra effect. Unbothered.
Until a saree clad woman, midriff bared, spat on my foot.
I took out an earphone.
“Iss se achha kapde na hi pehenti, randi!”
A woman? Slut-shaming another woman? Groundbreaking.
I already knew that what I wore was likely going to be out of the comfort zone of people on the local. But I was safe in the familiar bustling lanes in daylight. That interaction shouldn’t have bothered me. And yet, I was shaking. I hailed a cab to protect me from the stares that I couldn’t tune out that day.
Mom has always been quite conservative when it comes to clothes. Day one of lockdown, I wore what can only be described as a frat-boy tank top, no bra, armpit hair and sideboob and shorts that barely cover my butt. I fully expected mom and dadi to object.
Nobody said a word. We were in lockdown, so there was no possibility of me being seen by a male guest. It hit me then: my family censored my clothing not from a personal moral objection, but only to protect me from nature’s deadliest predator: men.
For the first time in my life, I wore what felt good. Clothes that felt light and airy on my skin, that made me feel beautiful. The blue backless top I bought from a flea market, the brown dress that felt like clouds and was just as translucent, all things I knew I could never wear in sight of Indian men (or on rare occasions, wore defiantly, but only when I knew I’d be surrounded by trusted ones).
In Bombay, I had a pile of clothes I reserved for international holidays. Savni (more friend than colleague) and I would order shorts and low-cut tops and dresses online, try them on for each other (sometimes in the office bathroom after hours), and keep them carefully. Savni threw parties at her home so we could wear them. Someday, we’ll be able to wear these in public, we’d say. Since moving to London last year, I feel beyond lucky that someday is now here, although it really depends on how you define “able to wear these in public”: it’s currently -1 degrees Celsius outside. But in theory…
There are many Bombay sounds I miss. Waves splashing against Marine Drive or Worli sea-face or Carter Road, rain splashing against the hood of a car, oil splashing as street vendors fry vadas. The relentless honking, even. “Aye chh chh chh” from strange men is not one of them.
Stuti Johri is a writer, currently finding her way in the world of business strategy in London. Follow her on Instagram.