Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sari Special

I love silk: chiffon, crepe, organza, china, georgette – you name it, I love it. Silk is an odd fabric, almost too delicate for normal handling, sensitive to rain, snow and heat, food elements, dry cleaning, other fabrics, nails, jewelry, and even its own embroidery. And yet, there’s no other fabric that’s quite as elegant or luxurious for a skirt, blouse, dress, scarf or shawl.

It’s natural that I’d love a sari. However, it was only last New Year’s that I would learn how to wrap or tie it on my own. I had just returned from an overdue visit to India, where I had selected several saris. Like language and cooking, it took lessons, from my mother. There are many ways to drape a sari depending on the region. I won't attempt to list all of them - I leave that to French cultural anthropologist Chantal Boulanger.

I myself am familiar with only two styles, which I have nicknamed “namba” (Tamil for “ours”), the predominant style in the South as well across the subcontinent, and the other mainly worn in the north, “Gujarati” since the first time I had seen it draped that way was amongst my counterparts of Gujarati origin.

There’s only a minor difference between the two: in the South, the “pallu” or the end is draped across the body then over the left shoulder, creating a streamlined fall at the back. And in the North, it is draped over the right shoulder, fanned out across the body, with a pretty, hanging J-shape at the back. The latter style is better suited for saris with extreme embroidery or beadwork. I have worn those the other way, but my left shoulder generally suffers for it. In both styles, the pleats for the skirt part are tucked into the petticoat at the waist.

I don’t find tying a sari very easy or intuitive at all. The first time I attempted it independently, it took multiple tries. I was sweating by the time I’d got into reasonable shape. I still had problems safety pinning the pallu to the blouse.

Furthermore, not all saris are created equally. For georgette silk, the pleats are easier to manage, the pallu is more watery (this is where I’ve had the most success). Saris with a lot of beadwork and embroidery on chiffon can be tricky because of the need to manage a light fabric while the ends keep getting weighed down. Chiffon with less beadwork can be equally as tricky to handle. Heavy silks are well...heavy.

The great part is when the silk gets caught in its own beads and you’re struggling to disentangle it all. Although, it's even better when figuring out exactly what to do with the slack, since sari tying involves much estimation: of height, pallu length, number of pleats for the “falls” as my mom calls them – probably not the technical term for the pleated skirt part which fans out like flower petals from waist to ankle. What part should one adjust? If there’s not too much slack, usually you can hide it— which is what I do!

The success to tying a sari is all about controlling the pleats with your thumb and index or middle finger. It’s actually tortuous pain. In the Southern style, the pallu is the easier part, particularly as there is a great deal of versatility in how you can drape it – it can be partially pleated, fully pleated and pinned, or left loose for a more informal, sexier look.

But perhaps, versatility is the watchword overall – a sari is an extremely versatile garment. And you never really know what and how works for you and the fabric until you yourself try it out. So, do what I did to supplement my lessons: watch these YouTube videos.

You may ask: why even bother? How often do I wear a sari – 5 or 6 times a year at best? It’s October and my 2009 tally will likely conclude at 4. Am I holding onto culture unnecessarily? No. Culture comes and culture goes, but I wear a sari for one predominant reason: because it makes me feel beautiful.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The quest for true, hypoallergenic makeup

Now that I’ve dead-ended in my quest for boots in the United States to fit skinny calves (Paris, Tokyo, and Geneva or custom-ordering are probably my best bets), I’m on to my quest for truly hypoallergenic makeup.

I’m allergic to most makeup. If I’m not allergic to it right away, then I will develop an allergy to it. I inherit this from my mother, who has for her entire life, worn very little make up besides Revlon powder, eye liner (kohl is normal for Indian women), and nail polish (yes, this is counted as makeup). Except my mom in her youth looked like a 60s model, bearing an uncanny resemblance to both Twiggy and Edie Sedgwick. I have no such luck.

Powder is usually not a problem – I find Neutrogena, Loreal’s mineral line, and even Revlon if I’m in a bind, to be more than adequate. Same with blush and bronzers – but I stick to Body Shop. I don’t use liquid foundation; it makes me feel like I’m not breathing.


