SAPAC ‘Resistance’ show uses fashion as a medium of POC expression and empowerment

Representatives from PSU (left) and PSA (right) are pictured on the "Resistance" runway. Courtesy Misha Mehta
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On Dec. 3, 2022, the Tufts South Asian Political Action Committee hosted “Resistance,” an affinity fashion show open to all POC student organizations on campus. More than 10 identity-based clubs participated in this new SAPAC event, wherein each club prepared outfits to be modeled by their members on a makeshift runway in the Joyce Cummings Center Ballroom.

Co-directors of SAPAC, seniors Malvika Wadhawan and Arpan Barua, spoke to the Daily about the role that their club plays on campus and the experience of hosting “Resistance.”

“[SAPAC] started more as an organizing and discussion space for South Asian people to talk about what’s happening at the school, or what’s happening globally, as a way to keep ourselves accountable and [learn] about our own histories,” Wadhawan explained.

The intention behind creating a POC-affinity fashion show was to supplement the annual SAPAC Spring Symposium, providing a platform to showcase an alternate form of broader POC student life on campus.

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“We have our Spring Symposium where we share all of our academic work and artwork and tons of different creative work that people do on campus, mainly [by] South Asians. And so we were like, maybe we could do a fashion show because that’s also such an important part of our identity and our experience. … So much of what we wear … holds so much meaning,” Barua said.

Another source of inspiration for “Resistance” was a previous project called The Lewkk, which was produced by Tufts alumnus Amari Diaw (LA’20) before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some of the original inspiration was from The Lewkk. … They’re a POC fashion account [on Instagram],” Wadhawan said. “[They] did all these interviews … and they had a fashion show every year. It was really, really cool and all student-created.”

At the SAPAC fashion show, participating clubs were invited to model several looks for the audience, whether it be cultural dress worn by a community or personal pieces tied to the theme of resistance.

Wadhawan recounted that SAPAC chose the broad term “Resistance” to be the theme of their POC-affinity fashion show in order to allow the participants to ascribe their own meaning to it.

“[Participants] talk about how [their clothing] ties into resistance, whether that’s resistance to colonialism, … to colorism, … any forms of resistance in people’s everyday lives also and … resistance to a U.S. construct of what fashion is,” Wadhawan said. “So we left it pretty open-ended intentionally.”

The Persian Students Association was one of the student clubs involved in the SAPAC fashion show. Saya Ameli Hajebi, a junior and the events coordinator for the PSA, commented on the lack of contexts in the United States where wearing cultural clothing is socially acceptable.

“Wearing any sort of … culturally significant clothes in general is in and of itself an act of resistance,” Ameli Hajebi said. “It’s beautiful, and it’s a part of who we are, and we should be able to … express that the way we want to without that having to be something that you have to think twice about.” 

In response to this, Ameli Hajebi and her brother have been experimenting with the creation of professional clothes that are a modern take on cultural garments.

“[My brother] and I have been exploring making clothes that still kind of embody the professional look but incorporate some ideas and patterns from Persia,” Ameli Hajebi said. “Personally, that’s my aspiration — I want to have clothes that I can wear in the workplace that aren’t totally whitewashed.”

At SAPAC’s “Resistance” show, Ameli Hajebi and her brother, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, created outfits from scratch and modeled them on the runway. The PSA had hoped to present pieces made in Iran but were unable to do so under the extraordinary circumstances facing the country at the time.

“It was hard because typically, for a lot of other affinity groups on campus, students have the ability to reach out to either family back home or clothes [manufacturers] and have those cultural clothes be shipped to the U.S.,” Ameli Hajebi said. “For Iran, that’s not an option because of the sanctions placed on the country and also due to the revolution. Now, you’re not able to send any mail to the U.S.” 

Therefore, Ameli Hajebi and her brother designed their “Resistance” outfits to reflect the styles and needs of civilians during protests amid the current revolution in Iran.

“So we decided, because of that and also [for symbolic reasons], to actually sew our own clothes inspired by streetwear worn by protesters [in Iran]. So we got these thick denim cloths and sewed it into cargo pants, and this coat, and then painted it,” Ameli Hajebi said. “When you go out to protest in Iran, there is no guarantee on what’s going to happen to you. So people tend to wear lots and lots of layers as protection against batons or tear gas. And they … cover their nose and mouth in case something happens. People try to keep their identity concealed in case someone is videotaping, and that video is then sent to the government,”

Ameli Hajebi asserted the importance of being intentional when it comes to sourcing authentic cultural attire so as not to appropriate minority communities.

