I used to proudly consider myself a “coconut”—a term that, within my Indo-Canadian community, referred to someone who was brown on the outside, but white on the inside. To me, that label simply meant that I was able to blend in among my Canadian peers. I didn’t bring Indian food to school, even though we ate it most nights for dinner, and I reserved dozens of ornate Indian earrings and stacks of multicoloured bangles for ‘Indian parties’ or family weddings.
But now, as a 28-year-old living and working in the media industry in Toronto, I incorporate pieces of my culture into nearly every outfit—and I’m far from the only one mixing up my wardrobe. Marketing consultant and all-around #fashioninspo Gurpreet Ahluwalia, who has worked with Saks Fifth Avenue and Holt Renfrew, says that what we wear can say a lot about who we are, or rather, who we want to be.
“Fashion reflects how we feel, our aesthetic and how we want people to see us,” she says. Looking back at my (somewhat questionable) fashion choices, my attire reflected that I didn’t yet accept the Indian part of my cultural identity. Growing up in Ottawa, I was instilled with a strong Canadian pride, but I viewed my Indian heritage as weird or different compared to the norm. I wanted people to see me as Canadian—despite the fact that my skin colour often prompted questions about where I was “really from.”
Social work student and influencer Sharan Guruparan, who goes by “Sharan Guru” on Instagram, remembers making similar choices. Guruparan’s family is from Sri Lanka, but she was born in Canada and attended middle and high school north of Toronto in Stouffville, Ont. At that time, she was part of one of the only Brown families in the community and she actively tried to blend in, which meant leaving certain accessories at home.
“Being Tamil came with a lot of stereotypes, bullying, and racism, so I didn’t always feel like I had the freedom to include that part in my identity,” she says. “I did whatever I could to fit in and conform to the people around me. This included cutting South Asian jewellery out of my wardrobe.”
What these pieces *actually* say
As I finally grew out of my awkward teen years and began to embrace my hybrid cultural identity, my Indo-Canadian pride was reflected in my fashion choices—specifically in the jewellery I paired with my everyday outfits. I started wearing the earrings I had reserved for Diwali with jeans and a t-shirt, or adding thick layers of bangles to a dress for a night out. In a time when fashion designers seem to frequently be appropriating other cultures, putting on a pair of Indian earrings felt like a way to wear and authentically celebrate a piece of my own culture—a culture that I learned not only to accept but to love.
Actual footage of me embracing my plethora of Indian jewellery:
And when learning how to fuse two types of fashion, I looked to other desi women, like Ahluwaia, for OOTD inspo.
“I often pair pieces of traditional clothing with ‘Western’ outfits. I also try to incorporate my traditional Indian jewellery. It helps me bring together two parts of my life—my Indian roots with my Canadian home,” says Ahluwalia.
With more than 12,600 followers, Guruparan is another source of inspo for me. When the 24-year-old student fused two cultures in a photo series envisioning what Aaliyah’s style would look like if she was Tamil, she found herself mixing Indian jewellery with ripped jeans and a Tommy Hilfiger bandeau. “The South Asian jewellery was used to display that South Asian women can still be South Asian while being comfortable in her skin and attire,” she wrote in the caption, and that message seemed to resonate with others on Instagram.
“I feel like in the last year Instagram has really created an international support and platform for South Asian fashion bloggers to come together and hold space for each other in representing both identities through fashion,” says Guruparan. “Since posting shoots like such, I’ve connected with so many women and queer/trans people who fuse their outfits just like mine and we’ve really started building this platform for visibility and representation for visible South Asians in North America.”
As I become more comfortable embracing my Indian style, I’ve definitely found myself following more desi Instagram accounts and taking fashion cues from women like Canadian artist Babneet Lakhesar, better known as Babbu the Painter. While I love Babbu’s mix of heavy Indian jewellery with everyday looks, not everyone opts for such flashy statements.
“From small gold hoop earrings, single sets of detailed bracelets and bangles and my gold necklaces, my cultural identity was represented by my jewellery, more implicitly than explicitly,” says Roohi Sahajpal, the co-founder Didihood, a network for South Asian women in creative industries. “This simple, delicate jewellery didn’t call for attention. It symbolized my culture for me in a quieter way—and still does.”
Trending online and offline
When I first started coupling Indian jewellery with work attire or dresses, I wore pieces we had picked up on family vacations to India or from my mother’s collection. However, in recent years, my love for Indian-style jewellery has turned into a full-on shopping problem thanks to Indo-Canadian designers like Taran Mullhi. The Vancouver-based designer and owner of Mahari Collection says she has recently seen an increase in young South Asian women purchasing her Indian-style earrings and bangles for everyday wear. It’s a fashion movement that means a lot to her personally.
“I think I just feel really proud that I can feel that comfortable to mix and match both wardrobes, because it wasn’t necessarily that easy growing up. I think there were times when I felt a bit embarrassed of certain aspects of my culture or my parents really struggled and maybe their clothes were looked at a bit funny,” says Mullhi. “It’s great now that we’re able to wear it so easily and have people admire it and not feel like it’s something to hide, so I guess it does hold some significance.”
And that significance is different for each individual. For Ahluwalia, most of her jewellery was given to her by family members on her wedding day or pieces that were passed down to her from her mother. “Each piece has a unique memory attached to it that makes it priceless,” she says.
For Guruparan, being able to proudly wear these items is a way of acknowledging her family’s past.
“South Asian jewellery is a constant reminder of my parents’ struggles and their removal from their motherland [Sri Lanka] due to violence and civil war,” she says. “It’s a reminder that we have the privilege to be able to represent our culture in peace. That’s what separates South Asian jewellery from other pieces and that’s why it’s more than just an accessory to me.”
For me, these pieces of bling have become a reminder that I am both Canadian and Indian, and that in itself, is beautiful. With that in mind, these aren’t just earrings. They’re statement pieces.
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