Shopping For Traditional Clothing In Mumbai

After the first day’s sightseeing, the real shopping began, starting with ready-made clothes. I wanted to see what people were buying and wearing in Mumbai and have a chance to wear the local fashion myself. I was out with a driver, whose suggestions for stores to visit were what he called “branded” stores. This turned out to be shops that were posh enough to have air conditioning. That was not my actual goal, but climate control is frequently an open door and a fan in Mumbai. Trying on clothes is work, and AC was a rare and welcome treat. These shops also had customer restrooms, a difficult amenity to find in Mumbai. I was perfectly happy to pay a bit more for both conveniences.

The Paaneri sari shop, with air conditioning, restrooms, and exclusively male sales staff

Shopping in Mumbai was not at all like what I was used to. Strangest to me, there were no racks of clothing to browse through. There was a wall of shelves with the garments folded into neat little cellophane packages to allow just a glimpse of color. Everything is packed tightly. Removing anything from that stack would be like playing Jenga, not shopping. No worries, it was not possible to cause a clothing avalanche. Between the customer and that wall of fashion stood a brace of salesmen, a counter, and a row of chairs. It would have required a heroic leap to reach that wall without interception.

Paaneri’s stock, behind the counter and safe from customers

If you do not ask specifically, and know the stock, you are dependent on the salesperson’s knowledge and insight. Opportunities for serendipity or discovery seem improbable. Surrender was the only option.

The sales staff was great. It was a quiet afternoon, and I had their full attention. I was clear from the start that I wanted a shalwar kameez, a simple tunic and trouser suit. My stated goal did not prevent them from sharing the most extravagant of their embroidered lehenga sets. They appeared completely willing to unwrap everything on the shelf and discuss its merits in great detail. I thought I was wasting their time. They appeared to think I was more amusing than sitting around. That is how I ended up in the most outrageously gorgeous gown I have ever worn.

Rich, beautiful, heavy…

The other remarkable thing about shopping for women’s clothing is the absence of women. The sales staff at all of the shops I visited were men. The concerns I bring to the fitting room are not concerns I care to share with unknown men, even if they do know what a French seam is.  I was certainly not prepared to have a BFF fitting room experience with these gentlemen. 

I took the first lehenga set into the fitting room for a sweaty moment of panic. The choli blouses are very tight. They are meant to be, because they look really good that way and no one cares if you are comfortable when you look amazing. This one did not look good because it was stuck on my head. The blouses zip on the side seam and have lacings that open up the back. You put them on over your head and then wiggle them over your arms and shoulders until they are low enough to pull down the rest of the way. This works fine if your best friend is standing behind you to help when your breasts are still hanging out of the bottom of it and your arms are waving over your head like the antennae of a frightened bug. 

The salesmen were concerned since I was taking so long in the fitting room. They were anxious for the reveal. I was anxious about that too. I finally got the top off and appeared in the lehenga skirt and my t-shirt. Two very helpful salesmen pulled the zippers up as far as possible and tugged the skirt around to the proper angle. Another stood behind me and held the choli up over my shirt so we could take a photo of the approximate effect.

Approximated, with assistance

It was not over yet. They had something that was somewhat my size, and were now truly enjoying the spectacle. Back to the dressing room I went. I managed to get it on sufficiently to clutch it to my body, but not zip, and waltzed out into the showroom. The choli was mostly unzipped on the side seam, but I held it closed with my elbow while the rest of the dupatta shoulder drape was arranged. The final effect was spectacular if precarious, and the lead salesman was happy to take many photos. I felt more fabulous and overheated than I could have imagined. Everyone involved was complimentary and respectful in the face of my obvious awkwardness, but there was no remedy for the facts of the process. These guys were now my BFFs.

Feeling like a cat that had been dressed up in doll clothes


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