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PRAJWALA DIXIT: As Halloween approaches, here is a look at what is considered ‘Canadian’ clothing and what is a ‘costume’

Prajwala Dixit (left) stands with Constanza Safatle, project co-ordinator at Creative Sewing Atelier after channeling Frida Kahlo's energy (shown in background portrait). — Contributed
Prajwala Dixit (left) stands with Constanza Safatle, project co-ordinator at Creative Sewing Atelier after channeling Frida Kahlo's energy (shown in background portrait). — Contributed

What lies beneath (a turban and in our stores)

I am not one to be picky about clothing but an occasion this month — where I would be representing Newfoundland and Labrador and India on a national platform — demanded that I put my best foot forward. Eager to wear something that symbolized both my homes, I turned to the usual tropes —Walmart, Amazon, high-end boutiques in town and even Value Village, the friendly neighbourhood thrift store —only to be disappointed.  

With a week left, I had just about given up hope on intertwining two cultures, when an idea walked into my over-occupied mind, quietly found a spot and settled itself in.   

What if I could turn my Mysore Silk Saree into a dress?  

For the uninitiated, a saree is a seemingly unending piece of fabric that is draped in many interesting ways and usually worn by women who trace their roots to the Indian subcontinent. Mysore silk sarees, in particular, use pure silk and a zari containing 65 per cent silver and 0.65 per cent of gold.  

Picking up the phone, I dialled Constanza Safatle’s number, project co-ordinator of Creative Sewing Atelier at RIAC (Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council). A quick chat later a plan had been made to turn my teal saree into a boat-neck dress.  

Creative Sewing Atelier is a sewing program that provides sewing classes for free to all the local community, Constanza told me. 

“We provide [free] classes from beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. We finish the program with a big multicultural fashion show at The Rooms [the largest public cultural space in NL],” she said.  

An immigrant herself and a commercial lawyer from Chile, Constanza moved to Newfoundland to support her husband’s education. On this immigrant journey, she learned to sew by watching YouTube videos. That led her to establish a clothing business for babies called Newbornlander. Understanding how a skill like sewing had a profound impact on her life, she, with the support of RIAC, established Creative Sewing Atelier (https://www.creativeatelier.ca/).  

“The idea is to try to bring opportunities to the community and teach a new skill but at the same time it … tries to bring the women, who are insulated at home, outside, to learn something new … make friends, make networking, make connections,” said Constanza. She explained that a real engagement is born when people in the same situation, regardless of whether they are local or global students, are learning something new together.  

Channeling her inner Barney Stinson, Constanza accepted the challenge of turning of 6.3 metres of pure luscious, teal silk saree into a dress. She brought designer Kara Parkin on board. A quick meeting later, this vision was turning into a reality.  

“It’s a way to work from something that’s a part of someone’s life and culture, their history … and then express it in a more mainstream way. Something that they can show off who they are without feeling like they’re differentiating themselves too much. And a way to stand out and bring attention to who you are. … It fits in with the Atelier’s guidelines because we’re mixing where you come from with where you are now … your two homes,” said Kara when asked about her first experience of working with Mysore Silk.  

Originally from Thunder Bay, Ont., Kara has been sewing since she was 13, garnering a wealth of knowledge (through historic reconstruction and her time at CNA’s Textile and Apparel design program). She now generously shares her expertise with the larger community as an instructor with the Creative Sewing Atelier.  

Within a week, thanks to Kara and Constanza, my saree was turned into a beautiful dress. I donned it with pride, elated at being able to represent both my homes — inside out. I am quick to recognize my privilege and good fortune at having a saree on hand to turn into a dress. But I can’t help but wonder what if I didn’t?  

Women from South Asian countries have called Canada home for the last 100 years, after the restriction was lifted in 1919 for male immigrants from non-European countries bringing wives. Albeit only 11 dependents (who were wives and children of the mostly Sikh men) were admitted from 1914 to 1922, it can be said with relative certainty that a saree or two wended their way — packed in metal trunks cramped in the belly of ships traversing the wide waters — to the shores of Canada, and wove themselves into the Canadian social and cultural fabric.  

However, a quick peek at our stores will show that what we perceive as “Canadian” clothing hardly reflects the plethora of fabrics, clothing and styles that individuals have worn for centuries in our very multicultural country. Sadly, they often only show up as costumes on the Halloween rack.  

While capitalistic ventures are realizing the value of diversity in clothing, there is still epochs of catching up to do.  

Perhaps, this is why, someone such as Jagmeet Singh is compelled to address what lay beneath his turban in 2019.  
 
Prajwala Dixit is an Indian-Canadian engineer, journalist and writer in St. John’s, N.L who writes a biweekly regional column for the SaltWire Network. When she isn't engineering ways to save the world, she can be found running behind her toddler, writing and volunteering. Follow her and reach her at @DixitPrajwala    

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