One of the things I do as a folklorist is study body art, or the conscious modification or supplementation to the body. Body art topics range from the more sensational–tattoos, corsetry, piercings–to the mundane: clothing (everyday and special occasion), hair styles, facial hair, and jewelry. Studying the body art of a given time period, culture, or subculture can teach us about the values of a group of people, such as what they find appealing or sexy and why.
Body art can also give clues as to how a person identifies in their life cycle: for example, in Western cultures, wearing a wedding or engagement ring can signify that a person is no longer single. Other cultures, however, have different–and sometimes more nuanced–systems for encoding meaning into clothing choices.
Women’s dress in India is a wonderful example of how clothing can convey multiple messages about the wearer’s identity, especially situating her in the sexual life cycle. Although India is a vastly diverse country, with multiple religious and regional cultures, some generalizations can be made. Specific details in this post are drawn from a book on body art in India mentioned below.
Girls in India wear simple clothing like frocks, and as adolescents, they generally wear salwar suits, a loose outfit consisting of matching pants, a tunic, and a long scarf. Some married women continue to wear salwar suits at home, but for the most part, married women are expected to wear a sari, an outfit composed of a choli (a blouse that comes just below the breasts), a petticoat or shift, and the sari itself, a long piece of fabric that wraps around the waist and drapes over one shoulder. Some saris are made of silk, hence are expensive and worn for special occasions, whereas daily saris tend to be made of synthetic or cotton fabrics in order to guarantee ease of care.
Marriage is celebrated as one of the most important events in a woman’s life, and as such the wedding outfit is very elaborate. Rather than wearing white–a color associated with death in India–brides wear colors that connote celebration, such as bright reds and golds. Bridal jewelry is very important as well, with the bride’s hands and feet being especially adorned with bracelets, anklets, rings, and toe rings that lay atop the traditional bridal henna, non-permanent designs drawn on with a plant paste.
Hindu women wear bangles on their wrists as a sign of marriage, but the type of bangle varies by region. Women from Bengal wear sets of white shell and red plastic bangles on each wrist, women from Utar Pradesh wear glass bangles, and Punjabi women wear gold bangles.
The bindi, a felt or plastic dot worn in the middle of the forehead between the eyebrows, is another important signifier of marriage. Typical bindis are red felt circles, but they can be shaped like tear-drop, squiggles, and even more ornate forms, sometimes with little jewels attached as well. Additionally, married women wear sindur, a red powder applied to the part of the hair as another auspicious symbol of marriage.
As Indian women move through their life cycle, their clothing choices reflect the stage of life they occupy (as well as their religious and regional identities, as seen above). The newer a bride, the brighter her sari, and the more bangles she would wear. New brides occupy a place of honor in the household, and as such, their appearance should be adorned in celebration. A new bride might wear as many as two dozen bangles on each wrist, a necklace or two, earrings, rings and toe rings, and heavy anklets with bells. These adornments would seem novel, as it is considered inappropriate for unmarried women to ornament themselves too heavily. As women age, their saris should traditionally be paler and with subtler patterns, and they can get away with wearing fewer bangles (although in most cases, older women who are still married need to wear at least one bangle on each wrist to show that their husbands are still alive). Widows are generally forbidden to wear colors, and must wear white saris to express their mourning.
Within these cultural constraints, there is still ample room for individuals to express their personal aesthetics and make choices that reflect their tastes. How women choose to style their hair or do their makeup, and how they combine colors and materials when selecting clothing and jewelry, are indications of personal freedom operating within traditional norms.
We are all individuals making choices informed by tradition, and women’s dress in India is especially indicative of the ways in which identity shifts over the sexual cycle. Being able to look at a woman and learn more than a simple wedding ring could tell is an interesting contrast to how body art works in the West. For more detailed information on women’s body art in India, I recommend reading The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India by Pravina Shukla, Associate Professor of Folklore at Indiana University.
Join us this week as we explore the intersections of sex and fashion on MySexProfessor.com.