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The Weight of Wearing a Shawl

Men’s fashion is a cultural collision point for South Asians in the West

The bus from Chandigarh to Kasauli wound its way up twisting, perilous mountain roads. It was a cold, sunny winter morning in the early 2000s, and I was on my first and only extended trip to India as an adult. My Dad and I were taking the journey because Kasauli — a hill station in Northern India people use to escape the summer heat — figured large in the stories my Dad told me of his peripatetic youth. Listening to them in Toronto, they didn’t just conjure India as the mythic, alluring home of my parents and my heritage, but also an idea of my Dad as a brash young man — not the subdued septuagenarian he is now, but reckless, confident, masculine.

It was still cold when we arrived on that January morning so we paused for a breakfast of a fried potato patty and chickpea curry which, with a cup of tea each, ran us the equivalent of 50 cents. Still cold after eating, we perused some stalls, and eventually picked out a large, warm-looking rectangle of fabric I could wrap around myself to stave off the chill. And that is how I started wearing a shawl.

This is the kind of thing I was once loath to admit publicly. In Kasauli that morning, wearing a shawl seemed perfectly normal, but for most of my life until that point, the idea seemed strange, like something from an alien culture that wasn’t mine. Immersed in India, however, a shawl or the common kurta pajamas I had once eschewed started to make sense. Everyone from rickshaw drivers to Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan wears them, and they are among the few pieces of Indian clothing considered completely unisex.

In the West, however, the shawl is firmly considered women’s clothing, a kind of equivalent of what a cravat is to men: an affectation of style that evokes pre-theater dinner or poetry readings. In the privacy of my own space, a shawl is familiar, perhaps because my father has always worn one too, but still a bit fraught — a reminder that my cultural identity and my masculinity don’t always neatly line up.

Of course, that shawls are less common in the West than India isn’t hard to understand from a practical standpoint. As a way of keeping warm, a woolen or polyester wrap makes far more sense for the six or eight weeks of cool weather in a Delhi winter than the four to six months of punishing cold in Toronto.

To the Western world, though, despite some small shifts toward more fluidity around gender, a man wearing a shawl can appear to broach the rigid divisions between men’s and women’s clothing. Shawls are shapeless and billowy, quite unlike the angular pragmatism of a many-pocketed Gore-Tex shell or sharply collared wool overcoat. Masculine pretensions of control or purposefulness are often undone by a shawl’s tendency to constantly need adjusting, or be ruffled by the smallest of breezes. What’s more, that little flick of the arm that lifts one corner of a shawl up and over the opposite shoulder feels “feminine.” Obviously, those are ultimately arbitrary terms, but they stem from deep-rooted ideas, too, concepts and biases stitched into the sense of a culture and our own identities. Western masculinity isn’t quite there when it comes to accepting the shawl.

But when you are constantly shifting between two cultures — between two ways of understanding things like gender, fashion, or identity — your conception of what counts as masculine and feminine is always at war with itself. If in the past I’ve been ashamed of admitting I wear a shawl, it’s because I’ve internalized one culture’s idea of what a man’s clothing should look like — and a shawl isn’t it.

Making matters worse is the common Western phenomenon of feminizing East and South Asian men. On TV shows such as 30 Rock or The Big Bang Theory, characters like the latter’s Raj — who for much of the show was as hapless as he was sexless — help further the idea that many men of color are somehow meeker or lesser than their white counterparts, all the while insisting on the dubious idea that strength and aggression are ultimately what define men. What one is left with is trying to pick between two rigid ideas of what being a man is — either the Western or the Indian — and each seems to involve forsaking the other.

After all, there is always a difficulty that comes with being a minority and wearing clothing from your heritage culture. You aren’t just marking yourself out as different. You also take on no end of assumptions: questions about whether you are “traditional,” or religious, or a recently arrived immigrant who is perhaps more familiar with the nightlife in Bombay than the bar scene in your home city. The problem with so-called ethnic clothing isn’t that you aren’t free to wear what you want, but that to do put it on means adding to the prejudice you already deal with anyway. Put on a shawl and walk down the street and the assumption becomes: You aren’t actually from here.

Still, at some point, someone has to try and change things. And what I want is some attempt, however minuscule or futile, of trying to create something new, a hybrid identity that recalls both the quiet town of Kasauli and the bustling metropolises of North America. And as a man, what I want is not only for the rigid rules around masculinity to be loosened, but for the implied cultural norms to expand as well — in short, that Western ideals of masculinity be open to new ideas from the East.

I suppose that if you wanted to get a bit cute, you could express that hybridity or newness in fashion itself: a shawl with jeans and Timberlands, or a plaid shawl and lumberjack beard. But life doesn’t model style quite so neatly. You can’t challenge masculinity writ large just by donning a piece of clothing. What we can hope for and maybe work toward, though, is to grab breakfast in New York or Toronto in late September, wrapped in a shawl, and have it seem like the most normal thing in the world. It won’t be about entirely upending what it means to be a man, but it will stretch the concept perhaps, make a bit more room — that men might wrap themselves in something that doesn’t hem them in quite so tightly.