My answer to a Quora question: Why do the people from North East India have a different fashion / dressing sense?
Why do the people from North East India have a different fashion / dressing sense?
First of all, let’s get back to basics here. The North Eastern states have very different cultures and traditions from the rest of India. Even when it comes to India as a whole, we know North India, South India, West India etc have distinct cultures of their own, but because of the fact that such areas had been under one ruler at one point of time, like the Mauryan empire, Gupta kingdom, Chola dynasty, Pala empire, Tughlaq sultanate, Mughal dynasty, Maratha empire etc, there are a lot of similarities across such regions when it comes to culture.
But in the North East, other than a few regions in the Brahmaputra valley, all the other current North Eastern states have never been a part of any other empire or dynasty that ruled over what is now India. Hence the North Eastern regions were barely influenced by the cultures and traditions of mainland India. It was only under the British that the North East and the rest of India came under one rule.
As fashion (or to be more precise, clothing) is very much a part of culture, naturally the North Eastern states have a different “dressing sense” from that of the Indian majority.
You will not see many of us wear “traditional Indian dresses” like sari, salwar kameez, sherwani, dhoti, lungi, etc in the North East, though it would be wrong to say nobody wears them as some communities do wear such clothing items (or close variants of them), especially in Assam, Tripura and parts of Meghalaya (remember there are over 220 ethnic groups in the North East with our own language, dialect and culture). And contrary to popular belief, not all people from the North East have mongoloid features. But though we all have different languages, religions, racial features, cultures and traditions, what bind us all together is our love for our homeland – the North East.
Some of our North Eastern traditional clothes are - Sherdukpen shawls and Apatani jackets (Arunachal Pradesh), Mekhela and Chador (Assam), Phanek and Innaphi (Manipur), Eking and Jainkup (Meghalaya), Puan and Kawrchei (Mizoram), Ratapfe and Naga shawls (Nagaland), Thokro and Kho (Sikkim), Rignai and Rituku (Tripura), and so on…
And again, there are many different traditional clothes within each North Eastern state because of the number of different tribes and distinct ethnic groups residing in it, for example, there are many types of “Naga shawls” in Nagaland, like the Mhoushu and Lohe of the Angami tribe, Tsungkotepsu and Rongsu of the Ao tribe, Sutam and Longpensu of the Lotha tribe, Supong of the Sangtam tribe, Haora and Changkhom of the Tangkhul tribe, Rongkhim and Tsungrem Khim of the Yimchunger tribe and so on… each with their own distinct design and pattern.
Below are some of the traditional dresses of North East India –
Tripura traditional costume:
A beautiful Arunachali girl wearing her traditional dress (Source)
Another Arunachali girl, this time from the Naga Tangsa tribe dwelling in the Tirap and Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh – (Source)
Different traditional wear of various tribal clans of Mizoram
Foreign models in traditional Manipuri attire (Source)
Assamese dancers in their traditional attire performing their famous “Bihu dance”.
The Bodo community from Assam performing their “Bagurumba” traditional dance.
Nagaland’s extremely talented “Tetseo sisters” showcasing their traditional clothes (Source)
A Khasi man, young Garo damsels and a Garo couple, all in their traditional wear (source: various)
Hence, from all the pictures above, it is only natural that North Eastern people coming from different cultural backgrounds are bound to have different fashion sense from that of the rest of India. After all, that is one of the things that makes India such a great country – a diversity of different cultures. This ensures that you are an Indian, whether you wear a lungi or a turban or a salwar kameeze or you have colored spikey hairstyle, we all belong to this great nation.
Unfortunately, this factor has still not been recognized or understood by many Indians. Take for example the recent unfortunate case of Nido Taniam, the son of an Arunachal Pradesh MLA who died after he was thrashed by shopkeepers in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi. The fight started because the shopkeepers started mocking him and making fun of his hair and clothes when he merely asked them for directions. To them, his hairstyle and the way he was dressed was weird, hence the mockery. Hence the murder. (CNN IBN: Accused to be charged with murder)
Apart from difference in cultural backgrounds (which is the main reason), there are also other factors why the fashion sense in North East India is very different from that of the rest of India (disclaimer: I am neither a fashion designer nor do I have good fashion sense, these are just my observations. I am just a simple computer science engineer who happened to have a few North Eastern friends in the fashion industry.)
1. Proclivity towards Western/South East Asian attire
The one question I was asked many times back in college in Tamil Nadu (after I explained the whole cultural background differences mentioned above) was, “Ok Kima, fine, we get it, you North Easterners have different cultural backgrounds, hence the reason why you wear different traditional clothes. But once you come out of that region, why aren’t you wearing any of our Indian traditional clothes like a sari or kurta? Why can’t you adapt? Aren’t you all Indians?”
