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  • Writer's pictureShreeya Pattekar

Wearing Your Culture on Your Sleeve

By Shreeya Pattekar, Fashion Editor



Pictured: Rowan Obach (left) and Morgan Ransom (right). Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar

Over the past several months of being in Rome, I have begun to feel my identity being stripped away from me slowly, in this predominantly Catholic city of Rome and predominantly white, Catholic university. As a result, I find myself trying to express who I am more outwardly, using fashion as a refusal to conform in a beautiful, but heavily monogamous, city.


Pictured: Shreeya Pattekar. Photograph taken by Annelise Richardson


For the past five years of my life I have always worn an om around my neck. The om is the eternal sound of the universe, and therefore the symbol of Hindu Dharma. Wearing this not only shows my pride in my Hindu belief but is also worn as a remembrance to all the Hindus in the world, in the past and present, who have been slaughtered and tortured for their religion.



Photograph taken by Annelise Richardson

The heavy intricate gold jewelry is always the statement piece of any outfit I wear. My ancestral and spiritual motherland, India, has always been the epicenter of jewelry and is renowned for this art. In Indian culture, we believe the heaviness of the jewelry does not overpower our strong facial features but instead, emphasizes them.


“I wear it as a remembrance to all the Hindus in the world, in the past and present, who have been slaughtered and tortured for their religion.”

Under my eyes, I use kajal, a type of makeup applied around the eyes, used throughout South Asia and the Middle East. In South Asia, traditionally it is worn to ward off the evil eye, and mothers often place a dot of kajal on their children for protection.


Pictured: Shreeya Pattekar. Photograph taken by Rowan Obach

On my forehead is what is called a tikli, in my language of Marathi but also commonly known as a bindi in Hindi. While this may be used for cosmetic purposes of face decoration, there is a Hindu spiritual reasoning behind it. The point between our eyebrows, contains the opening of the third eye. The point is also called the Ajna chakra, or sixth chakra and serves as the center of concealed wisdom and knowledge.


The sacred thread around my right wrist is called a rakhi , and was traditionally tied by sisters on brothers for protection. This exchange occurs on Raksha Bandhan, a festival that celebrates the bond between a brother and sister. However, nowadays a rakhi is not gender-specific and neither limited to familial ties. When my siblings and I exchanged a rakhi this year, we tied them as a promise and agreement to protect one another. Every year, I wear mine till it falls off.


A rakhi bracelet adorns the wrist of Shreeya Pattekar. Photograph taken by Annelise Richardson

The cultural pieces I wear bring me many unique and fulfilling experiences. Syrian, Palestinian, and Afghan men and women have recognized my heritage through my jewelry and often strike up moving conversations. In one very special encounter, a young Hazara man from Afghanistan pleasantly shocked me by starting a conversation with me in Hindi. I had not heard the language spoken to me in a few months, and the familiarity of the words and the man’s effort in trying to make a connection moved me deeply. These types of encounters have allowed me to find also community with cultures other than my own.


 

To further explore the personal expression of culture through fashion, I have interviewed two students from Loyola University Chicago: Morgan Ransom and Rowan Obach.



Rowan (she/her):


Pictured: Rowan Obach. Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar

“I think through these implicit considerations of culture I feel more of a connection to my Asian side.”

How would you describe your fashion?


I dress conservatively relative to American styles. I wear longer skirts, higher socks, longer shirts, baggier fits, I also use a lot of hair accessories which are reflective of Indigenous Filipino culture, where they would use a lot of gold in their hair and their jewelry, as gold was a natural resource of the environment. My style is heavily influenced by Korean fashion trends. K-fashion and K-beauty is very popular amongst Southeast Asian countries because it is seen as an ideal beauty standard. That includes very girly outfits, very feminine expressions of gender, dainty jewelry, dainty headpieces but still conservative fits because it is from Asia. I do not usually do Asian style makeup but when I do, the shape of my eye is emphasized more, because they tend to fan out the eyeshadows and create a more drawn out eye shape, more almond-like.





How does your fashion represent you?


It is very innocent, very sweet, very feminine. I think that relates back to the hyper femininity of a lot of Southeast Asian cultures, especially in terms of fashion and makeup. I think that my Filipino culture is expressed in a lot of implicit ways, not as obviously as


someone from different culture would express; the pearl clip ( pearls are the

Pictured: Rowan Obach. Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar


national jewel of the Philippines), the skirt which is similar to an Indonesian sarong or a patadyong (PAH-TAD-YUNG), a tube-like skirt worn by both men and women in Indigenous Filipino cultures. “Indigenous” in reference to the smaller villages not colonized by the Spanish, so they have retained their native culture. The colonized look is a lot more feminine and influenced by Spanish culture, whereas the Indigenous cultures were a lot simpler.


My dad was born in Manila, but he lived most of his life in a small town called Iligan. Because of that, he was exposed to a lot of cultural instances that he could not find in the capital. However, our family name was colonized many generations ago, so culturally, a lot of our traditions and behaviors are based in colonial Filipino culture.



Pictured: Rowan Obach. Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar


Do you wish your family had preserved more of their Indigenous culture?


