feature art: Autostraddle
I’d avoided saris all my life. It was during the pandemic, when crop tops brought me a sense of freedom and gender euphoria, that I realized saris weren’t too far off. In fact, they were the original crop tops.
I always feel my chest swelling with a sense of pride when people mention they know of Bangladesh from the tags on their clothes. When growing up in Dhaka, the country’s capital, I would spend at least one weekend a month diving into the depths of Doja Market, a collection of stores that sold clothes made for export. Because of one wrong stitch, missed buttons, or a Nike logo half an inch off, they would end up in the reject pile and eventually find their way into the hands of Bangladeshi purchasers rather than heading over to the United States and Europe.
I preferred the clothes made for export over the traditional salwar kameezes I had to wear for family gatherings. I never really ventured into the world of saris beyond wearing them at my high school and college graduations, indifferent to the traditional value they bought. They had always felt like a garment far away from me, one saved for the adult women in my family. Besides, I felt far more comfortable in Gap jeans and H&M t-shirts, which I could easily buy for the equivalent of less than 5 U.S. dollars.
Thanks to globalization, wearing “western” outfits — aka t-shirts, button-down shirts, and trousers of all kinds — started becoming popular when I was growing up in the early 2000s. Trying on different combinations of these clothes helped me explore my queer identity and feel more comfortable in my body. Browsing the Doja Market and finding the perfect shirt allowed me to figure out exactly what kinds of cuts I preferred, which brands made me look more androgynous, and how freeing it felt to not have to cover up my arms and legs, which traditional clothing forced into hibernation.
As a kid, I would hold onto the ends of the dupatta of my mother’s salwar kameez or the tip of her pinky finger as she took me from store to store and helped me decide which outfits I wanted. She would bargain with the sellers to bring down the prices — a very common practice in the market — using a very classic line: “See my daughter? I raised her on clothes from here. I’ve been buying clothes here since before you were born.” Depending on what TV cartoon was popular at the time, I might have opted for Pokemon or Dragon Ball Z shirts. When I started getting interested in watching European soccer as a ten-year-old, we’d often take the trip to Doja to find jerseys with my favorite players’ names or Nike and Adidas shirts — a more “athleisure” fashion style that helped me feel confident in my queerness.
When I started college in the States, fashion provided me with a way of exploring my gender. In the hills of Wellesley, Massachusetts, there was no school uniform and no insistence on wearing any particular types of clothing. I used my winter and summer breaks to go back to Doja Market to once again buy the types of clothes I wanted to wear. Every time my mother sent a care package, I would ask her for very specific clothes — whether it was a t-shirt with Angry Birds on it, or the jersey of the Bangladeshi cricket team so I could represent my country around all my new friends, or jeans that had rips in the knees that I could freely wear to class without scorned looks from my grandmothers and aunts.
In college, dressing up in ways that didn’t hide my breasts with a scarf, my elbows with sleeves, and my knees with long pants was safe. I started regularly playing basketball. I went out wearing whatever I wanted with friends. I could take advantage of how the “Made in Bangladesh” clothing affirmed my body and feelings of queerness in incredible ways I ironically never could achieve while I was living in Bangladesh.
After graduating, I felt isolated, unemployed, and separated from my friends spread out all over the country. I fell down the rabbit hole of the Netflix show Atypical, particularly captivated by the character Casey Gardner, played by the nonbinary actor Brigette Lundy-Paine. In particular, I loved Casey’s impeccable fashion sense. A lot of the outfits the actor wore matched ones in my closet: Adidas shirts and oversized hoodies. However, I did notice they also wore a lot of crop tops.
Crop tops had never previously crossed my mind as a type of clothing I wanted to try, as they were usually portrayed as feminine. However, in Atypical, I was compelled by how a nonbinary actor, whose closet had so much athleisure, pulled them off. Quietly, I became crop top-curious and often found myself window shopping online on Asos and looking at the way people styled them on Instagram (and would later to look on TikTok), though I wasn’t sure when I would have a chance to try them in public.
In February 2020, I took one last trip to Bangladesh in February of 2020. My mother and I visited Doja Market. During this trip, a sweater’s maroon, white, and gray stripes caught my eye. I immediately took it to a dressing room, a narrow, shabby stall located on the third floor of the market. The sweater had a low turtleneck, and it looked good on my wide shoulders, something that was difficult to manage. There was only one caveat — the sweater was cropped.
