Hello and welcome to Talking about Clothes, with me, Holly Chayes, where I talk about clothes with people who wear them. This is the transcript for Expressing Your True Self: Being yourself with your clothes with Shehla.
In this episode, Shehla and I talk about developing her personal style growing up in Pakistan. And then the culture shock of shopping for clothes in the US. We discuss the contrast between shopping for clothing designed to fit a standardized set of measurements versus clothing that is custom-made for you and your body and your preferences.
We originally recorded this conversation in 2021, and I’m so excited to share it with you.
Please note: we do talk a lot about bodies and sizing in this episode. So if that is something that is sensitive to you, please, please listen with care or listen in next time.
You’ll find the rest of this season’s conversations and links to everything we mention at WhoWearsWho.com/podcast6
So let’s dive in.
Jump to a section of the conversation:
- Diving into being yourself with clothes
- Prioritizing comfort
- Tension between being yourself with clothes and meeting expectations
- Navigating standing out and fitting in
- Predefined standards of femininity
- The wonders of denim
- Having a supportive mom
- Finding clothes you can be yourself in
- Figuring out how new clothing sizing works
- Being yourself with clothes that tick all the boxes
- Find your shopping season
- Navigating minimal clothing options
- Expressing being yourself with your clothes
- Tailoring and getting your clothes customized
- The beauty of clothes made just for you
- If your clothes don’t fit, change your clothes
- The problem with clothing designed for “average” bodies
- Being yourself with clothes no body is “average”
- Embracing your style uniform
- Choosing clothes that work for you
- Wrap up
Holly: (1:27) All right. So can you start with your name and where you’re located?
Shehla: (1:31) My name is Shehla, and I am in Dallas, Texas.
Holly: (1:34) Cool. What do you do?
Shehla: (1:36) Well, that’s an interesting question. I am, because I do a lot of things, but it may not seem to a lot of things to many people.
Shehla: (1:46) I’m a stay-at-home mom most of the time. I have two young boys. Right now, middle of the pandemic, just trying to educate them while they’re at home. I am a freelance graphic designer, illustrator, and product photographer. I have a background in graphic design and public relations.
Diving into being yourself with clothes
Holly: (2:06) Awesome. So diving into talking about clothes and your body and how they interact and all of that complicated relationship, when you think of kind of clothing your body and clothes as they relate to your body, what do you think of?
Shehla: (2:24) Well, I’ve always had a very interesting relationship with clothes because unlike most women, I was never into clothes, per se. You have to wear them. It’s sort of frowned upon if you don’t.
Shehla: (2:41) But I was never very particular about what kind of clothes I would wear. I think I had a staple that I always had in my wardrobe. Denim was one of them. Denim was my thing. I always wore jeans, even though I grew up in Pakistan where wearing jeans, especially when I was growing up in the nineties, that ages me unfortunately. But denim was not worn at that time very frequently.
Shehla: (3:09) We had our traditional clothing, which is a sort of a long top and a sort of pant, but it’s not a pant per se. It’s more of loose clothing, and it’s called a Shalwar kameez. And it used to have what would be a shawl or a Chaddar on top.
Shehla: (3:28) And I just disliked wearing that because I found it to have too much fabric, and I could not stand the too much fabric because I grew up a tomboy. I needed to be running around. I needed to be up a tree somewhere and all that would just get in my way.
Shehla: (3:48) So I’ve always found that denim was my friend. It was something that was durable. It was comfortable for all the shenanigans I would get into. And the other thing that I sort of compromised on, because wearing short shirts was generally frowned upon.
Shehla: (4:07) So I sort of did the compromise and what we had, it’s called a Kurta in Pakistan, but over here it’s generally known as a tunic. So it’s not a long shirt, it’s a medium length shirt. And I would wear that and I could easily wear that, get away with it, and sort of get up to all the shenanigans I was up to at that age.
Shehla: (4:29) So for me, my clothes had to be comfortable, number one.
Shehla: (4:35) I could not be uncomfortable in those clothes. And for anybody who’s been in that culture, they would know that we are elaborate dressers.
Shehla: (4:45) We love our bling. We love all the stuff that goes on top of it. And I was just not about any of those things because they look nice. They’re very graceful, very elegant, but they’re very itchy as well. And I just could not do any of those things for special occasions maybe, but not on an everyday thing. That’s not how I operated.
