My sister is very pretty. I have always known this and am constantly being reminded of it by people. Sometimes people are subtle and they couch it in euphemisms like ‘Oh you both look nothing alike’ and sometimes people do not bother with subtlety, driving home the message that I look plain in comparison to her with ‘Oh your sister is so pretty, what happened to you?’. When I was eighteen my mother told me rather matter of factly that I was ‘ugly’ and that I would have to work harder than my sister to get by in the world because the world is ‘just nicer to prettier people’ and ‘they always manage to get by’. This was what I grew up to believe. I grew up feeling that I had been dealt a hard hand in the looks department and I had little God-given materials to work with. In the face of this I knew I would have to forge an identity for myself that would make me stand out. Thus began my quest for the best personal style and my development into a fashion maven. Along this journey of self discovery I took with me Trinny and Susannah who gave confidence to insecure women as I gorged on episodes of What Not To Wear.
I was twelve when my mother bought me my first pair of jeans. Before that I would always get my clothes stitched by Asif, the tailor down the road from my house, who set up his sewing machine in a shanty-like shop where dust from the road swirled inside. My mother would always dress me and she refused to buy me frocks: ‘You will look best in trousers because you are tall’ she would insist. She would always dress me in coloured trousers and shirts. On the occasion of my birthday I would insist I get a frock and only then would she oblige. It was always the same – a purple dress from Mrs Hazarika’s shop. The rest of the time my mother told me what to wear. With my trousers, shirts, sneakers and ubiquitous mushroom cut I all but looked like a boy. Initially I loved being mistaken for a boy being somewhat in awe of George from The Famous Five. My favourite thing to wear were a pair of aubergine coloured trousers, a purple and white printed shirt and a pair of purple brogues my mother owned in the eighties. When I was fifteen my mother let me borrow her favourite red bomber jacket and I wore it everywhere. She always cared about what I wore or the colour of my skin more than she did about my sister’s because she thought I was less fortunate. I was the ‘ugly’, ‘darker’ one and she would put a multani mitti facepack, or a besan and milk facepack on me everyday after school. Just like my mother I was proud about having such a pretty sister and I never cared about being mistaken for a boy. In time however I noticed that girls who dressed like boys didn’t get love letters or phone calls, no one ever paid any attention to them. And so I tried to dress like the other girls. I forced my mother to buy me a pair of burgundy slip on suede shoes which were ‘girly’ and I started to grow out my hair. When the ‘Spice Girl’ shoes (platform chequered shoes) became a thing I begged my grandmother to buy me a pair because I wanted to look like everyone else. I read magazines and watched shows paying close attention to how women dressed there.
In college I gained weight and I stopped wearing jeans that fit. I stopped wearing shirts that were too tight because I was embarrassed about my boobs. Buying jeans was a chore and I would only buy those that slid all the way up to my chest easily without me having to tug at them. I dressed comfortably and kept myself covered (my parents didn’t like it if I wore a sleeveless shirt).
Over the years my sense of personal style evolved as my relationship with my body and my idea of beauty evolved. When I was young I wanted to cover up every inch of my body as I aggravated over every little change that puberty had wreaked on it. In college I gained a ton of weight and I thought wearing loose ill fitting clothing would hide that. When I lost weight (due in large part to a bad breakup) I became more experimental with clothing and tried many new things. I learned that I was uncomfortable wearing low cut tops but I was all alright showing off my legs in the shortest skirt I could find. In my desperate attempt to hide the fact that I was not as beautiful as my sister I was able to forge a personal sense of style and aesthetic. I became confident that my sense of taste was unparalleled among members of my family and because I believed with such certainty that it was true. others in my family begun to believe it. I would get calls from my cousins or aunts before they bought clothes, friends would insist I go shopping with them, my brothers would not pick out a suit for Christmas unless I was going with them. This general feeling among my family members that my opinion mattered was gratifying to say the least.
At first, looking like everyone else was what mattered. I wanted to blend in. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be fair. I wanted to look like my sister. I used to love the story of the Ugly Duckling because I could relate, now at thirty I realise how messed up that story was. But that was who I was but not who I am now. I strived to be better and show off my personality through my personal sense of style, hoping I wouldn’t be dismissed for my looks at the first glance, because my style would convince people to do a double take. It is in this evolution of this sense of style that I begin to learn more about myself, it is an evolution of my identity. It is an iterative sequence of permutations and combinations that I sought to employ to find myself. While my personal style goes through the motions, there are things I like that will stand the test of time. I feel I know myself better than I did ten years ago and I will know myself better ten years hence. The need to impress people has started to worn off with age, now I dress to alleviate my mood and I think I have honed in on a style that best suits me. I don’t shy away from trying new things. Midi dresses that in my teen years I would have called matronly I pick up with glee at a shop. I am trying to be less self conscious and be more comfortable in my own skin. There are of course the tried and tested pieces, things I know I look good in and won’t change. If I were to pick an outfit I would die in I would say Annie Hall’s clothes. An outfit I could wear everyday is the one Julia Roberts’ character is wearing in the last scene of Pretty Woman-the oversized blazer, white t shirt and blue jeans, which are an amalgamation of all things I have worn through the ages-the androgynous blazer as a symbol of my preteen days, the t-shirt of my adolescence and the well fitted jeans of my post-weight-loss days of the latter half of my twenties. Now I don’t wish to look like my sister. I wish to look like me. A healthy me, with a better pair of pants, a printed blouse and maybe some brogues, I’d love a purple pair, I outgrew my last.