“[A difficulty is] being able to access a seller that’s actually part of the community … rather than getting it from a big retail store that’s maybe using those cultural patterns but not giving any of those benefits to the communities that actually created them,” Ameli Hajebi emphasized. “I think that’s a really big issue. We don’t want to support cultural appropriation.” 

Another student club that walked the runway at the SAPAC fashion show was the Philippine Student Union. Andres Baja, treasurer for the PSU, described the background of the outfits they presented at the show.

“We showcased the barong tagalog, which is the national costume of the Philippines. It’s basically a see-through sort of long-sleeved shirt, which was used in the colonial times when the Spaniards were [ruling] the Philippines,” Baja said. “ In order for them to [easily determine] that Filipinos did not have any weapons, [Filipino men] were required to wear this outfit. … The females wore [the] baro’t saya, which is a similar thing. … Also, it shows the climate of the Philippines — it’s quite warm. We need light clothes to keep us comfortable with the weather.”

The barong tagalog and baro’t saya are traditionally made of pineapple skin, making them very delicate fabrics that are mainly reserved for special occasions rather than everyday wear. The SAPAC co-directors shared their observations on the prevalence of cultural garments and emblems in the United States.

“If you’re a member of a diaspora [in the U.S.], … wearing [cultural attire] every day is just not a thing that you’re used to seeing. … You only wear those things [in] a very intentional setting,” Barua observed.

“I think cultural attire looks very different nowadays. Like things that we think of as cultural or [that] have meaning also are kind of fusion to some degree,” Wadhawan said.

She feels that clothing is an important way to showcase identity. 

“The circles that I’m in, … we are all very influenced by … whatever place we’re from,” Wadhawan continued. “I don’t wear cultural clothing every day, but … in the moments that I do, … it’s a political statement to some degree but also just revealing who you are as a person. I think a lot of my own identity I very much find through fashion.”

Wadhawan noted that there are not only socio-political aspects to fashion but also issues of personal safety.

“Connecting to your identity in a more visible way [can be] dangerous for a lot of people. It’s not necessarily an easy, safe thing to do all the time, depending on where you are in the U.S. or where you are in the world,” she said.

Baja, who walked the runway on behalf of PSU, elaborated on what it felt like to be modeling the barong tagalog.

“I was not really that nervous, because I was in a room with people that looked like me, or who had some sort of [resonation] with me. And everyone was just in such a good mood,” he shared. “It was a bubbly atmosphere because we were all really excited to showcase our outfits because it’s not every day that things like this happen.”

Ameli Hajebi reflected positively on the PSA’s experience participating in “Resistance.” 

“Honestly, it went so much better than I thought. Especially the support that we received from the audience at the end when we talked about the revolution and shared details [about] protests,” Ameli Hajebi said. “I remember seeing a lot of SAPAC members come to the protests hosted by the PSA, and that felt amazing. To see that support from the community, it really warmed my heart.” 

SAPAC spent a lot of time planning their very first POC-affinity fashion show and were very pleased with the outcome.

“Three or four people would walk together and take a photo, and it seemed like people were having a really good time on stage. And that was definitely a lovely memory. Then after, … everyone in the show got to eat together, and that was very, very fun. And I met a lot of really cool people,” Wadhawan recalled

Ultimately, the SAPAC “Resistance” fashion show served as a space for POC Tufts students to headline. The success of “Resistance” prompted the SAPAC leadership to look forward to throwing similar events down the line in collaboration with other student clubs. 

“We wanted it to be a showcase for people who were interested in fashion, and that is by no means going to be representative of the entire POC community at Tufts,” Wadhawan said. “In the future, hopefully we are able to reach more people.”

At “Resistance,” fashion served as a powerful medium of empowerment that united various POC affinity groups. Tufts is always in need of more of this kind of passionate solidarity.

“It was really great to kind of have a space where we could all come together as a bunch of different affinity groups on campus and showcase each other’s hard work, learn more and be in a space together,” Ameli Hajebi said. “I don’t think we do that often enough.” 

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