Self-conscious of my stomach as I observed a layer of fat peeking out between the sweater and my jeans, I wondered if I would even want to wear it. There was no way I would be allowed to wear the sweater in Bangladesh in front of my relatives, but my mother suggested I could perhaps wear it when I was back in the US, with a t-shirt underneath. The man at the shop also told us that crop tops were super trendy and pulled out a bunch of cropped t-shirts, a couple of which absolutely fit my athleisure style. A black Puma t-shirt. A navy Nike hoodie. I couldn’t resist buying them, still unsure of how I would wear them.
Enter the pandemic. When I moved to New York in the fall to attend grad school (the first year of which would be entirely online), all of my interactions with people happened inside my laptop or phone screen. Work meetings. Class sessions. Catch ups with friends and families. Starting school also meant I would see the same group of people every week and some people multiple times a week. So, being the fashion enthusiast I was, I wanted to spice up my outfits and vary what I wore as much as possible. At one point around October, when the weather was chilly and I had exhausted most of my sweaters, I wanted to try out my cropped sweater, inspired by Casey and Brigette. I realized that if I wore my cropped sweater I’d bought in Bangladesh, no one on Zoom would be able to see my peeking tummy.
And so, I wore it to class. My top half looked good, even over Zoom. I’d forgotten how comfortable the fabric had been. Because I was alone in this apartment, I started wearing it more regularly, along with the other two crop tops I’d bought. I started to feel comfortable revealing my waist and belly, even if it was just to myself.
Eventually, I started wearing them when I went out too. I started small — to the bodega at the end of the block to grab a soda. Then, I wore a crop top to the park to read by myself. And I felt incredibly accomplished when I wore the sweater to my friend’s birthday party on a rooftop. It helped that this was the first time a lot of people had seen as many as 20 people in the same place at the same time, so I felt less attention on me and my initial fidgeting in trying to feel right. But my mood went from neutral and confused to positive and ultimately pleased when one of my friends told me how much she loved the cut and color on me when she came up to fist bump me upon her arrival. When I got home that evening, I took many mirror selfies and stocked them away—but eventually ended up wearing the sweater to a photoshoot by a friend about “Fashioning a Sense of Self” a couple months later in February.
An even bigger surprise came in May of 2021. After finally receiving my Pfizer vaccinations, I booked a flight to visit my family for the first time in almost a year and a half. The trip was spent mostly doing work or hanging out with my parents. One night, I found myself laying in bed watching as my mother got dressed to go to my aunt’s housewarming party. I could be slower than her since it didn’t take as long to begrudgingly put on a salwar kameez. She had been walking around in a blouse and petticoat—the two basic garments that go on the body before the sari. The blouse went up to the end of her sternum while the petticoat started at her stomach.
My brain started to make connections I had never seen in the years I had grown up in Bangladesh. A sari was a kind of crop top. In fact, considering how early it dates back, a sari, the most traditional wear of Bangladesh, was the original crop top. I watched her drape her sari around her legs, across her stomach and finally over her shoulder. The sari was only draped on her right side, and the outfit revealed her stomach. I shot up from bed and asked her if she still had the sari I had worn to my college graduation. Surprised and confused by my willingness to wear a Bangladeshi outfit, my mother pulled out my blouse, petticoat, and sari from the closet and asked me to go iron them.
That evening, I started seeing culturally significant clothing I’d considered heavily gendered in a different light. While salwar kameezes felt restrictive as it covered up my limbs, I felt a new kind of freedom in the way saris allowed my tummy to show and my arms to flow freely. While they could be considered feminine in the context of tradition and culture, the fact that I’d worn it already made it queer.
Wearing crop tops in the safety of my room gave me the confidence to show my waist and my stomach and feel good about it, because over quarantine I’d developed a different kind of confidence. I learned to love the usually tucked-in parts of my abdomen. It had stemmed from a combination of seeing a nonbinary actor rock crop tops on TV with the unexpected affirmation from wearing a crop top-like garment that my family approved of.
My sari was red, made of silk, with gold designs at the edges of the side that draped over my shoulders. I took several pictures at the event, because I was so happy with how it looked on me. While I previously associated saris with Bangladeshi womanhood, they started feeling more part of my gender affirmation journey.
After that day, I continued to wear saris to dawats, and last December to the endless events hosted for my cousin’s wedding. Now, I feel incredibly at home in my body in the most traditional clothing of the region.