Tension between being yourself with clothes and meeting expectations
Holly: (5:10) Can you elaborate more on getting away with it and the tension between what you “should” wear and what you want to wear? Because I think that we all have that tension at some point in our lives, and we all run into it regardless of our background and expectations and what our expected dress is.
Holly (5:31) But can you talk a little bit more about it for you and how you grew up?
Shehla: (5:35) Well, I think getting away with it was more, it was twofold. A, it was culturally, and B, as a woman, and when it comes to being a woman, as some of those things are universal. But culturally, it had to look like it came from Pakistan, let’s put it this way, especially when I was growing up. At that time, there was Western wear, but it was not as prevalent.
Shehla: (6:02) I remember we had to go to this one particular store, actually, not a store, but it was a market. And they used to sell all of these, and I hate to even say it, but the fact is that they were branded rejects. And if you know what branded rejects are, they’re not really defective, it’s just that it doesn’t match up to a certain standard that exists. But they were good clothes. There was only one market that really sold it to them.
Shehla: (6:27) So I mean, you could go there and buy it, but what was more easily accessible was traditional wear over there.
Navigating standing out and fitting in
Shehla: (6:34) So I had to find the thing that A, sort of let me run rampant. And then B, I wouldn’t stand out that much as the only person wearing a denim and B, something that was not traditionally Pakistani.
Shehla: (6:49) And at that time, especially when it’s the sort of clothing that other people are not used to, you get the weird looks. So it’s just to avoid that, just because as a person, I’m not the kind of person that likes to stand out like a sore thumb. But you have to figure out that, no, I can’t do the traditional clothing, but I don’t want to be the only person in the room, I mean, not looking everybody else, basically. So that was one thing.
Predefined standards of femininity
Shehla: (7:25) And B, as a woman, especially after you hit puberty, there’s a lot of things that are scrutinized. And I think those things are pretty universal. There are certain expectations, especially when you’re a young girl, a woman, that you have to look a certain way.
Shehla: (7:45) There is this very predefined standards of femininity. I think that is, at that time was prevalent. I think even now, there are lots of things that are considered feminine and not feminine, and if you don’t fit into that, you’re sort of side eyed in a sense.
Shehla: (8:05) But at that time, if you’re a young girl, you had to wear these traditionally feminine outfits, lots of flowers, lots of these very pink, I mean pink.
Shehla: (8:21) I think I always had an issue with pink, even though I’m wearing a pink scarf right now. I mean, it’s sort of weird. But I always had a issue with not just any pink, it was this really weird baby pink that is the typical pink and blue that comes from the gender thing.
Shehla: (8:37) I was like, I’m not wearing that. No, man. So I always had an issue with that, that I was expected to wear these floral, puffy, itchy things just to be deemed a woman, that sort of thing.
The wonders of denim
Shehla: (8:56) So that was one of those things that was always difficult for me because I just didn’t want to wear those things. It prevented me from having fun that I think that is the only way I could put it. It prevented me from getting really dirty, because you couldn’t get dirty in those.
Shehla: (9:16) If you got dirty, you got in trouble. [laughter] Like that’s what it was “It’s so expensive. You got mud all over it!” That sort of thing.
Shehla: (9:25) Yes. So with denim, you could get it dirty and it wouldn’t even tear, and it’s sort of washed as easy as well, unless you got a grass stain on it, otherwise you’re fine. You could get away with it, literally.
Shehla: (9:37) So I think those two were the things that I had to figure out, what can I get away with?
Having a supportive mom
Shehla: (9:41) And it was just not me. It was my mom too. She had a lot of trouble with me. It’s just like, this is the one that, I can’t even get her to put on makeup or wear these pretty clothes. What’s wrong here?
Shehla: (9:55) But she was very tolerant of a lot of my shenanigans. She tolerated a lot of things, and then she helped me find that middle ground.
Shehla: (10:04) She was like, “Oh, you know, you could do what you want in a Kurta.” Because it’s loose and it’s not that long and because of how it’s shaped, it’s very, it’s not form fitting. Because a lot of the time over there, the top when it comes with the Shalwar and the Kameez, the top was form fitting.
