Accessories fascinate me more than clothes. Through my college years, these took the form of jewelery, ranging from earrings to medallions, necklaces, anklets, rings, belts and every form of adornment I could find. When I started work, most of my jewelery had to be put away as it was too funky/ impractical/ irreverent/ inappropriate for officewear. That’s when I discovered another accessory – a simple length of cloth.
It started with knotting a colourful scarf around my neck to break up the monotony of my officegarb of drab shirt and grey trousers. That’s when the world of folds, drapes, knots and related accessories like brooches and pins opened up to me.
Salwar-kameezes found a place in my wardrobe around the same time and from that direction, I came to the Indian version of scarves. Dupattas such an integral part of Indianwear, lend themselves to so many ways of wear, spanning the range from flirty to pragmatic, modest to seductive and accessorial to pragmatic. They add character to the clothes you wear.
I love mixing up the conventional and this accessory allows me the freedom to do so without stumbling into inappropriate. In my Kala Ghoda boheme look, I sport a regular cotton dupatta as a stole. In Lavasa, I wore a stole as a yoke. Most of the time, I offset a severe formal look with a soft scarf (like I did with the suited-booted look).
Call it a stole, call it scarf or a bandana or a dupatta, the versatility of an extra piece of cloth cannot be emphasized enough. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to refer to this as a scarf.
The most common ways that I see people wear scarves are:
- Square: Fold in triangle, place on head and knot under neck. An import from rural Europe, this style has gotten associated with fever patients in urban Indian.
- Narrow & long rectangle: Loop over neck, tie once and fasten with pin in the middle of the front. This style is most commonly seen on the uniforms of the service sector, especially airlines.
- Rope around the neck: Looped tight around neck and hung down the front or the back. Most chiffon/slippery fabric dupattas are worn this way, presumably because it is the only practical way to. This style doesn’t do anything by way of modesty, grace or aesthetics for the outfit.
- Droop-off-shoulder: Very popular when the dupatta is the focus of the outfit because of its embroidery or other work, this is worn loosely draped over one shoulder/arm. It serves well to showcase the dupatta but often gets in the way or falls off during regular activity. I think it’s best suited to a mannequin.
- The modest V: Each end thrown over one shoulder, the front pulled down to cover the torso. This is the most modest style I’ve seen and it finds great favour with the more conservative of my family members. For all its shapelessness, I think it still adds an element of grace and feminity to the otherwise straight lines of the salwar-suit.
- The dhavani: or the odhni in a lehenga-choli. This outfit is rapidly going extinct, except for ceremonial occasions. There, the northern/western versions of draping over one shoulder and tucking into the lehenga seemed to be most popular. The southern version of mimicking a saree palluv (drape across torso for maximum coverage and tuck other end into lehenga/pavadai) doesn’t seem to find as much favour.
- The elbow drape: Popularised by prime time Hindi soap operas, this style involves draping the dupatta over each elbow, leaving the ends hanging alongside the lehenga and the middle forming a triangle down the wearer’s lower back. I don’t like this style too much since it necessarily involves holding one’s arms at right-angles (Barbie doll style) at all times.
Some of the newer styles I’ve started to favour include looping, doubling, folding and knotting. Here are some of my spins on the conventional technique:
- Fold a square scarf end-to-end instead of tip-to-tip to form a rectangle and tie carefully around neck with a brooch in the middle.
- Drape a long, narrow scarf over the shoulders like a dupatta, but with one end longer than the other. Bring the longer end across the back and over the shoulder with a shorter end. This can be levelled at the same length as the other end that’s over the shoulder and pinned where they cross. Or if the scarf is long enough, cross the front and drape over the back again.
- Fold a long scarf in half and drape around the nape so the ends are on one side and the loop is on the other. Insert the ends into the loop down the front of your neck. This is actually a classic style but I like to keep one end shorter than the other and either knot or pin it in the front.
- Fold a scarf into a very narrow band. Circle it around the neck smoothly as many times as required to leave only a short length at each end. Tuck these into the circles and move the tucked area to the back of the neck where it will be hidden by hair. If you have short hair like mine, camouflage it with a pin. I like to wear the pin to one side of the neck in this style but it can also be worn in the center. This is good for a chic style that also keeps your neck warm.
Often I find it isn’t necessary to own a particularly expensive or varied range of scarves. A small mix of colours and prints serve well if you’re willing to experiment with draping. Basics can be jazzed up by interesting pins.
Since I travel around in Mumbai’s pollution, I always carry a scarf to tie my hair and cover my face. Recently I’ve taken to using the scarf even when I’m not travelling and adding it to my outfit. A dress is the one garment I never see Indian women accessorize with a stole. Here are two of my experiments:
This is actually a long, straight skirt from FabIndia. It turned out to be too big for me so I snipped off a strip at the bottom and added it to the top as shoulder straps. A thin black belt to contain the roomy skirt silhouette but it still looked incomplete. So I folded over a black floral silk scarf into a triangle and crossed it over my shoulders. Protection from catcalls (because of the strappy dress) and interest value at once!
- Dress: FabIndia skirt altered
- Scarf: Black silk, Janpath market, New Delhi
- Blue wooden bangle: FabIndia
- Black-with-butis cotton handbag: FabIndia
- Black strappy flat sandals: RawHide
The second is a Benetton knit dress patterned in black, brown and white plaid. The print is too drab for one of my evenings out but the silhouette is just that tad too dressy for work. So I teamed it with a black scarf (with red & beige floral print) draped over my shoulders. The other accessories are beige Catwalk sandals a FabIndia black-with-butis cloth handbag.
Without the scarf, it’s a classic silhouette. But if one is either conscious of flabby arms (as I was when this picture was taken) or too cold for a simple sleeveless dress, the scarf provides adequate protection.
So the next time you look at your closet thinking you’ve nothing interesting to wear, let that scarf show you the way out!