From a letter home from India in 2008:
The topic of this section is pants. It requires a small introduction. For the most part, I wear my own pants and have purchased some of the long tops with slits up the sides (kurta) that most of the girls with whom I work (unmarried, so generally pre-sari) wear. Most of the girls buy entire outfits, with coordinating pants, top and shawl (salwar kameez). I do not do this. First, I think the shawls can a pain to wear all the time. Second, I am not used to ‘outfits.’ I like trying different pants and tops together. The outfit concept seemed quite stifling. Third, I despise the pants. They come in two basic varieties, neither of which stretches or moves with you the way pants do at home. The first are mildly balloony at the top and then tight all the way down – basically, jodhpurs (churidar). These don’t do it for me. The currently fashionable pants are huge, with a zillion pleats at the top and then ballooning out and coming in tight at the ankle. To be sure, they look quite elegant on some woman. However, those will always and forever mean only one thing to me: they are MC Hammer pants, and I cannot wear them.
Anyway, I had been trying to do my own laundry. Then, I accidentally dyed two pieces of clothing the wrong color. I guess I wasn’t thinking that the dyes here were quite so strong — or just wasn’t thinking in general. Frankly, it is probably the best tie-dye work I have ever done, except that since it was unplanned, it is only dyed in some places. Besides this, I just felt that my clothes were never really clean. So, I have in and took them to a laundry/dry cleaners. As far as I can tell, laundromats are not are not an option here. And, I had been putting off using the laundry for another reason. They keep your clothes for a week, so I had to go on a shopping trip so I had enough clothes to last for the week while the other half were being washed. Once that was done, off the first round of clothes went. About an hour after I left the clothes, I got a panicked call from the man at the laundry. ‘The green pants you left? The bottom hem is gone. I mean, it is entirely gone.’
‘Oh dear,’ I replied. ‘Well, please wash them anyway.’ That’s what I said. What I was thinking was: Of course it is gone. I bought them that way. They are created to exist without the bottom hem. It is supposed to be cool. I had a similar conversation with Aberna about my J Crew-orange pants that, when they were brand new, looked like they had been faded in the sun. ‘Oooh, these pants are very faded, aren’t they? That is not good.’ I am never sure in these conversations when to do a bit of cultural teaching and explain precisely how much I paid for the pants to look just they way they do. This is a similar conversation as to when we talk about the fabric of my clothing. Aberna will touch my clothes and say, ‘Oooh, do you think this fabric is good?’ What she is asking is, ‘This is not 100% cotton, is it?’ Again, there is no good way to explain that being 100% cotton is not necessarily a status symbol in the US or a weather-dictated necessity and that the only reason I check the cotton content of clothes when I am purchasing them is to see if they will shrink in the wash.
Anyway, back to distressed and faded clothes. There was an article in Vogue not so long ago about a similar topic. It discussed the rise of jeans as an appropriate dress-up outfit and how it worked because people knew that you could afford to wear something fancier or nicer, but you had chosen not to do so. Moreover, I remember John telling me about some similar confusions with antique shopping in China – ‘why would you want to buy something old?’
The lesson applies here as well: the distressed, the vintage and so forth only works when it is clearly an option, not when for most people it is a necessity. That is, it does not work here.