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My mother is an exceptional
seamstress. When I was a little girl, we'd spend hours in Los Angeles' fashion
district, picking out the most decadent yet cost-effective fabrics she could
find. With a keen eye, she would doctor her own trims and create patterns, occasionally
watching the latest Bollywood (her hometown) flick for inspiration.
was a catalyst to her creativity, pushing her to design pieces that were
one of a kind. My parents were immigrants with scanty means in those days, but they never compromised
on attire. You could say that I, their
American-born daughter, essentially grew up in her own couture haven and that she has them to blame for her extravagant tastes. Just kidding.
My dad fondly recalls that at
dinner parties we'd host when I was around 4, I would run to my room, throw on
my blingiest outfit and descend down the hall. I'd slink past each guest as
tea flowed and smiles were exchanged—waiting for someone to give me a sign they noticed. This pattern continued, as I'd dash back to change and venture out
again. After I'd pranced around in several outfits, one particularly kind aunty
would comment, "Vah! (Wow!) Saba has SO many pretty clothes!"
The embodiment of that first, precious social media "like." God bless her.
Fast forward to my tweens. My flamboyance gets lost in a conservative
upbringing as not only a first generation Muslim-American female, but also one
from the Indian subcontinent. The region where a good portion of my ancestors hail
from, Hyderabad, is perhaps the most conservative of all Muslim cultures. I
adore the richness of the region—its exquisite culinary masterpieces
(dishes can take up to a week to prepare authentically), remnants of royalty
from the Mughal Empire and decorum to rival that of the haughtiest Manhattan
school of etiquette. In a nutshell, I was raised to be prim and proper, and tradition
has been steeped into my bones.
I was rarely encouraged to push boundaries.
You simply never, EVER rocked the boat.
As a teen, I pored obsessively
over fashion magazines, burning silhouettes of the moment into my young,
impressionable brain. I marveled at supermodels who weren't waking up for
less than 10 grand a day. Despite all
this, I remained a shell of know-how, lacking the means and bravado to flaunt
what I was taking in. In a community that encouraged the safe, pushing the
envelope with style was allowed only if it was done within guidelines. It couldn't make anyone uncomfortable.
I spent years adhering to all that was
expected of me, squishing myself into a little box that never quite fit.
When I married my college
sweetheart after graduation (not arranged, hence "adventurous" at that time), all
these different parts of my identity were starting to merge together. I was, and always will be, the eldest daughter: responsible and parent-pleasing. My husband, on the other hand, is the
youngest of five children, with the confidence of a lion. Always doted upon, he
was raised by parents and older siblings who treated him, as a child, to lavish basketball
shoes. His eclectic tastes were cause for celebration. Rarely did he have boundaries placed on his self-expression. I was drawn to his mettle in those
formative years, and quietly observed how he effortlessly melded all the
different parts of himself into a package that no one dared question.
As we raise our sons, 7
and 9, I try to keep the doors open to that self-expression.
It's never a bad idea to look one's best, even while holding onto certain aspects of one's faith.
When my husband ceremoniously mohawk-ed their
little newborn heads at home (what's turned into a bit of a tradition for us and continues to this day), it caused a
never-ending murmur of disapproval from elders and even community leaders. Initially, I wavered, the grown-up-pleaser in me conflicted. My husband? He never even flinched, his
unwavering tide of self-assuredness firmly in tact.
These reservations of mine, though, have also affected my work. I'm someone outwardly adhering to certain tenets of her faith instead of pulling out every card to look the part of the photo-ready bombshell, as is expected when you work in fashion like I do. It's a dichotomy that one can't understand unless we touch on the elephant in the room—the hijab.
Such a controversial little piece of fabric. The term means much more than restrained
clothing. It's a concept, a stunning notion to raise a woman above her beauty,
to make her something much more substantial than her appearance alone. (My
culture—versus religion—however, places a HUGE emphasis on women and their
in-your-face beauty. Again, watch any Bollywood film for reference.) That's the "Islam for
There are many reasons women choose to wear the hijab, but
I'm not looking to discuss them here. Instead, I want to talk about the challenge it has been to find my way in fashion, indulging this passion of mine, which, ironically enough, is all about appearance. To do
this while focusing on my inner, spiritual journey, to strengthen the part of
myself that is much harder to prettify—my heart—is a constant struggle.
My philosophy is this: In
the real world, we are constantly judged based on how we look. It's never a bad
idea to look one's best, even while holding onto certain aspects of one's
faith. Freedom of self-expression at its very finest: the American way. In
conservative circles, this idea is considered too self-indulgent. In
progressive ones, the spiritual restrictions on dress are problematic. Amidst
their bickering, I remind myself of this fabulous anecdote:
"Whohas forbidden the beautiful gifts of God, which He has
produced for His servants?" (7:32)
Me: Gifts of God? Hello, leather handbags and
mohair sweaters! I see you, and God wants me to have a grand old time with you. As long as I'm not forking over more
of my paycheck to Celine than I am to charity, I am free to enjoy you as I
Still, that girl's in there somewhere—part of a whirling, messy dervish of contradictions and harmony that make up who I am.
In today's world of
accessible style, having one's finger on the pulse of fashion can sometimes be
as easy as browsing the right hashtags on Instagram. A few years ago, I started a business helping friends with what I knew and could translate from the
runway into their very real, substantial lives—the lives of teachers,
lawyers, housewives, accountants and social workers. If I can make someone
feel better through their appearance, it can positively impact all the deeply important work they are doing.
my motivation: helping others.
I'm now more gratified helping them than I was blogging my
outfit of the day, which is fun, but not always the best use of my time. My #OOTD also didn't
have the greatest effect on my heart, which I'm struggling to grow and nurture
away from distractions and today's culture of "worship thyself." If I'm too busy
planning my next look, so everyone can comment on how cute I appear in one
strategic photograph, I already know the dinner-party-parading little girl will
reign supreme, inflating my ego and distracting me from more consequential
I simply don't have time for that.
Still, that girl's in there somewhere—part of a whirling,
messy dervish of contradictions and harmony that make up who I am. Depending on the situation, what blend do I
bring forth to tackle the situation at hand? When I succeed at the perfect mix
of dinner-party flaunt, poise and etiquette, zeal for glamour, and love and
consciousness of the divine, I consider the day to be a success.
At home, it means enjoying my
younger son's insistence on mismatching his socks. He lingers each day in front
of his closet. While it infringes on my hustle to get out the door, I usually
allow it. Even when I lose patience, he doesn't
rush the meticulous pairing of his fuchsia stripe with the yellow argyle.
I'm sure someone's raising an
eyebrow somewhere, but at this point, it's purely inconsequential.