Shehla: (10:25) And that was problematic, you always needed to have a shawl on top of it. And I was like, I’m not handling three pieces of clothing. No, man. So with the Kurta, it was not form fitting. It was comfortable. And I didn’t need a third, I guess, a shawl on top of it. So I was like, I can run free now.
Finding clothes you can be yourself in
Holly: (10:45) How was that navigation of figuring out what you could wear that still felt comfortable, that let you do what you want to do, informed how you dress now?
Shehla: (10:58) Well, it’s still very much the same. I think for me, denim is always a standard. I am always wearing jeans, even though people are really, especially in Dallas, Texas, it gets hot here. And they’re like, “How are you wearing that?” And I was like, “I don’t know. You just get used to it. You don’t feel it as much.”
Shehla: (11:23) And I think over here, the problem I think I’ve faced is finding that perfect piece of clothing that sort of ticks all the boxes. So it has to be comfortable. Let me be able to move around freely. And because I am Muslim, it has to conform to certain amount of coverage to it as well.
Shehla: (11:53) And I was surprised to see how difficult all those boxes are to check mark. Especially when you go to the regular department stores, you’re going through the aisles and you’re picking out each clothing. If it’s the right color, it’s not the right cut, or it’s not the right length or the material is weird.
Figuring out how new clothing sizing works
Shehla: (12:15) So it became very difficult when I moved to the US, that was about 13 years ago, and the sizings are all off. I mean, I call it off because you’re used to a certain measurement when you’re living in another country. And then you have these zeros, two one and it’s like, what does all that mean? How does that? At that time, we didn’t have a comparison chart.
Shehla: (12:38) You’re trying to figure this out. You take 10 pieces of clothing and only one of them fits.
Shehla: (12:45) It took me a long time to really figure out how that works.
Shehla: (12:50) And the second part is I’m not very tall. I’m like 5′ 2″. And that would put me, when I was in Pakistan, I was the average. I mean, I could go to any store and buy anything off the rack, it was fine.
Shehla: And now I’m searching the petite section if that place has a petite section really. And then the sizing is all off. Otherwise, it’s a really, it’s a lot of math that goes into buying clothes at that point.
Being yourself with clothes that tick all the boxes
Holly: (13:21) Absolutely. What are some of the favorite pieces you found that do tick all those boxes for you?
Shehla: (13:28) Well, tunics, it took me a long time to figure out what is it that’s comparable to a Kurta in Pakistan to what they have over here. And we do have a lot of stores that, especially in Dallas, because we have such a large Pakistani population over here that sell Pakistani clothes.
Shehla: (13:49) But again, I’m particular about what I would wear even in Pakistani clothing. And not all of them are the right print and all of those things. And so I do shop from there.
Shehla: (14:00) But when it comes to the stores that are the big stores, or even Amazon, I would search for a tunic.
Find your shopping season
Shehla: (14:10) And it’s funny, most of the times I’m shopping, not throughout the year, what I’m shopping is the fall sale, the fall clearance sale. That is the ideal time to really shop because they have the right length, the sleeve length, and even the right material.
Shehla: (14:34) It’s not too heavy and it’s not too light, that sort of thing. So it becomes sort of a navigation. You try to figure out, what’s the best time that I can buy clothes for the entire year? And that’s what I’m doing, that once a year, you’re buying in bulk.
Holly: (14:52) Absolutely. I’m really glad that you found the spot to shop and figure out what works for you. Because we have such weird trend release cycles. They’re like, you have to find what your ideal window is and hopefully remember it year to year because otherwise…
Navigating minimal clothing options
Shehla: (15:19) And that’s the other thing, and I found this really strange, is that there isn’t a lot of, I would say, a variety of the kind of clothes that you can get. In a sense that you only have three basic clothes styles. Either it’s plain, it’s a solid color, and B, it’s plaid, or C, it’s stripes. That’s all you guys have.
Shehla: (15:47) And I’m sitting here like, I’m not uber feminine, but I would really love some variety right there. And that is hard to come by. And I was like, it’s hard to, and here’s the thing.
Shehla: I think in that sense, I’ve evolved a little bit in the sense that when I was growing up, I didn’t like to wear all the frilly prints because they were everywhere. And now when I’m here, everything is plain. And you’re like, I would kill for a paisley, somebody give me something!
Holly: (16:23) The print. We have some pretty standard prints going on.
