In her youth, Lipi Turner-Rahman didn’t want to wear the salwar-kameez her mother, Razia, custom-ordered for her and her sisters. Growing up in England but Bangladeshi by birth, Turner-Rahman wanted to fit in with others and wear blue jeans and a T-shirt instead of the elaborately embroidered trousers, tunic and scarf that make up the national dress of South Asia.
Today, she embraces the native dress as a way to be closer to her mother and her roots.
“I wear them because they are a link with my mom, and I don’t mind being different,” said Turner-Rahman, WSU Libraries’ Kimble database coordinator. “When I put them on, I think of my mom and the cultural heritage she tried to propagate in me.”
Turner-Rahman’s personal collection of salwar-kameez will be on display in the Terrell Library atrium display case through April 24, part of Mom’s Weekend events on the Pullman campus. The library is open 24 hours Monday-Thursday; midnight-7:45 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-7:45 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m.-midnight Sunday.
Surviving the test of time
The salwar-kameez, also known as the Punjabi suit, was a popular clothing style for women in South Asia beginning in the early 19th century. It survived as a classic and traditional ensemble for older women, according to exhibit curator and WSU Libraries business and economics librarian Mary Gilles.
“Then, in the latter part of the 20th century, the salwar-kameez became the perfect means for expressing global fashion trends through traditional garments,” Gilles said. “Everything old was new again.”
The garment consists of three parts: kameez – the shirt or tunic; salwar – the trousers; and dupatta or uttari – the scarf or stole. About 10 different styles are worn, depending on the country or region in South Asia.
Since the 1980s, the salwar-kameez has emerged as a mainstream high-fashion garment, popular both on the catwalk in Paris and London and on the street. The suit was worn by Diana, princess of Wales, and Cheri Booth, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It can be found in the wardrobes of women across ethnic and racial lines in many parts of the world.
Intergenerational family tradition
Turner-Rahman’s collection of salwar-kameez over the years reflects the changes in fashion that have taken place since she was a girl. The lengths of the top go up and down, just like hemlines, she said.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is her mother’s tradition of custom-ordering new suits every year for Turner-Rahman, her sisters and now her daughters, Aneesa and Safaa. Razia’s yearly gift is the thread that carries her love across the distance from England to her daughters and granddaughters.
“Living so far away, when I put a salwar-kameez on, I feel my mom is here,” Turner-Rahman said. “South Asian parent aren’t demonstrative about their love of children, but I know this is my mom’s way of telling me she loves me.”
—By Nella Letizia