I think there are a lot of aspects of Indigenous culture that should have been preserved but weren’t, like the gold I was talking about earlier. That is not really seen in the colonized fashion, it is more plastic or embellishments, because when the Spanish came to the Philippines they noticed that the Indigenous people were so covered in gold, they noticed there were so many gold resources they stole it.



Pictured: Rowan Obach. Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar


How has your fashion and your perspective of fashion changed as you have grown older?

When I was younger, I did not dress with a lot of Asian influence partly because of accessibility and partly because I didn't know [how], but as I have gotten more integrated into Southeast Asian cultures, I've been exposed to a lot more fashion trends and while they are modernized, I think that through these implicit considerations of culture, I feel more of a connection to my Asian side.


When not studying in Rome or Chicago, Obach lives in Singapore with her family.


*Note from Rowan: While appearing white passing, I am half American, half Filipino. I also consider myself a third culture child having lived for over 8 years in Singapore despite not having an ancestral tie to the country.



Morgan Ransom (they/she/he):


Pictured: Morgan Ransom. Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar

“I try to add small things of who pieces of who I am, each part of the people that came before me.”

How do you express your culture through your fashion?


I think fashion is a form of self expression, even though I come from a traditional culture with similar values, each piece of that culture has something historical and integral about it. I’m able to modernize that, and put my own twist on it. Being a Black and queer person, there is so much room for expression and so much to pay homage to; I try to add that into whatever I wear and the jewelry I have. Some rings I never take off because they came from my family, the earrings I wore, are traditionally Desi, I am West Indian, and though my lineage is muddied by the transatlantic slave trade, from the knowledge I do have, I try to add small things of who pieces of who I am. Each part is a piece of the people that came before me.



Pictured: Morgan Ransom. Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar

Can you talk about your piercings?


I am really proud of them! When the pandemic started, I was devastated that all my piercings are on my nose, it really bummed me out that I couldn’t show them off! My nostril was my first, it was on a whim, the person who I eventually dated had tattoos and was visibly queer, it was kind of a rite of passage, I feel kind of metal, as a Black person. Black people are not seen in alt goth and metal culture, even though piercings are an integral part of traditional African religion and history. Reclaiming those parts I once felt alienated from feels so affirming. The septum piercing has kind of been queer coded recently, and one I've wanted for a while. It’s satisfying for my inner child.



Pictured: Morgan Ransom. Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar

Can you talk about your hair?


My hair is my everything, and it was tough coming to Italy. There are no hair shops or beauty supply stores. When the COVID hit, I took it upon myself to learn how to do my hair. I feel like an anime character because I can do so much with it and change it constantly. It is so cool to see what I can do with my hair. Doing my hair in Italy is really about reconnecting with myself. I don’t have a lot of time, but doing my hair reminds me how wonderful it is to be me. It helps me get back to my roots in physical and mental ways.



Pictured: Morgan Ransom. Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar

How does your fashion present you?


Very feminine, I think. When people look at me, normally they do not see that person uses they/them pronouns or identifies as gender-fluid. Initially, I forced myself into clothes that would not necessarily match my physique, if I want to be visibly queer or visibly nonbinary. But, I realized that if I feel good in what I wear, I'm not going to change so that other people feel more comfortable; it's always going to be for me. Granted, that comes with less queer recondition and social gender euphoria*, but I still feel grounded and good in my skin when I dress for myself.


*Note from Morgan: Gender euphoria is a term coined by the trans community to represent the feelings of joy and rightness that one feels in the affirmation of their gender presentation. It’s a range of positive emotions, almost a “high” a person can get when their gender identity is affirmed, either internally or externally by the world around them. For an academic explanation of the term, read the academic paper “A Little Shiny Gender Break Through: Community Understanding of Gender Euphoria”.


Pictured: Morgan Ransom. Photograph taken by Shreeya Pattekar

Conclusion of interview section.

 

For many of us, fashion is a medium for us to show our culture, our history, and our people’s struggles. We use fashion to break down barriers and build connections with the people around us. Our jewelry, our makeup, our clothing, our hair are all parts of our identity and give us strength, pride, and individuality. My experience studying in Rome has taught me a lot of things. However, most importantly, I have learned the importance of truly knowing and understanding myself and my culture. In a land that is so monogamous, it is essential that we hold on tight to our identities, whether we do so through fashion or some other medium.


We must not allow ourselves to melt into the rest of society.


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3 Comments


hemant kumar
hemant kumar
Apr 27, 2022

I resonate with "identity being stripped away ... slowly". I too found my refuse in fashion to hold on to my identity through kurta, shikha, and kalava (wrist band). Thank you @Shreeya for this amazing article and giving voice to so many Hindus like me and others clinging to their native culture.

- Hemant

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aferolo2021
Apr 01, 2022

Great insight into different perspectives in the interview portion! Beautiful pictures, too—so important in a fashion piece. Love to see it Shreeya ;)

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Pallav Ranjan
Pallav Ranjan
Apr 01, 2022

This article shifts my perspective on fashion. In a globalized and increasingly uniform world, never would have imagined that contemporary fashion could inculcate such discreet cultural connotations. Very well written! Kudos to the author.

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