Courtesy of Meera Estrada
Growing up in Canada in the '80s, my Indian culture was the butt of many jokes. I was teased about my bushy brows, "smelling like curry," and even my "dirty hands" — AKA faded henna leftover from family weddings. Still, despite enduring so much cruelty, my love for the Indian aesthetic has never wavered. I adopted it into my everyday wardrobe early on, starting with my payal (anklets), which I began wearing after a trip to India in my teens.
My family saw and experienced a lot on that trip, which ended up changing my life and altering my personal style in many ways. Our first stop was in Mumbai, home to Bollywood's elite, where we stayed at some of the world's most lavish hotels, allowing me to experience a small taste of luxurious living. We also visited my parents' humble childhood homes in the villages of Gujarat, along with many places in between. Across the country, and its vast socioeconomic divide, one thing that stood out to me most was the expression of personal style through jewelry. Be it bangles, a nath (nose ring) or payal, these accessories were worn by all.
On that same trip, I also dug deeper into my family's history as Dalits or "Untouchables," which is the lowest social stratification of the Hindu caste system. For a group that continues to be shunned by society in overt and subtle ways, accessories — no matter their simplicity — take on greater meaning. After seeing them worn by my family members, they became symbols of self-love and empowerment. They meant that we, too, were beautiful and worthy, regardless of what society deemed us. When my father bought me my first set of payal, I slipped them on and have worn them every day since. Even during our cold, Canadian winters, my payal are tucked safely under my socks or tights.
In my late 20s, I really came into my own in terms of my fashion identity. I saw clothing and accessories as a way to express myself, and began incorporating even more Indian accessories into my western looks, including traditional belts, bangles, headpieces, and earrings. Even today, as an on-air personality in Canada, I almost always wear Indian earrings or bangles (and, of course, my payal) on set with my western wear. My hope is for fellow South Asians to feel pride in seeing these cultural pieces on national TV. I also want non-Asians to see how they can incorporate these pieces into their style, too.
There has been a lot of discussion around cultural appropriation in recent years, and several non-Asian friends or followers on social media have expressed their hesitancy about experimenting with Indian fashion and accessories (that Diwali episode from And Just Like That, when Carrie and Seema visit the sari shop, comes to mind). However, I personally feel that cultural exchanges can be beautiful, especially in fashion, and I'm happy to see these looks adopted by non-Asians — as long as they're worn in respectful and appreciative ways, with an understanding that my culture is absolutely not a costume.
Today, with shows like Mindy Kaling's Never Have I Ever and, most recently, Netflix's Bridgerton, we're starting to see Indian representation on a global scale like never before. It's rousing because not only are we celebrating Indian culture and fashion, we are finally celebrating dark-skinned Indian beauty, too, challenging the fairness ideal that's been pervasive, both in India and abroad. I can only imagine how much more confident I would have felt growing up had there been shows like this, which make me feel seen today.
Asian celebrities like Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani, Lilly Singh, and, now, Bridgerton stars Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran are also showcasing their heritage proudly at star-studded parties and on red carpets. They're bringing greater exposure to Indian designers, fashion staples, and the aesthetic that I love so much.
Getty Images Poorna Jagannathan, Mindy Kaling and Richa Moorjani attend the Phenomenal x Live Tinted Diwali Dinner.
It now feels as if my two worlds have converged, and I'm able to embrace my cultural identity without any compromise. When iconic Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherji partnered with H&M on its Wanderlust collection, I was dizzy with excitement. Just weeks ago, when I went on my first holiday after two-and-a-half years of lockdown living, I finally got to wear the collection on the beach (and not just in my bedroom). The pieces received many compliments and "Where did you buy that?!" inquiries, and I'm grateful for the conversations they sparked.
I hope all Asians, during AAPI month and beyond, feel pride in our roots. Embracing these expressions of our culture through our style and fashion choices, whether considered 'trendy' or not, is only empowering but worthy of celebration — always.