Shehla: (16:31) So in that sense, I think I get why, because that’s the third thing that I found. Especially when it came to clothes over here, is that there is a trend of using washing machine and dryers. And they do have a tendency to damage clothing.
Shehla: (16:51) And I get why having clothing, which has prints on it, may cause problems, may cause, it shows when you’re starting to fade or starting to peel, that sort of thing. But I think it’s a really strange.
Editorial side note: we talk a lot more about washing, drying, and taking care of the clothes you love so they last for years to come in this ebook.
Expressing being yourself with your clothes
Shehla: (17:07) I guess, I think it’s a little bit tragic in a sense too, because when you only have those three choices, you really can’t be a specific brand of yourself. I think that’s the word I would put it, because what you’re wearing almost represents every other person in the room, that sort of thing. That’s the sort of thing I miss.
Shehla: (17:38) Because in Pakistan, you could be wearing, even if it’s the same style of clothing, but everybody has their own, you could even customize clothes there.
Shehla: (17:49) If I wanted it to be very blingy, it could be very blingy and it would be like, this is my brand. This is me. I love this.
Shehla: (17:58) And if you just wanted a little bit on the neck or on the sleeves and everything, that was your brand. That was your way of how you approached everything in life.
Shehla: (18:08) You could see how a person was from what kind of, or how they wore their clothes.
Shehla: (18:14) But over here it’s sort of like, you can accessorize. I get that you can accessorize with the bag or the jewelry and all of those things, but the clothes are not the brand anymore. I think you have to get the extras to create an individual look, I guess.
Tailoring and getting your clothes customized
Holly: (18:33) It is entirely possible to get a tailor and do everything that you want to your clothing. But from my understanding, it’s much more common in Pakistan or in other countries to have and bring everything, or the majority of things like you…
Holly: (18:50) In the US we might tailor our favorite pair of pants or hem specific things and do small tweaks here and there. But it’s not often approaching a level of customization that is very prevalent in other cultural interactions with clothing.
Shehla: (19:11) Yes. And that’s the thing I miss because all of my clothes were custom-made, and I didn’t even realize that that is almost a thing that is disappearing from other parts of the world.
Shehla: (19:24) All of my clothes were always custom-made. It was made for my body. Even for everyday clothes or special occasions, it was measured to me, tailored to me. I could pick out the fabric I wanted. I could pick out the embellishments I wanted and it would be my piece, that sort of thing.
Shehla: (19:43) And that is one thing, even though I’m not a big clothes wearer, but you do miss it in a sense because you don’t want the same shirt off the rack that everybody else is wearing. I know it sounds weird, but it becomes this thing that you’re like, you do miss.
The beauty of clothes made just for you
Shehla: (20:02) Maybe again, we’re spoiled in that sense, but you do miss that. That my clothes are not made for me. They’re made for everyone.
Shehla: (20:16) And it’s not bad. And I’m not saying that it’s bad because I do understand that customization, especially over here, is incredibly expensive. It’s not something that everybody can afford, but it’s one of those things that I am especially used to when I was growing up that this is made for you, it’s special, that sort of thing.
Holly: (20:42) I just also realized that you must have then had custom measured clothes while you were a teenager and going through growing up and all of the body changes that come along with that, which seems like a very, I really wish I had that because finding clothes that fit as your body is changing as you’re a teenager is horrible.
Shehla: (21:05) It is. And that’s what I feel for a lot of the youngsters. I mean, I’m old now. I mean, I could wear anything, it’s fine. But at that age especially, you’re so conscious about how something will look on you or will it fit. If you go to the store and it doesn’t fit, you have no choice but to, it’s a little embarrassing at that age, quite frankly it is.
Shehla: (21:34) But all the other kids over there, they have that privilege that if it doesn’t fit, I can get my own made and I can make it the way I want. That sort of thing.
If your clothes don’t fit, change your clothes
Shehla: (21:46) So it just does instill that little bit of like, if it doesn’t fit, it’s fine. It’s not the end of the world. I can find something that’s made for me and it’ll look pretty. It will definitely look pretty if you’re going to make it over there, because you can do whatever you feel like. If you want to have flowers, you can have flowers, don’t want to have flowers, you don’t have to have flowers on it.
Holly: (22:10) Especially because I do style coaching, and one of the big things that I deal with is that shame. That comes from having something, a piece of clothing not fit, and it’s so debilitating in a way of, “I should be able to wear this piece of clothing”.
