‘The unexpected reaction when I wore my ethnic clothes to work’

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Being a South Asian girl not only means there are two sides to your cultural identity, but also a divide wardrobe.

Every brunette girl I know has two closets – one for our everyday western clothes and another filled to the brim with ethnic clothes that we barely get a chance to wear.

I still feel a pang of guilt every time I open my wardrobe and a long-forgotten salwar kameez (a tunic and trouser combo, usually worn with a dupatta or shawl) or lehenga (a combination of a crop top and a long skirt) falls out of my full wardrobe on my head, so I decided to do something about it.

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A lehenga (left) is a combination of a crop top and a long skirt paired with a dupatta/orna or shawl. A salwar kameez (right) is a tunic worn over trousers, again paired with a dupatta. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

I was toying with the idea of ​​repurposing my desi (meaning from the Indian subcontinent) clothes into the Desk for a while now. After all, it makes sense – the majority of most everyday ethnic clothing is made of lightweight, comfortable materials, suitable for work, and most importantly, injects a bit of personality with unique prints and fun colors.

But I was still nervous. I had no idea what the reaction would be if I wore something so obviously ethnic in a business environment. Although I knew no one would throw a tantrum and demand that I change, I was still mentally prepared to spend all day explaining the name of the garment, its origins, where I got it from, and more.

But I decided to take a deep dive. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I thought a lot about my outfit, deciding to start simple with a black kameez (a tunic) paired with flared pants that I normally wear in the office to give it a fusion look.

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Madhurima Haque
I decided to go simple for my first foray into corporate fusion clothing. (Provided)

I wore kajal, also known as kohl, around my eyes as a nod to typical South Asian makeup looks, in which it is a staple. It’s also perfect for the office, as the creamy black eyeliner – worn on the eye’s waterline – starts clean and gradually blends throughout the day to create an effortless smoky look.

I even dug through my jewelry box to find the earrings I bought in Bangladesh three years ago. I hesitated between wearing heels, which I usually wear with these outfits, but ended up opting for a low-heeled ballerina, which would be easier for the commute.

I completed the look with a basic black blazer, perfect for any outfit – Western or Desi.

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Madhurima Haque
The earrings were killing me, I had to take them off in the middle of the day. (Provided)
Madhurima Haque
A blazer is always a perfect complement. (Provided)

As I walked into the office, I braced myself for a deluge of responses. I was ready to (graciously) accept compliments throughout the morning and explain my outfit like I was on the red carpet all day long.

But as I walked to my seat, all I encountered was silence.

As I settled in, I thought, “Okay, it’s been a long day. Maybe they just haven’t noticed.”

I found myself stuck in my work, but 9am became 10am, then 11am, then 12pm, and still nobody told me anything.

Part of me was relieved that I didn’t have to spend the whole day explaining my outfit over and over again. But another part was disappointed – I kind of looked forward to being the main character of the day.

It was finally 2 p.m. when someone told me they loved the paisley print on my dress, and all my thoughts that I had been holding back all day burst into the conversation.

I spilled all the details about how I picked my outfit, where I got it from, and how it was custom made. I barely let them say a word, but one thing my colleagues said surprised me.

They all said they noticed it, but didn’t want to talk about it because they didn’t want it to look serious.

I was stunned. My colleagues were right, it shouldn’t matter to wear the clothes that are my birthright. Somehow I was dreading that this was a “big deal” and that I would have to explain my choices all day anyway, so why was I so bummed that no one was talking about it?

I guess as a woman of color I still don’t know where the line is when it comes to cultural attire in the office – whether it’s too much to talk about or too little to ignore.

But one thing is for sure, I will definitely decolonize my wardrobe more in the future, especially in the office.

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