The Dress of a Thousand Secrets

(Subject profiles artists, designers, craftspeople, and others who are engaging with fashion as work and art.)

Photograph: Priti Chitnis Gress

Photograph: Priti Chitnis Gress

The first time I saw Suneet Sethi, she was wearing words that simultaneously defined and reduced her: secrets. A tall, buttermilk-skinned woman with slim shoulders and masses of dark hair, she emerged from backstage, in a long gown made entirely of paper envelopes, each containing a secret. The gown was strapless, shimmering in more colors than I could count, and it trailed behind her as she approached the spotlight, where she waited, silent and unmoving in her paper dress, held together with pins.

Sethi, a Sikh-American raised on Long Island in New York, was performing her piece, “Dress of a Thousand Secrets,” at a benefit in 2005 for the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective at Gallery Arts India in New York City. Audience members were instructed to approach her, pick out a note from any of the one thousand envelopes stitched together into the dress, and read it aloud.

The first intrepid audience member came up cautiously, chose a secret and read: “The razor is an object of taboo. I keep my pink one hidden in the pocket of my robe.”

Together, we re-examined Sethi, puzzled, all of us new voyeurs wanting more. Audience members began to line up to reveal truths--some mundane, some tragic, some provoking laughter, some awkward silence.

Photograph: Priti Chitnis Gress

Photograph: Priti Chitnis Gress

“I don't know what alcohol tastes like.”

“I was once misdiagnosed with bipolar depression and prescribed a magical drug called lithium. I was sleeping beauty for a year.”

“Once, I fed my baby sister jelly beans from the pocket of my knapsack. They were coated with colored pencil shavings.”

“Sikhs believe that the body is a temple of god. I believe it’s a prison.”

Sethi did not speak during her performance, the visual impact of her dress making her only statement. At first, her silence subdued the audience who seemed to be waiting for direction, for entertainment. But as that stubborn fourth wall crumbled and audience members shared the stage with Sethi, a palpable connectivity washed over the space. The people who approached the dress to read secrets aloud became, by turns, giddy, nervous and somber, perhaps reflecting Sethi’s own emotions.

In a later interview, Sethi told me, “I felt really close to the audience members who came up to me. Suddenly, these other people embody you; saying things that would come out of your mouth if you could say them yourself.”

She was unwilling to speak during the performance, she said, partly because she was not yet ready to let those secrets loose. She did not invite her parents to the show as they were still unaware at the time of some of the truths revealed. Having her parents in the audience, Sethi said, would have been the ultimate test of her as an artist and as a person, because so much of the emotion behind her art stemmed from her relationship with them.

That dynamic is often evident in her work, which includes images and themes from her family life. She uses both performance and visual art to navigate the duality of her orthodox Sikh Indian family and the suburban American society in which she was raised. “I’m the first generation of Sikh Americans in my family. It’s difficult being the first, because of the conflicts that come from the bicultural environment. Sikh women have to live up to the ideal of an obedient wife, a loving mother: a quiet woman. You’re constantly reminded that you’re representing the religion by your physical appearance--your long hair, your steel bracelet.”

Orthodox Sikhism requires many observances in clothing and daily practice, including a ban on any kind of hair removal. Along with imposing a stringent, traditional lifestyle, Sethi’s parents, a businessman and a stay-at-home mother, also discouraged Sethi from pursuing art. After high school, they pushed her towards a communications program, and later, a computer graphics degree.  Under the swiftly building pressures of cultural conformity and career demands, Sethi became depressed, and was hospitalized for an eating disorder.

“A lot of my feelings stemmed from not having any control over my life,” she said. “I wanted to experience things that I couldn’t. Dating wasn’t allowed. Styling or cutting my hair wasn’t allowed. The secrets started building up.”

During her depression, she expressed her frustration and powerlessness in desperate ways. One day, behind closed doors, she shaved off her hair with a razor blade, the taboo object, cutting her scalp in the process. When her parents found out, they were devastated and also, terrified that the rest of their close-knit immigrant community would discover this blasphemy. They compelled her to wear a scarf until her hair grew out.

But cultural conflict, by now a recurring theme in Suneet’s life, also emerged in her therapists’ reaction. “My therapists were well versed in Western culture; they couldn’t grasp my parents’ traditions, they didn’t take cutting hair seriously,” she recalled. “But, for me, it was like a castration of my Sikh identity.”

The Long Island community where Sethi grew up had its own taboos. In keeping with Sikh custom, she did not shave her body hair during high school, and suffered verbal abuse from her classmates. Even as an adult, she felt compelled to keep different secrets.

“In India, it’s okay to be living with your parents until you’re married. Here [in America], you’re expected to be independent from an early age.” As a grown woman living with her parents, she avoided revealing that. “There’s shame associated with that here,” she said.

The dress emerged as an expression and an exorcism of Sethi’s secrets, accumulated from a lifetime spent traversing these dual expectations. While she has made visual art for years, the dress was her first foray into performance art, and also, the first piece that she feels was “all about her.” The experience was also about evaluating the effects secrets have had on her life.

In some ways, Sethi recognized, the dress itself was an incarnation of the secrets it contained. While she was making it, Sethi’s parents were pleased that she was working on something as innocent as colorful envelopes, not knowing the revelations they contained. Some audience members reacted similarly.

“People found it disturbing because the dress is beautiful but the notes are different from what you would expect. People expect love letters,” she said. “The dress paints a pretty picture, so it protects the secrets really well. Lies protect and support secrets, and the colorful, pretty envelopes are one big lie.”

Since then, Sethi has gone on to complete her Masters in art education. She is exploring new artistic directions, including an MFA in experimental animation, and is interested in integrating animation with live performative pieces. She does not perform the dress any more, but continues to feel its resonance. It was her first realization of the cathartic effects of art, and, specifically, the mutability of performance art.

(Roohi Choudhry is a 2015-6 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Her writing has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Callaloo, the Normal School, and is forthcoming in Ploughshares.)

A version of this article first appeared in the Truth and Consequences issue of Bitch Magazine