I had a fun girls’ weekend in Chicago with my bridesmaids a couple weekends ago. We decided that they would wear traditional Bengali clothing in the wedding instead of traditional American bridesmaids dresses. The best place to find that was Devon Avenue in Chicago. Devon is known as the Little India of Chicago. It is chock full of Indian/Pakistani/Bengali shops and restaurants. Interestingly, it’s not a big tourist attraction like China Town in San Francisco. It’s mostly full of Southeast Asians. The counterpart to Devon in New York is Jackson Avenue. Jackson Avenue is full of even more shops with fewer signs in English.
When I was growing up, we always visited Devon every time we went to Chicago so we could have delicious halal food and shop for fancy clothes. I used to always go with family, so the adults would always field the questions in Urdu, Bangla, Hindi, etc. on where we were from in Asia and what religion we followed. Now that I go as an adult, those questions stress me out because I don’t understand most of the languages, and I’m actually aware of my outsiderness. I do feel like I have a good mix of both being on the inside and the outside, so I have a lot of advice for visiting Devon.
1. When in restaurants, try anything that has a mixed grill plate or similar. It’s by far the best way to try a lot of meats without committing to any single one. My favorite restaurant in Devon is Sabri Nihari. I like to order a mango lassi to counteract the spiciness of all the food. They will often serve the food with this yogurt concoction called raita which also helps lessen the spiciness of the food. All of the food is usually served family-style so go in with a mindset to share. Don’t use your left hand to eat food — you can use it to tear off bread, but it should not be your dominant hand while eating.
2. Restrooms often have little watering cans in each stall. In Islam, you have to use water to clean yourself after using the restroom, and these watering cans are to provide water for you to do so. You might also see someone washing their feet in the sink or washing other parts of their body. Similarly, Muslims have to do a special washing ritual before their five daily prayers. If you do see someone praying, don’t walk in front of them because it’s impolite.
3. If you are looking for a dress, look at the different styles online. It will help you get a good idea of the price and the range of fabrics, colors, and styles. It will also help you get a vocabulary for what you want. A lengha is a shirt + skirt combo. Brides will often wear a red lengha at the wedding, but it’s becoming more and more fashionable to wear other colors. A salwar kameez is a long shirt/dress (kameez) with pants (salwar). It often comes with a long piece of fabric that’s similar to a scarf, and it’s usually artfully draped across the dress. A sari is a 6 foot piece of cloth that’s wrapped around the waist and then around the torso. A sari usually needs a petticoat (skirt) to go underneath it as well as a blouse that’s fitted. Saris usually come with fabric at the end to custom make a blouse in the same color. I’ve found that saris are the hardest to put on and move around in.
4. The prices for saris, salwar kameezes, lenghas, and other clothes are marked up a crazy amount. They expect you to haggle. They know that you can walk into the store next door and buy a different dress. Most things can be custom ordered if you have the time. My bridesmaids ended up trying on one style and then picking the thread and embellishment colors. They even customized the “work” (the fancy part) on the front of the dress. If you get a sari, you can pay to have the blouse created to your measurements. A lot of the shops have in-house tailors as well that can customize things off the rack, too.
5. A lot of the stores will have people who ask you what you want and then try to find it for you. Other stores will just have silent store owners who watch you as you browse. We had the best luck with people who engaged with us early on and tried to fit our needs. At the store that we bought the bridesmaids dresses, the woman who helped us was friendly and went above and beyond to find things that every girl could try on regardless of her size. At a previous store, a not-so-nice store owner made us feel very unwelcome for a variety of reasons, and we made the right decision to leave. There are so many stores and choices that it was easy for us to decide to go with the store that had the best customer service. If you’re looking for bridesmaids dresses or a dress to go to a Southeast Asian wedding, let them know! My favorite comment was: “If you’re white at a wedding, people will look at you. They’ll look at you if you’re underdressed, if you’re overdressed, or perfectly dressed. I want you to feel comfortable in your clothes.” If they know what event you’re trying to dress for, they can help you pick the right level of fanciness.
We were very fortunate to go a store that had an awesome woman who made us feel very comfortable and let us try on dozens of different styles. Successful Devon trip for a lot of non-natives!