Born in India, raised in Alabama and Kansas, and based in Chicago, Anjana Raj’s background is a confluence of differences, much like the diverse clothing featured on her blog, Bangle Banger. Launched in March 2014, Bangle Banger is a diasporic Desi style blog that took the Internet by storm with its fearless and creative blend of desi and American fashion.
In addition to featuring creatively draped silks and crop tops, Raj shares insightful commentary on how style can be a political statement for women of color. As a psychology and computer science graduate, her passions of understanding identity and technology come together in the thoughtful blog.
The more I read, the more I knew I had to get in touch with Anjana to learn more. The following interview has been edited for length.
Let’s start with your blog’s origin and vision. What inspired you to share your style with others?
My interest in fashion and style started with Western clothing, but something about it seemed so lackluster. The boundaries of what was accepted and current were a lot more rigid. It was stifling. I would look forward to the four Desi events that were happening throughout the year to wear Desi clothes because that’s when wearing Desi clothes was appropriate. The unspoken but widely accepted rule that Desis in western societies could only wear Desi clothes for Desi events. Anytime else would result in ridicule, white gaze, or/and further prove that you hadn’t assimilated.
“The unspoken but widely accepted rule that Desis in western societies could only wear Desi clothes for Desi events.”
Now, the funny thing is that even when I would go to India, I’d be the only one wanting to wear saris. I’ve always gotten the ‘only traditionalists and conservative people from the older generations wore Desi clothes’ kind of vibe when I would talk to cousins or friends back home.
So, here I am feeling bound by these set of expected norms in Desi dressing, coupled with then this huge influx of non-Desis wearing Desi clothes with no repercussion or added weight of what it meant. There were all these rules of Desi dressing that they didn’t have to learn to wear. The way they could put it on and off offended me. It didn’t strip away their identity when they took off their clothes. I was outraged.
As most Desi girls would know, you earn the privilege to wear a sari once you’ve become a woman. It’s a right of passage into adulthood. Kids don’t wear saris. It’s attire that hints at the nuances of Desi women’s sexuality. None of this applied to them. Coincidentally, this was around the same time I really started getting into social justice issues.
I grew up very similarly to how most Desi girls grow up — strict, traditional parents, trying to acclimate to White culture, internalizing toxic shit due to the previous two. There was a lot of soul-searching and unraveling and unlearning that had to be done to understand what it is that I wanted from Desi clothes and it was much more than being able to wear a sari four times a year. I personally feel the responsibility to pry it from the hands of my oppressors.
Bangle Banger became a place to express my creativity and have a reason to wear more Desi clothes. Being on the Internet provides me visibility and access to other Desi girls who are going through the same thing, who just want to see another image of themselves doing something else than being a model minority.
Much of your work has gone viral. What has struck you the most about the response to Bangle Banger?
It’s been so surreal. I really had no idea Bangle Banger would elicit this kind of response. What’s excited me the most about the reaction I’ve got is the overwhelming amount of solidarity that I’ve gotten within the Tumblr community. I strongly believe in the sentiment, “Stand up so that others can stand up with you.” That’s what I am trying to embody with Bangle Banger. At the core of it, it’s just a brown girl doing what she wants. That’s what I want people to take away, so that another brown girl can have that push; can see someone like her existing, thriving. Even a fraction of evidence of that happening is what strikes me.
Many young South Asian American women I meet bemoan the difficulty of putting on a sari. In a lot of cases, the cultural knowledge hasn’t been passed down. How did your family play a role in developing your style? (And how do you get your pleats to be so crisp?)
Yeah, saris are not easy. I’ve always been obsessed with them. When I was younger, I’d pretend my mom’s dupattas were my saris. The obsession never really went away when I got older. To be quite frank, my mom didn’t teach me. Whenever someone would tie saris for me — my mother, aunts, grandmothers — I would be transfixed by the intricacy of the folds, pleats, and tucks. It amazed me how skilled they were.
Saris with stiffer fabric are the hardest to drape, but I think that’s where the true artistry comes in. It was a lot of learning from watching and then doing. There would be secret tucks and drapes that were passed down by my aunt and mother, to make the sari hug the body even better. Chiffon is a good starter fabric. That’s the type I started with, but now pattu saris give me the most draping satisfaction.
I could watch a Desi women drape a sari all day. The movements remind me of mudras from Bharatanatyam. The required hand movements are that precise and elegant. My secrets for crisp pleats are to do the pleats the night before and pin them, and iron the pleats with a straightener on very low heat. Most importantly, it’s trial-and-error and practice.
For a generation of South Asians that has tried to fit in, the idea of purposefully “othering” and putting oneself into the gaze of a broader American audience is sort of scary. What advice would you would give to someone just beginning to explore fusion fashion?
Fusion fashion can be so empowering if you believe in it. I think the reason I decided to step out was because after years of trying to assimilate and blend in, the people I was trying to blend in for were starting to participate in my culture when I felt like I couldn’t without being ostracized. Maybe that doesn’t anger others as it did me. The anger is the motivating factor for me, and could be for others.
Our [marginalized communities] presence is threatening and inconvenient for the dominant culture regardless of what we are or how we dress, so why not make it more threatening and more inconvenient and at the same time become truer versions of ourselves? Once you have the motive and you’ve committed internally, it can be empowering to try it.
“Fusion fashion can be so empowering if you believe in it.”
Fusion fashion is a conscious symptomatic behavior of a larger form of self-acceptance. Start small. Desi jewelry or a dupatta is a good way to step into diasporic Desi dressing. It’s easier and more comfortable to step back and be one of many, and diasporic fusion dressing is the complete opposite. So much of this is about reclaiming, because as M.I.A. put it, “Brown girl, American don’t wanna hear you make a sound.”
Our otherness is part of who we are. Our protrusion from the main culture is innate, so why not celebrate it?
Nina Bhattacharya is a public health professional moonlighting as a writer in her free time. You can find her on Twitter at @onlynina.
Can’t get enough of that bold Bangle Banger style? Here’s more from Anjana Raj in an exclusive video interview from Two-BrownGirls in association with Papadam productions: