Durga Gawde at their apartment in Mumbai.
Durga Gawde at their apartment in Mumbai.

Durga Gawde: Fashion is important to express one’s identity

Artist, activist and drag performer Gawde, on gender-fluid fashion and why shopping in the men's section is still a challenge

Today, I feel totally ungendered," says Durga Gawde, dressed in a polka-dotted shirt and distressed denims, their features sharpened with light contouring but otherwise free of make-up. We’re at the 24-year-old artist-activist’s apartment in Mumbai, its stark walls patterned with late-evening shadows. As a non-binary gender-fluid person, Gawde, who uses the pronouns they/them/their, finds themself on different parts of the gender spectrum every day. Sometimes, this shift happens multiple times in a day.

Gawde holds a bachelor of fine arts in sculpture from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), US, and primarily uses steel, bronze and aluminum for their postmodern installations. As an artist-in-residence at HH Art Spaces in Goa this March, Gawde presented an art performance about their relationship with the mirror.

In the past year, Gawde has emerged as a prominent drag performance artist and human rights activist (they dislike the distinction between queer and human rights), furthering the conversation around gender fluidity by bringing their experiences to the fore.

Durga Gawde with Justin Trudeau at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai.
Durga Gawde with Justin Trudeau at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai.

Gawde tells Lounge about how gender dysphoria shaped their style, their take on androgynous fashion and the challenges of shopping in the men’s section. Edited excerpts:

How has gender dysphoria influenced your personal style?

Fashion is important to express one’s identity, but often, people don’t give it much thought—like I have to wear a sari because I am a woman. (As a gender-fluid person) I wake up feeling different every day. I spend some time in front of the mirror to see what traits of my face are popping out. It’s almost like a ritual to cope with the discomfort that I feel with my dysphoria. Some days I see more masculine features jump out, other days it’s more feminine. I try and make it fun, by playing around with my make-up and clothes. I shop in both (men’s and women’s) sections.

Growing up, I was a tomboy, always played with the boys. And then when I hit puberty, everything changed, the way people looked at me changed. From the time I was 11, till I was about 21, I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror, I didn’t feel like myself. I came out to my parents (as gender fluid) last year. Initially, it was really hard for them, but now they’re used to my surprises because I look different every single day. I can get highly uncomfortable when I’m wearing male clothes and feeling female. So whenever I travel, I have to pack two sets of clothes, always.

I definitely feel more vulnerable, more nurturing when I’m in a more feminine space. A masculine train of thought is more linear. Or at least I experience it that way. But that change happens very naturally. Sometimes, when I’m feeling more masculine, I stuff my pants…not often, but when I’m in drag, hell yeah. I was really afraid of being looked at when I was not out. Now, even if I dress feminine, my body language has changed so much that I really like to own my body and own my identity in a way that feels very powerful to me. And I do not apologize for it, at all.

Floral crop top from Abercrombie & Fitch.
Floral crop top from Abercrombie & Fitch.

How do you interpret androgynous fashion?

When I feel androgynous, it’s a combination of male and female and I can find balance in my own way. Sometimes I wear a short skirt and a shirt with my breasts bound. Then it’s like my bottom half is feminine and my top half is masculine—I guess I’ve also always seen my body that way. If I had to alter anything about my body, it would be my breasts.

Which are some of your preferred designers and labels?

When I was in the US, I used to shop at thrift stores a lot. I like the idea of (clothes) being used and not hurting the environment too much. I have my reservations about fast fashion, so I try not to shop very much. In a year, maybe I’ll go shopping twice. I like to make my clothes last for a really long time.

This year I was at the Lakmé Fashion Week for Bobo Calcutta’s show and I found (Ayushman Mitra’s) entire collection really cool and gender bending. Each piece is like an artwork. I also have this grey shirt from a Delhi-based label called Lila. The have really good cuts, fabrics and nice big pockets.

For men’s clothes, I shop at H&M a lot because they’re one of the few companies that have extra small sizes for men. You’d be surprised at how few options men have. Usually I’m a fast shopper, but when I go shopping in the men’s section, I always leave with just one or two things.

How has your artistic practice influenced your style?

I’ve been really into microbiology and synthetic biology for the last 10 years. When I was studying at RISD, we had a nature lab, which was only one of its kind. You could actually go in and say, “Can I borrow this crocodile jaw for the weekend?" We had everything from taxidermy and birds to reptiles, rodents and poisonous frogs. And I find that I’m drawn to designs that are earthy and scaly, or colourful florals. My male self is a little bit less colourful but I would say that’s because of the lack of choices. My partner actually wears only floral shirts and I found out where he shops; it’s a store called Pudu in Bengaluru.

Open-toe stilettoes from Shoedazzle.com
Open-toe stilettoes from Shoedazzle.com

What kind of make-up do you wear on days you’re feeling more masculine?

I’ve been wearing this turquoise and black lipstick for a while now and I really like how they make my face look. I also change my jawline quite a bit; sometimes I do a slightly masculine contouring, other times I make my face soft and feminine. The (facial hair) grows naturally. I used to wax it earlier but now I shave it so it gets thicker.

Masculine make-up is a lot easier than feminine make-up because it’s not about symmetry at all. The more asymmetrical it is, the more natural your face looks. I contour my jawline, nose and darken my nostrils to make them look bigger. I also darken my brow lines so when I relax my face, it looks rough and masculine. When I have a beard, I apply green eye shadow in patches, because when men have a stubble, it looks green, not black or brown. I always leave some patches of skin and then use mascara to highlight whatever hair I already have. I’m a sculptor so I love to understand different features. It’s like sculpting my face, it’s just a different medium.

Do you have certain styles or silhouettes you prefer when you’re dressing in Indian-wear?

I was invited to meet (Canadian prime minister) Justin Trudeau when he came to India this year, and the dress code was business or traditional. I wore a crop top, a rainbow tie, a green mohawk and a green sari. So it was business and traditional. But he complimented me on my style. I’ve never really been fond of kurtas, though I used to wear them in college. For Indianwear, I would generally wear a sari with my own drape and styling—usually with boots and dark make-up

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