I would usually reply with, “Our puan and kawrchei are our Mizo traditional clothes, and we are very much Indians too. So that makes these clothing a part of our Indian traditional wear as well. Why aren’t you wearing them? Why can’t you adapt? Aren’t you all Indians?”
That would usually shut them up because they knew any counter-arguments they had was going to sound racist and xenophobic :) After all, we don’t expect or force non-Mizos visiting Mizoram to wear our traditional clothes, why should we be forced to wear salwaars and kurtas when we come this side (unless of course it is a college/work place mandatory rule, in which case it is a different ball game).
But on a serious note, yes, many North Easterners do wear ethnic clothes from other parts of the country. The thing is, what we wear or don’t wear do not measure our patriotism for India in any way, but unfortunately, most people do not share that mindset. A Naga friend of mine in Delhi once told me, “If a Delhi girl walks on the street wearing the latest designer jeans and blouse instead of a salwar kameez, she is considered classy and fashionable, whereas if a girl from the North East wears the same attire, then she is either considered a slut or somebody who is purposely mocking our Indian traditional values by refusing to wear a salwar kameez.” That was around 10 year ago. Thankfully, we live in much better circumstances today.
Apart from personal choice and freedom to wear what we want, there are other reasons why North Easterners are influenced by Western and SE Asian (mostly Korean) fashion. Like the fact that they look really good. Since we share similar facial features with other Asians, it is easier to decide/conclude what looks good on them (Korean pop stars etc) will (more or less) look good on us too.
And another important reason is that, the fitting is perfect. Yes the fitting. Because many North Easterners are of a mongoloid race, apart from facial features, we also share similar physical structure with other Asians. Most of us have shorter legs/thighs and lower posterior compared to other Indians, and buying clothes from the Asian market guarantee us that we do not have to make adjustments to our jeans etc. whereas it is quite difficult to find pants that fit us perfectly in the Indian market. Hence hundreds of clothing merchants from the North East travel to Bangkok, Seoul and Guangzhou every year to buy merchandise to sell back home.
2. Liberal North Eastern culture
Although most North Eastern communities are Patriarchal just like the rest of India, they are much more liberal than a traditional conservative Indian family. Women have a lot more freedom to do what they want over there. Apart from that, the Khasis of Meghalaya follow a matrilineal tradition where husbands move into the house of the women they marry, take on their surname and property is inherited by the womenfolk.
More freedom allows more individuals to think out of the box and be at their creative best, which is why today there are many prominent people from the North East in the Indian fashion industry, some of whom are mentioned further below.
Our culture is more tolerant and we do not have culture police roaming the streets and parks, beating up people who are not “dressed properly”. People have the freedom to experiment and make a fashion statement. Dressing and fashion sense change frequently, though sometimes this has a negative impact – for example, in Aizawl, if you’re not wearing the latest fashion style, your friends may make fun of you. Hence, there is some amount of peer pressure among the youth to keep up with the latest fashion trend too. Of course this is harmless and at the end of the day, most people really don’t care how they’re being judged by others.
Here are some of those designers from the eight North Eastern states who have made it big in the Indian fashion industry (there are a lot of prominent people from the NE in the fashion industry, so I’m bound to have missed out many. Hope you understand. And like I said earlier, I’m not fashionably inclined and have never written an article about fashion or clothing before, so do excuse my dull language if you happen to be a fashionista.) -
Atsu Sekhose - Atsu is from Nagaland and an alumni of NIFT, Delhi. He interned with Tarun Tahiliani and ZARA after which he launched his own label “ATSU”. He’s a regular face at Elle and Vogue magazine, and at Paris and Milan fashion week showcases.
Edward Lalrempuia - A classmate of mine from School, Eddie is a NIFT graduate and fashion consultant / stylist from Mizoram. He worked at Elle magazine for two years as a fashion stylist, after which he moved to Vogue and worked there for five years as a fashion editor.
Paromita Das - Hailing from Tripura, Paromita Das is a graduate from NIFT and owner of her own brand of clothing called “Urban Purple”, having worked with a few luxury apparel brands like Adidas, Ecko, CK, PUSCH, Ann Taylor etc.
Dhiraj Deka - A famous fashion designer from Assam, Dhiraj is best known for making use of both traditional Assamese and contemporary designs in his work. He started his own business under the brand name Niru Garments and currently runs his own apparel shop called “Bibhussaa” in Guwahati.
Daniel Syiem - Daniel is from Shillong and he deals mainly with a local fabric called "Ryndia" (100% organic) woven by the women of Meghalaya. Former winner of “North-East Best Designer Award” and a regular at Lakme Fashion Week, his showcases are mostly inspired from the deep rooted distinct cultural heritage of Meghalaya.