In most cases, I can’t do cream-based lipsticks. My lips are too dry and cream lipsticks dry my lips out. I tend to use gloss, stains, and in most cases, Vaseline. Chapstick is like Tylenol for me: pretty much, useless.


Eye shadow:

I have rabid allergies to most eye shadows. Revlon’s mineral shadows, Physician’s Formula, and Almay make my eyes itch. Estée Lauder and Lancome produce morning-after puffy eyes, even after removal the prior night. Clinique was okay for all of 6 months. Mac worked for a year. As of today, I’ve not made a firm decision to discontinue usage of Mac. It’s better than most, and I’m partial to their color Velvet, a wine/burgundy which is a nice alternative to brown and black for a smoky eye and which a makeup artist used on me the one time I modeled designer bridal gowns. Body Shop is the best and has caused me no problems so far: smooth application, great colors, no allergies.

Eye liner:
It’s not that I’m actually allergic to any liners, but I have great difficulty removing it once applied. And when I can’t remove it, then it causes irritation. My mom applies it on the inside of her under eye lid, which I have always been far too squeamish to do. My hands shake too much for proper use of liquid liner.


Ah, and now the apex of makeup troubles. I cannot do 99 percent of mascara. And yet, I love it. Maybelline Great Lash is terrific in theory and only $5 for the bottle. But, like cheap wine, I pay for it in the morning. Neutrogena is actually hypoallergenic; however, it’s so ineffective, I may as well not wear mascara. I went the medium-price route, trying Body Shop, which was good till it made my eyes itch and subsequently balloon. Though I have to note, while it seems illogical, the tube I bought in Johannesburg a few years ago was good; the one I bought in the U.S. was not. Could the formulas be different? My brief foray into Clinique mascara was horrific.

Wandering through duty-free at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I shelled out 22 Euros for Dior Show. Which I absolutely loved for the dramatic look, but I developed mild allergies to that as well (and yes, I throw out mascara after 3 months when opened, as one is supposed to do). I would try Dior again since it’s been the best results-for-allergy trade-off so far. Today, I talked to a Mac makeup specialist; however, she directed me to Lancome’s Definicils. So I paid yet another $24 for hope. You ask why?!

Anyone who has seen me within handshaking distance would observe that my eyelashes are almost unparalleled in their thickness, length, and blackness. If Michael Jackson was Janet Jackson’s only comparison for dancing, my younger brother is my only comparison for lashes. In fact, I had a debacle with Cambridge Eye Doctors over the summer, when I chose a frame with a saddle bridge. My lashes hit the lens, and since they couldn’t adjust the frame to prevent it, I had to have an entirely new frame made. I can only get the distance with a nose bridge. Similarly, when I look in a microscope or telescope, all I see are lashes. It’s stupid when important bacteria and Saturn’s rings are being obscured by your own lashes. So why mascara?

Oh, but isn’t that the point? I melt when I see photos and clips of Aishwarya Rai or Audrey Hepburn with tremendously long and luxurious lashes. I don’t think one can ever have lashes that are too long or too thick. Infiniti is the limit.

The question of color:

While the makeup industry has come a long way from the days of when Iman, as the only black model on the runway in the 70s, could not find a foundation to match her skin tone, and while there are lines that cater specifically to women of color (like Iman’s own makeup, most of which I love and am not allergic to), good options for colors are not always in the mainstream brands. Clinique offers dismal choices. Mac and Body Shop are good, along with Revlon. A lot of colors aren’t formulated in ways that work. If not all pinks are created equal, they don’t apply equally either.

Lessons learned:
Upon advice from my mother, I stopped using makeup altogether for a week and found that my face was fresher, less lined, and less stressed out than before. So after putting you the reader through all that, I’ve decided to drop most makeup. Black and white film actresses used Vaseline for a dewy, glossy look. I tried it. It works. It’s also safe. Perhaps Vaseline, lip gloss, and a little powder, is all I need most of the time. Besides, as Scarlett O’Hara and Cleopatra have shown the world, beauty is 90 percent attitude.

And dark nail polish, of course.