During Diwali, a joyous festival often marked by glittering lamps and blazing fireworks, holiday outfits are designed to shine bright and be as colorful as pyrotechnics painting the sky.
“It’s a celebration of light,” says Sital Parikh Shah, 46, a married mother of two who grew up in India and moved to Long Island 26 years ago. “I love to dress for the occasion. It makes me feel more festive.”
She’s in good company. Hindus, Jains and Sikhs celebrate Diwali in their own ways, but generally, all mark the spiritual triumph of light over darkness. Holiday clothes are one way to do that. Fashion is a powerful and personal way to connect with one’s heritage while eloquently expressing individual taste and style.
‘A TIME FOR NEW’
“Diwali is a time for new clothes, new shoes, new jewelry,” says Shah, who lives in Plainview and runs a 7-Eleven convenience store in Farmingdale. Her home is a short drive away from an array of clothing stores that offer a wide variety of designs.
Hicksville, also known as Long Island’s “Little India,” has become a go-to hub for Southasian businesses including fashionable boutiques. Some shops opened more than two decades ago, while others will mark their first Diwali on Nov. 14.
Fashion options range from the very traditional to trendy Indo-Western styles. Popular Diwali picks include drapey saris; tunic-like kurtas; multi-piece salwar suits; and flowing lehengas, long skirts often elaborately ornamented with embroidery, beads or tiny reflective mirror-like discs.
That’s just a sampling and each piece comes in various styles in terms of silhouette, length and details. Cholis, or blouses, for instance, can be short or long, patterned or plain, and be made of anything from bejeweled brocade to unadorned silk.
“Diwali is like a new year,” says Prachi Jain, 35, who works at Vastra, the 23-year-old Indian boutique owned by her mother Poonam Jain, 59. “It’s a time to wear the fanciest clothes you can find — it’s like one step down from a wedding. Think super colorful and cheery.”
Red is typically deemed an auspicious color and looms large at big occasions, including festivals. Yellow can radiate luck. Green beams prosperity. Magenta, hot pink, orange, and blue are among some other popular hues that reflect the festive holiday mood, says Prachi Jain.
Vastra features in-store selections for purchase and rent, and custom orders made at the Jain family factory in New Delhi, India. Diwali fashions run anywhere from $120 to $800.
Shah has shopped at Vastra for many years for her custom holiday looks. She placed her custom-order for her patterned red silk sari and yellow blouse more than a month ago after pouring through in-store selections and catalogs to come up with her must-have fabrics, styles and tones. Gold threading and embellishments “add a little shine,” she says.
Suman Kambo, 47, who lives in Hicksville and runs a wholesale perfume business, is another devotee of Vastra for Diwali. “It’s such a happy holiday,” says Kambo, who was born in India. “Diwali is about celebrating light, new outfits, sweets and candles, everything good.”
That includes prosperity — one of the major themes of Diwali. She’ll mark the occasion in a traditional outfit — a long georgette skirt and brocade jacket — that is hunter green and embellished with shimmering embroidery. “It’s about celebrating bright colors and light,” she says.
At Noor boutique, which features bridal fashions, festive wear and everyday outfits, Ekjyot Singh Sethi, 24, regards Diwali as a chance to look “your absolute best.” The store offers off the rack or custom clothing.
The family-run business opened in Hicksville for just two days in March before COVID-19 hit and shut it down, like other businesses, for several months. “It was a tough time,” says Sethi. The family was “surprised and encouraged” by the public response.
“Diwali is a time for bright colors,” says Sethi. At a Diwali party “you want to pop out,” he said. “It’s a night to shine.” His high-wattage plan: a black kurta suit, draped by a tan shawl. He’ll top it all off with a neon-bright turban — most likely orange maybe green. “I’m still deciding,” he says.
A CHANGE IN CELEBRATION
In a typical year, Diwali finery is on display at parties and social gatherings — at temples, in the homes of family and friends, and in the neighborhoods where good wishes are happily exchanged.
COVID-19 will change the up-close social element of Diwali since large gatherings are discouraged. “People will most likely celebrate in their house with just their closest family members,” says Kamal K. Sridhar, Associate Professor Emerita in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at Stony Brook University. She’ll be wearing a bottle green sari and gold jewelry to catch the light.
“Some will no doubt connect by Zoom,” says Sridhar, who was born in India and spent most of her 70-some years on Long Island.
Prachi Jain will connect with her brother in California that way. “This is the first Diwali we won’t be together,” she says. “It’s such a stark difference from last year.”
Still, sartorial splendor won’t be dimmed by the pandemic and its restrictions. “People will definitely dress up, even if for at-home gatherings to celebrate their heritage,” Prachi Jain says.
“The festive mood is not going to change,” echoes Shah, whose plans include prayers, reckoning business accounts, Zoom calls to loved ones, and lighting more than 150 tiny wax candles at home.
She will also whip up her family’s favorite savory (crisp cholafali chips) and sweet (fudgy cashew kaju katli) delights. “I’m going to cook the same things I do every year,” she says. She’ll do it in style. Like her eye-catching new Diwali sari, she says, “My apron is also red.”