Yana Ngoba - Yana is a fashion designer from Arunachal Pradesh and she is best known for her tribal fusions - a combination of their age-old tribal heritage fused with western fashion style. She is also known for her environment and eco-friendly designs, promoting a clean and green Arunachal.
Robert Naorem – A renowned fashion designer and stylist from Manipur, Robert Naorem has successfully hosted new collections at the Manipur Fashion Extravaganza twice in a row now. His style too involves a lot of fusion between tribal and mainstream design.
Rinzing Choden Bhutia – Rinzing is from Sikkim and her collection is usually made out of fabrics used in making ethnic and traditional dresses of three ethnic communities and tribes of Sikkim. She has created her outfits in western silhouettes.
Cyndy Khojol - Apart from designers and stylists, the North East has produced many renowned models too like Esther Jamir, Akuonuo Khezhie, Ethel Konyak, Carol Humtsoe etc. One of them is Cyndy Khojol, who is not only a sultry beauty from the North East but has acted in movies like Bombay Summer, 7 Khoon Maaf and Khiladi 786. She also plays the role of Miss Forsythe in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” production by Alyque Padamsee, a play I truly enjoyed watching.
In spite of so many people from the North East making a name for themselves in the Indian fashion industry and promoting their respective cultures and clothes, very little is known about us in the Indian media. For example, at the recent Commonwealth Games held in Delhi in 2010, the Indian contingent was led by a woman wearing our Mizo tradition dress! Usually, it used to be a woman draped in Sari. However, the Government of India and Arts & Culture department decided it should be a woman wearing the traditional dress of us Mizos, promoting our culture not just to Indians but to the rest of the world as well.
So yes, when we saw a girl clad in our traditional Mizo dress leading the Indian contingent, it was a very proud moment for every Mizo on this planet. And then the next day, the Times of India, India’s largest circulation of English daily newspaper had a full front page cover of the opening ceremony with the headline in bold - “Girl in Naga dress leading the Indian contingent”. (Mistaken Identity at the CWG)
See, that is how much the news media knows about the North East. A Naga traditional dress and Mizo traditional dress are completely different as you can see from the photos above, and even if they “kinda look similar” to the “untrained” eye, this type of journalism from a reputed newspaper is not expected at all.
These are the issues we still face today. Yes we do have a different fashion/dressing sense from other Indians, but this is about culture and identity, something that every Indian protects. What we want, is not be considered as “different and strange” but to be accepted and recognized as a part of our Indian culture. Hope I was able to answer your question. Cheers.
BONUS – I’ll just quickly add this to my answer. Yesterday (March 7th) being “Chapchar Kut”, the biggest festival of my home state Mizoram, Mizos all over the world were in festive mood, cooking our traditional food at home and wearing our traditional clothes to our work places in Mumbai, Delhi, New York, London etc. And today is international Women’s day. So to celebrate both our Mizo culture and the beauty of women, I am sharing a few more photos I managed to get from my friends, showcasing our Mizo traditional dresses.
Miss Mizoram beauty pageant 2005 – Any beauty pageant and fashion show in Mizoram always have a theme dedicated to our cultural dresses.
A Chapchar Kut festival in Mizoram – Again you can see the amount of importance culture has. Models and celebrities walk the ramp presenting our clothes.
Bangalore Mizo Students Association – Even when we’re outside our state, we gather together at functions where we catch up with friends and attend events like fashion shows showcasing our cultural clothes.
Hyderabad Mizo Association – Another similar event, this time in Hyderabad. We invite our non-Mizo friends to such events, thereby educating them more about our Mizo culture and heritage.
Anthurium Festival, Mizoram – Another festival conducted in Mizoram to boost tourism and promote the cultivation of Anthurium. This 3-day long festival is marked by a colorful display of various Mizo cultures and traditions along with local delicacies and folk songs and dances.
…and if you think only Mizos look good in Mizo clothes, you are mistaken. Here is the renowned model Jasmin at the Anthurium Festival, sporting our Mizo traditional clothes.
International Institute of Fashion Design – Last but not the least, here is a showstopper to my long post. Designed by DP Colney, a very special friend and talented fashion designer, the range of Mizo fusion clothes you see below not only won her awards but many of them were displayed at Lakme Fashion Week.
All her models were non-Mizos, and they consisted of big names like 2003 Miss Asia Pacific 1st runner up Shonal Rawat, 2010 Miss Universe India finalist Divya Singh, model turned designer Saksi Bindra and super model Anusha Chauhan.
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s DP Colney design –
So I really hope you appreciated the beauty of our North Eastern cultural clothes, and hoping to see many of you, especially the ladies, wear our Mizo traditional attire one of these days. I’m sure you’ll look awesome in them :)