Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and children, Xavier, 10, Ella-Grace, 9, visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Internet questions PM’s fashion choices in India

The Trudeaus’ eight-day visit has been dogged by various controversies since it began Feb. 17

TORONTO — The traditional garb that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family have adopted in India has raised eyebrows around the world, but travel experts say that shouldn’t dissuade Westerners from trying to honour local norms when they head overseas.

Canada’s first family appeared in relatively demure attire as Trudeau donned a suit to tour one of India’s largest mosques Thursday, with wife Sophie in a yellow floral dress and their kids in matching striped button-downs.

And a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday saw Canada’s leader in a similarly straight suit and tie.

Nevertheless, criticism lingered over past fashion choices, which included an elaborate gold sherwani that Trudeau wore to a dinner with Bollywood stars including Shah Rukh Khan, Anupam Kher and Aamir Khan — who all wore dark suits.

It followed other family photo ops in which the quintet — including 10-year-old Xavier, nine-year-old Ella-Grace, and three-year-old Hadrien — appeared in co-ordinating kurtas with their hands in the namaste pose.

“Is it just me or is this choreographed cuteness all just a bit much now? Also FYI we Indians don’t dress like this every day sir, not even in Bollywood,” Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, tweeted from his verified account Tuesday.

Harry Sharma of the Canada-India Centre for Excellence calls the criticism “unfair,” believing that most Indians were not offended by anything the Trudeaus have worn or done: “Indians actually appreciate when there’s an extra effort made to appreciate their culture and their clothing and all of those things.”

“In India, it’s not unusual for visiting dignitaries to wear Indian clothes,” adds the Indian-born Sharma, director of an organization that focuses on bilateral trade and business opportunities between the two countries.

“I know that anytime there are senior diplomats who go, or senior leaders who go, they do wear ethnic clothes there.”

Still, he allows that it can be difficult for a foreigner to know what not to wear. Sharma says the general rule of thumb is for men to wear a suit and tie for business engagements.

“But national dress is always welcome at important events and I can tell you there’s a good portion of the Indian population that actually prefers Indian clothing over the normal suit that we wear in the West,” he adds.

Non-Indian women, meanwhile, should not wear a sari to a business meeting, even if that’s the attire of their female hosts, he says.

“When you’re doing business you’re not talking about the culture, you’re more talking about the business opportunities,” says Sharma, adding that non-Indian women can don a sari for social events.

“It’s not necessary to show that you understand the culture. What you need to show is that you’re a savvy businessperson.”

Sleeveless dresses are generally accepted, but he suggests bringing along a blazer and/or a scarf as coverup, nonetheless.

When it comes to non-official engagements, men also have more leeway.

“There is the traditional kurta pyjama that men wear that (Trudeau) has been wearing. There are some modified versions of it so if it’s a non-official engagement, a non-business engagement, then it’s absolutely appropriate to wear that.”

The Trudeaus’ eight-day visit has been dogged by various controversies since it began Feb. 17, but it’s their apparent fashion faux-pas that has seized some arm-chair critics and raised questions about whether they’ve crossed a cultural line.

History professor Ritu Birla says the intense scrutiny points to how much politics has become enmeshed with celebrity culture.

However, she allows that it is possible to be seen as “too authentic.”

“Our interest as Westerners is to be sensitive to foreign cultures … but part of that sensitivity is to know that there are different norms. People wear different things, there are different understandings of what gender norms are and what is respectful,” says the Indian-born culture expert, noting that the family donned various traditional outfits that ranged in formality.

“But going too far (can) foreclose listening.”

If you’re unsure of the local customs, Birla suggests to research in advance. If you are invited to an event, don’t be afraid to ask the host what is expected of you.

Birla, who was raised in New York and now splits her time with Toronto, learned that the hard way several years ago when she brought an elegant black-and-white designer sari to her cousin’s wedding overseas. It was only when she arrived that she learned the colours black and white are verboten at Indian weddings.

“If you are new to the culture then it is important to pay attention to the meaning of colour on certain occasions, in the same way you wouldn’t wear a bright red dress to a funeral here in the West,” says Birla, an instructor with the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

“Try to find that balance between paying attention to cultural difference but not turning cultural difference into a costume.”

And Birla won’t dissuade tourist from buying a sari on vacation and wearing it: “Travelling it is about inhabiting a place in different ways of being, and if fashion allows you to do that then that’s wonderful.”

“My problem is when those ways of being become commodified and stand in for a whole range of worldviews, regional perspectives, local perspectives and norms.”

Still, Birla admits it’s hard to know what else the Trudeaus could have done.

“There really isn’t very much other choice because celebrity is about branding,” she notes. “In order to sell the Canadian brand you have to embrace the Indian brand.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

New Coast Guard radar boosts marine traffic monitoring off B.C. coast

Six radar installations set up for Georgia Strait to Queen Charlotte Strait to Prince Rupert

Port Alice resident a descendant of two Aboriginal war heroes

Charlie and Henry Byce are Canada’s most decorated father and son in history.

Port Hardy council hesitant to formalize question period in agendas, refers it to committee

In first act as new council, representatives were uncertain about formalizing question periods.

Gas prices on Vancouver Island to drop six cents

But a ‘volatile’ market could lead to increases in the coming weeks

Mt. Waddington’s Salvation Army releases eye-opening statistics report for 2017

Shelter overnight stays saw a 431 per cent increase since 2014.

Winter weather hits parts of Canada

As some parts of the country brace for cold, parts of B.C. remain warmer than 10 C

Canada’s health system commendable overall but barriers to care remain: UN

The United Nations says Canada’s health care system is “commendable” overall but vulnerable groups still face barriers to quality care.

Unique technology gives children with special needs more independent play

UVic’s CanAssist refined seven prototypes aided by $1.5M government contribution

Kelly Ellard’s boyfriend has statutory release revoked

Darwin Duane Dorozan had several parole infractions that found him ‘unmanageable’

Six String Nation’s Voyageur guitar comes to Port Hardy Secondary School

The presentation at the school is one of many showings Jowi Taylor is putting on in Port Hardy.

Harvest Food Bank prepares for busy winter season

Port Hardy’s Harvest Food Bank has prepared itself as the winter season… Continue reading

Doctor’s note shouldn’t be required to prove you’re sick: poll

70% of Canadians oppose allowing employers to make you get a sick note

Port Alberni convenience store robbed

Police still searching for suspect

German-born B.C. man warns against a ‘yes’ vote on proportional representation

Agassiz realtor Freddy Marks says PR in his home country shows party elites can never be voted out

Most Read