Closet Diversity 101 – Indian Tunics

topAs a career, of sorts, I sift through racks of old clothing. I can push through a rack of hangers at a thrift store as quickly and practiced as any carpal-tunneled, conveyor-belt-factory employee. While I’m mindlessly thumbing endless rows of Target tops and Forever 21 mini-dresses, pushing along all the brands that lure me in momentarily with their vintage-inspired, hyper-trendy styles, something catches my eye. And in a sea of Southwest-patterned cropped tees and sixties-gone-nineties-gone-outlet-mall daisy prints, I spy something unique:

iStock_000016883723Small2A bold, brick-red tunic with a stamped pattern of some kind of leaf, and colorful embroidery on the sleeves and down the center, dividing it in half from the neckline to a little slit right in the front center. I immediately get hopeful because it looks like my favorite kind of thrift store find—home sewn, one-of-a-kind.

That was my first experience with Indian-style tunics. I’m talking sub-continent here. I’m talking metallic-sheen-no-stretch-in-the-fabric-often-made-by-hand-unabashedly-bold-colored-the-more-beadwork-the-better Indian tunics. That was my first experience. Now I’m hooked, obsessed, an advocate.

A gal pal of mine is Indian, born in Hyderabad, a city located in the southern part of the country. As she was laying down the tunic basics for me she threw out the words “shalwar kameez”—common traditional dress with loose fitting pajama-like trousers and a tunic top. I acted like I was familiar with this “shalwar kameez” term and then Googled it later. She told me that the bright colored tunics that I am so drawn to are the casual “spin-offs” to that classic outfit. She mentioned wearing them to her parent’s house when she visits them because they’re casual, meant for everyday wear, but modest enough to be completely respectful. Kind of like how I wear long sleeves when I visit my dad. … What tattoos?

What gets me is the intricacy. Each one is brightly-colored, usually covered with patterned stamps, then often re-covered with beads or sequins. There is so much history surrounding the colors of Indian garments, from the ayurvedic spices that were traditionally used to dye cloth, like cinnamon and turmeric, which were (and still are by many) believed to have healing properties for those who wear them. Also, there is meaning behind the colors and what they traditionally signify. Red is the bridal color, meant to bring prosperity and fertility to the couple. It’s rude to wear red to an Indian wedding; it’s apparently like wearing white to an American wedding—meant only for the bride. White, however, in traditional Indian culture is for mourning, worn by widows and widowers.

tunicsWhat gets me is the fit. Now, sometimes it seems like you won’t be able to get the thing over your shoulders. That’s how you know it will fit. If the tunic slips on too easily, there’s a good chance it will be too big and billowy. I’ve never found one that has any stretch in the fabric. But I’ll tell you right now to fight the good fight. The harder it is to wrestle with, the better the fit will be. I even bought one for my own mother who immediately declared, “It doesn’t fit.” I smiled knowingly. It does fit, Mother, just be more aggressive.

And you can’t beat the length. That mid-thigh length is great. You can hide jean shorts under there in the summer. You can wear them with leggings and boots when it’s cold. When I was chatting with my friend she mentioned a few times that tunics are conservative. They’re modest enough to please her very traditional parents and extended family, so when she visits home, she packs them instead of her favorite v-neck tee or tank top. So if you are a modest dresser, then great, there you go, a solution to the world’s endless supply of cropped tees and mini-skirts. Even if you’re a free-wheelin’, cleavage-loving nudist, a good thing about the length is if you do have issues with problem areas that make you uncomfortable in certain styles, the Indian tunic’s flowy fit and mid-thigh length is the perfect solution.

So if you happen upon one thrifting or find an Indian neighborhood with a little tunic shop, take a closer look. Try one on and see what you think. Your closet will appreciate the diversity.

By Misha Lazzara