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Unlocking the Culture

***Written by production manager Jane Mellema***

Most of the clothes I wear to work with our artisans are tailored for me. This is a common practice in India. After perusing a variety of fabrics, colors and designs, we purchase cloth and bring it to the tailor. One pet peeve I have is when the excitement I have about wearing a new suit is squelched by the question, “How much was that fabric?” and the response to my answer, “That was too much!” The implication often is that we as foreigners are tricked into paying too much or are just willing to pay too much. I sense my pride prickling up when I feel judged by how much I spend. Time and time again, I have been frustrated by this question (!)

One day to my surprise, I realized that this question that seemed so demeaning to me was not just aimed at foreigners. I was sitting on the floor in the home of one of our artisan ladies. She had recently become a grandmother and had a stash of gifts piled in the corner of the small room. Another local friend had come over, and our friend began to exhibit the gifts she had bought for her granddaughter. One little outfit was especially beautiful, and the guest questioned the cost. I was surprised when our artisan boldly and proudly declared the amount. A bit of pride was in her voice. Interesting. This cute little outfit was expensive, but there was no sense of shame in having paid too much. 

A new realization dawned on me. People are proud when something is expensive; it shows that they could afford to pay the amount. It implies financial capability and status. They do not mind when others ask the price. In reality, there may be very little financial assets or status. But for this moment in time they have managed to save money to buy something expensive that will catch the attention of others and a moment of admiration, respect, or maybe even a bit of envy. 

I appreciate these small keyholes that unlock more of the culture for me. India is such a fascinating and complex society, unfurling for those who are patient and observant. Just don't ask me what I paid for my clothing (!)

Shop here for beautiful products made by empowered Indian women, our friends!

Photo credit: Brady Black  


  • Jean Kirgiss

    Thx for sharing this!! My thinking was going your direction as well until you shared your observation of how one of the Indian women responded to the question. I like the thot of these insights as being ‘keyholes!’

  • Phyllis Thomas

    That would be hard coming from our culture. I was always taught that it was rude to ask what was paid for things. And then there’s the layer of not wanting to be perceived as flaunting our perceived wealth. Conundrum.

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