Dress Codes: Mixing Fashion with Faith
Anita Patel, Hindu
She has never lived in India, but Anita Patel dresses as if she's traversing the streets of Mumbai. On any given day the 47-year-old Dallas grade school teacher can be found in a traditional pantsuit called a shalwar kameez (a long tunic, matching pants, and shoulder scarf) or a long kurta blouse over slacks. For special occasions she dons a colorful sari and a red bindi -- a decorative spot of color in the middle of her forehead, just above her eyebrows.
Patel was born in England to Hindu parents and the family moved to the United States when she started high school. Her parents always urged her to dress more traditionally, which of course made her gravitate toward jeans and T-shirts. But since marrying an Indian man and having two children (both of whom are now grown), Patel found herself moving back toward the traditional dress associated with Hinduism.
Patel now attends temple in her Dallas suburb as well as going to weekly Hindu study groups to get to the root of her beliefs. "I'm learning more and more about the real meaning behind the rituals I perform and the meaning behind what I wear, rather than just doing it because I was brought up that way," she says.
It turns out there are no overarching Hindu dictates on what should or shouldn't be worn, and the significance depends on your point of view. For example, the shape and color of the bindi can connote a woman's theological outlook or simply signify that she is married -- for Patel, it's the latter. Her reasons for dressing traditionally are pretty uncomplicated. "I feel like the native dress from India, where Hinduism was born, shows pride in my motherland, ancestors, and faith," she says. "Plus it's incredibly comfortable."
As for blending into the community around her, Patel doesn't really feel the need to. Her life isn't that different from that of her colleagues -- she grabs a vegetarian lunch (most Hindus don't eat meat) at a sandwich shop near her school and works out (in T-shirts and track pants) at her local gym. True, she stands out, but if her appearance does elicit a reaction, it's almost always a friendly one. "I've never felt people were looking at me negatively because I'm dressed oddly," she says. "I go to the grocery store and get compliments. They ask a lot of questions, especially when I wear a sari: What kind of material is it? How exactly do I put it on? They also ask if there's a place where they can buy one. I joke and say, 'Yes, there's a giant Mecca for saris -- it's called India.'"