New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel


   Indian Culture: Differences in Older and Younger Generational Assimilation

By Nikita Khalid

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Right under the 7 train in Jackson Heights, Queens

Clothing is a direct representation of a culture, and how people will portray themselves. The traditional garb of the Indian subcontinent is characteristic of saris, and salwar kameezs’ for women, and dhotis, kurtas, and sherwnais for men. These traditional types of clothing represent the Indian culture and symbolize things that range from purity, fertility, and spirit. When immigrants come to the United Stats and decide to reside in places like New York City, they will either decide to assimilate and become Americanized, or more commonly, immigrants will preserve their traditional clothing between older generations and allow their children to assimilate into American society more freely.

Immigrating to a different country is extremely daunting, so many immigrants will preserve their native dress, food, and culture in general in order to feel more comfortable in a new setting1. However, when immigrants move to large cities such as New York City, they are able to share their traditional customs as well as adopt the customs of the area. It is common for many older Indian immigrants who have already been married in the old country, and have had children, to move to the United States and keep the practice of wearing traditional Indian attire. The older generations are usually not as keen to adopt the practices of the foreign country as the younger generation of immigrants. This is due to the traditional ideology that older immigrants have, because they were raised as a part of their home country, as opposed to how younger generations are raised as contributors to the new country that they have immigrated to.

New York City is one of the most densely populated cites on the planet, and it’s neighborhoods are defined by the type of people who reside in them. One of the neighborhoods that I visited in order to understand and observe Indian culture and native Indian attire is Jackson Heights in Queens. It is known for its Indian cultural background, so when I was able to visit this specific neighborhood, I went into various women’s clothing stores, where they sold native dresses such as saris, and lehangas, as well as specific dresses for marriage ceremonies. Much of the Indian culture is based on wild colors, and jewelry in order to decorate life. The Indian culture will also use henna, which is a type of dye made from a plant that is used for temporary tattooing. This decorative aspect of Indian culture in their clothing is very dramatic, so it is easy to understand why altering between native Indian traditional dress, and assimilating into Americanized attire is difficult for older generations.

The younger generation of Indian immigrants deals with assimilation a bit differently than their parents or grandparents. It is apparent that Indian culture is not dead, and is nowhere near becoming extinct within New York City because the city is an organism that seems to breed cultural diffusion and prosperity. However, when assimilating into American society, many immigrants tend to adopt the way that people dress here. The purpose of assimilation is more so to share a common interest with other people of the same age, where the immigrant, no matter the ethnic background, can feel more comfortable. In this specific situation, we are discussing traditional Indian attire, so the younger generations will adopt what is known as “American” style, and buy brand name clothing from stores that are seen as heavily American, such as Levis, American Apparel, or Abercrombie to name a few. It is easier for younger people to assimilate and change their perception of their own personal cultural background because they are less connected to the native culture than their parents or grandparents.

There is also a difference in assimilation between the male and female immigrants within the subgroup of the younger generation. Male immigrants tend to assimilate easier in regard to clothing choice than females2 . Female clothing differs from male clothing because of the concept of promiscuity versus conservative dress. Indian traditional clothing is known for it’s color and concepts such as purity3. Assimilating into American clothing traditions could cause older generations of immigrants to frown upon younger generations due to the lack of the conservative nature of traditional clothing. I believe that behind the clothing are concepts that are associated with religion or with concepts such as purity of the soul. The Indian tradition is very religious in itself, so it’s traditional clothing must have some sort of religious connotation. This is why female promiscuity is frowned upon, and is associated with altering or forgetting about the traditional attire of the home country, making it harder for younger people to assimilate without stereotyping by the older generation.

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One of the traditional clothing stores in Jackson Heights, Queens

Interview: Younger Vs. Older Interpretation of Clothing

In order to obtain some primary research, I have interviewed two people; one of the younger generation, and one of the older generation. Through these two interviews I have compared the way that the younger generation of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent assimilate, to the way that the older generation assimilates. My interviewees were a 22 year old named Ravina Kumar, anda 68 year old named Meherun Nessa that I met in Jackson Heights, Queens. Ravina is Meherun’s granddaughter, and they immigrated to New York City during the 90s. Throughout the interview I asked both of them questions regarding their views on the clothing associated with their home country, as well as what their opinions are of Americanized clothing.

Interview #1: The Younger Generation’s Opinion

Interviewer (Nikita Khalid): What part of Indian did you immigrate from and when did you immigrate to New York City?
Interviewee (Ravina Kumar): I came here from Calcutta when I was two years old in 1994 with my grandmother, grandfather, and my parents.

NK: Did you dress traditionally in India, and did that change once you immigrated here and began going to school?

RK: I did dress traditionally in India from what I can remember or see in old pictures, however when I came here my parents bought me just regular clothes that everyone wears. A lot of the time, people in India wear traditional saris and salwar kameezes, but this is also primarily for more well off people. I guess that my parents really wanted me to embrace the culture here, which I did now as you can see (she pointed to her t shirt and Levis denim jeans).

NK: Do you think that everyone in the younger generation that you are a part of transitions to wearing nontraditional Indian clothing easily?

RK: I think that the younger that you come here, the easier it is for you to transition. It is especially easy for people who have come here from the ages of around 5 to 10 because I think that they are more impressionable, and retain more information and assimilate well to their surroundings.

Interview #2: The Older Generation’s Opinion

NK: Since immigrating here, have you ever thought about how you dress, and how it differs from the Americanized way that your granddaughter dresses?

Meherun Nessa: I believe that she is entitled to wear whatever she wants, and this makes her going to school here and living here much easier. I dress this way (in a sari) because it is the custom of my home country. I grew up in India and that is how I will continue to dress for the rest of my life.

NK: What is your opinion of how the younger generations of Indian immigrants dress?

MN: It is a representation of the Americanized youth. I think that if they did not dress this way, then it would take away from their knowledge of American culture. Even if I would like to preserve more of the Indian culture, traditional clothing is not the only way to do that. We try to teach our kids and grandkids the customs of our country, and they adopt what they like.

NK: Why is it important for you to keep the cultural garb of your culture present in New York City society?

MN: I believe that New York City has it’s own cultural identity, but I also think that each culture brings very important meaning. The way that we dress is traditional because it is what we know, but it also is how I feel comfortable. Just as you feel comfortable in your American clothes, I feel this way in my saris. There is no better or worse, it is just that we grew up differently.


Jackson Heights, Queens is a cultural center for immigrants of the Indian subcontinent with grocery shops, clothing stores, and restaurants directly solely toward Indian immigrants. Here you see a mother walking with her son (she is dressed traditionally, while her son is dressed in an Americanized fashion).

Work Cited

  1. Pavri, Tinaz. “Countries and Their Cultures.” Asian Indian Americans. JRank, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
  2. “Family Customs in India (Clothing, Attire for Women and Men).” Family Customs in India (Clothing, Attire for Women and Men)., n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
  3. “Family Customs in India (Clothing, Attire for Women and Men).”.

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