#ELLEFirstLook: Discussing Sari Drapes And Gender Identity With Yori Yamamura
Japanese sari enthusiast Yori Yamamura sheds light on their adoption of the sari, while navigating their gender journey.
Okinawa-based Yori Yamamura made their Instagram debut with a picture of them dressed in a traditional cream and gold handloom Kasavu, fingers eagerly poised to dig into the spread on a banana leaf in front of them. Two years since, the 34-year-old’s feed has evolved into a vehicle for nuanced discussions on internalised Orientalism, sexual politics and degendered fashion—all crucial pit stops on Yori’s own circuitous journey to their gender awakening as a transmasculine individual. Only one aspect remains unchanged —their devotion to the sari. Every second photo is a paean to the six yards, where the scientist and aspiring fashion entrepreneur deconstructs weaves and drapes, alongside elucidating the intersecting histories and social underpinnings of the garment in its present context.
Yori’s tryst with the sari isn’t completely fortuitous. Their father, who had several South Asian colleagues, made it a point to arrange play-dates for his child, introducing them to diverse cultures from a young age. Born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia until the age of three, Yori, who subsequently lived in Geneva, Switzerland and now Tokyo, Japan watched with admiration as their classmates dressed
in saris and salwar-kurtas during special occasions.
Yori draped their first-ever sari, gifted by their dad’s Bangladeshi colleague, in the Nivi style with the help of a YouTube tutorial. When they met their Uttar Pradesh-born former-spouse, their interaction with Indian culture took on a more personal meaning. In this interview, Yori tells ELLE India about their evolving relationship with the sari and unpacks the complexities of using the garment from a different culture to spark important conversations on appropriation and activism. Edited excerpts:
ELLE: Did you receive any pushback from people of your own culture when you first started wearing the sari?
Yori Yamamura (YY): Yes, especially from my family. People usually pay me Eurocentric compliments like “You look exotic!,” which are problematic in their own way, but not intended to discourage me from wearing saris. My parents, however, think it’s weird and ask that I dress more ‘normally’ —that is, in the modest, minimalist, feminine, Western-style outfits that are commonly worn by Japanese women of my age group. I think they would react similarly if I wore less conformist Western clothing or even kimonos, which are unusual in modern-day Japan. There’s an added layer of suspicion that comes from South Asian cultures being associated with spirituality in Japan. Spirituality has a negative connotation here as it is associated with unscrupulous cults or Western influencers peddling dubious remedies.
ELLE: Did you worry about culturally appropriating the sari?
(YY): Initially yes, but this is how I’ve come to think about it: I believe it’s counterproductive, in general, to police cultural references strictly along racial lines as it can result in the downplaying of fault lines within each racial group. Whether borrowing an aspect of a culture other than your own amounts to appreciation or otherwise, ultimately boils down to being aware of your own power and privilege with respect to that culture, as well as acting to dismantle any power differential that exists between its people and you. Are you giving due credit to, speaking up for and buying from the people intrinsic to the culture? Are you actively countering harmful stereotypes about the culture that exist within your own? Are you listening to marginalised voices from within the society that produced the culture so that you don’t perpetuate the internal discrimination within that society? All of these questions need to be considered.
ELLE: How has your approach to saris changed since you began identifying as transmasculine?
(YY): I think the degendering of fashion has taken on a greater immediacy for me personally since I realised I was transmasculine. I didn’t know I was transgender until I was 33. But once I did, all the discomfort I had felt throughout my life suddenly started to make sense. Since then, wearing clothes that don’t make me look masculine feel dysphoric. Nowadays, I often end up draping my saris over and over again, and sometimes I give up because it’s too difficult in my current body. This has been a painful conundrum for me—I still love saris and wish I could style them without worrying about whether they look gender-affirming enough. However, I also do not want to compromise on the feeling of being completely at ease with myself. I am planning to go on testosterone soon; I look forward to my physical transformation and being able to drape the sari more freely while still feeling like myself.
ELLE: What are some of your favourite drapes? Any favourite sari labels?
(YY): The Odissi pant drape was the first non-Nivi drape I learnt. I’ve also reverted to experimenting with variations of it, and the seedha palla drapes, as pant drapes. Unfortunately, they are not convenient when it comes to using Western-style public toilet seats that have become ubiquitous in Japan. Parama and Ghuri by Debjani, two brands from Kolkata that are women-owned and designed, and sell fantastic handloom, hand-embroidered and block-printed saris. I’m also a fan of Bindaas and Manas Ghorai’s commitment to craftspeople. Fatherland has some stunning saris influenced by Japanese calligraphy.
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