Holly: (22:30) Instead of realizing that every piece of clothing could be made to fit you. It’s a different mindset and way of looking at clothing that I really appreciate you talking about and bringing it up because it’s such a, you know that your body’s fine. It’s the piece of clothing that’s wrong, not you.
Shehla: (22:52) And that’s the thing, and I think I didn’t even realize this until I was much older, is that everybody is shaped very differently. I think I was a very average figure. There was nothing really any spectacular you could say, that alterations’, anybody would had to make for my clothing. So it was pretty average.
The problem with clothing designed for “average” bodies
Shehla: (23:15) So it never occurred to me, and I came from very average shaped women. But when I grew up and I got into to my first job in advertising, you meet other people and then suddenly you come face to face with the realization that, I mean there are women who are differently shaped. I mean either heavy on top, heavy at the bottom, both. And when I come over here and I see, I really, really feel for a lot of women that have to, I don’t even know how they do it really.
Shehla: (23:54) I’ll be honest with you, because when you have a piece of clothing that’s created on an average, it’s not made for everybody, really it isn’t. And that’s the thing, it looks good on the mannequin, but when you put it on you, it’s like, this is a disaster. It’s not going to work out.
Shehla: (24:10) And I feel for a lot of women who are shaped differently than the average, and they can’t shop at a department store. They’re like, “I would have to go two sizes up on top, but it’s still the same size at the bottom.”
Shehla: (24:30) So really it’s a huge hit on a person’s self-confidence. “This is the average. Why can’t I be this way?”
Being yourself with clothes no body is “average”
Shehla: (24:41) But the truth is nobody’s supposed to be that way. So I think if there was one thing, especially for the women’s clothing industry, especially in the US. There needs to be a real revamp. It’s not about just creating clothes for a specific minority or for the average.
Shehla: (25:06) It is coming to the realization that there is something wrong in how clothes are being created overall. It’s hard to, I’m not saying that creating custom clothing is the answer, because a lot of times that’s not really viable, but there needs to be a real deep rethink about how clothes being created for women.
Embracing your style uniform
Holly: (25:32) Is there anything else you want to say about clothing and bodies or custom clothes or measurements or anything like that?
Shehla: (25:40) Well, I mean, again, I think in general, I’m the kind of person that you would probably see wearing the same thing every day of the week. Not the same piece of clothing, but it would always be the denim and the tunic, denim, tunic, denim, tunic.
Holly: (26:01) You got your uniform down.
Shehla: (26:03) I’ve got my uniform down pat. And the thing is, I can be pretty picky when it comes to what I will wear. But it’s only because I think I’m at that point in my life, I mean, I was always there when I had to be comfortable. But now I’m like, I just don’t care very much any more about when anybody thinks I really don’t.
Shehla: (26:28) And I will wear what I feel is me. And I think a lot of women, especially when they’re younger, don’t know who they are or what their outward appearance says about them. I think that is the only advantage I had, is that from a very early age, I knew when a piece was mine or represented me and what piece didn’t. And I see a lot of women struggle with this. They see it and it looks good on some celebrity or a model, but they don’t see it as something like, this piece is not me.
Choosing clothes that work for you
Shehla: (27:11) It looks good on them, but it is something that’s them. Even with a lot of these celebrities, they have their own, I guess, wardrobe artists and all these designers that make pieces that are them, that are not meant for other people.
Shehla: (27:26) I think if women came to that realization that, I mean some pieces will look good on some women, even if they wore it but it will not look good on all women. We have to be able to see and recognize that that piece of clothing is not us.
Shehla: (27:45) If I had one bit of advice for anybody, is that, I think try to figure out what it is that you would like your clothing to represent about you. For me, my clothing represents a very easygoing, but still, I guess a classic look, there is nothing complicated about me, and there’s nothing complicated about my styling. That’s what my clothes represent.
Shehla: (28:14) If there is something that you wish to show to the world through your clothes, then you need to recognize that first before you start clothing yourself.
Holly: (28:22) Thank you so much for this conversation. It was absolutely incredible.
Shehla: (28:27) Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Holly: (28:29) Excellent. I’m so glad.
And thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. You’ll find the rest of the conversations and links to everything we mentioned at whowearswho.com/podcast6