I remember the first time I got a pair of jeans. I felt so happy that there was finally an alternative to my boring school shorts. They were the best that happened to me, I didn’t feel like a kid anymore and neither like a grown man who wore trousers. Jeans were different, they made me feel cool, like a young adult who had a driver’s licence but didn’t have to worry about buying the car himself. I could strut around in jeans all day long without a care in the world, it didn’t require to be washed daily and the material was so flexible that you could do cartwheels in it. Not that I ever did that, but one could.

Jeans, like a lot of material things in India, are an import from the West. They originated in the late 19th century in the US as an apparel for working-class men. The denim fabric used in jeans was known for its strength and resistance to wear and tear. Jeans were practical and durable, and thus were mostly used by miners. Who knew that one day they would become a fashionable item of clothing that would transcend its symbol of working-class clothing to something much more?

In my teenage years, I began to grasp the real significance of jeans in our culture. The freedom symbolised by a simple pair of jeans bore diverse meanings for different individuals. For me, it meant mobility and lessened laundry responsibilities but it signified much more to women.

When I was 13 years old, Mom and I would often go to the nearest market to indulge in her favourite activity — window shopping. That’s what being middle-class meant to us and to a certain extent still holds true for a large population of India. The middle-class aspires to buy good clothes, get fancy things but is constrained by its financial realities. During one of our strolls through the market, we saw a pair of jeans in the women’s section. The helpful salesperson asked Mom if she wanted to try it on. We looked at each other and both of us had a hint of excitement in our eyes. Mom asked me if she should try it on and I vehemently agreed.

Mom took the pair of jeans and went into the trial room. When she came out, I was shocked! I saw a traditional Indian woman wearing a Punjabi suit go into the trial room and out came a modern cosmopolitan lady. Mom had always been cosmopolitan, she was born and brought up in Delhi yet this was the first time I truly perceived her as a cosmopolitan woman. It made me realise how clothes signify a lot of our embedded biases towards people. They can change our perception of the same person.

However, mom couldn’t wear the jeans in front of her conservative in-laws. So we would actually sneak out of the house like we were committing some crime, whenever she wanted to wear jeans. The pair of jeans wasn’t revelatory in any way yet it was a big deal to wear it in the house. That’s when I realised that women needed to do a lot of cartwheels just to attain their autonomy because the society around them wasn’t as flexible as the denim fabric.

This is the story of most women in India, especially in rural areas, women wear jeans and kurtis as a way of signalling modernity and freedom. However, they face a lot of backlash for this minor act of rebellion. Comments about modesty are commonplace, and somehow in all of this, their ability to be good mothers also gets questioned. I remember two years ago when a sitting Chief Minister of a State made blasphemous comments in a similar vein about women wearing ripped jeans. It is ironic how his political career got shredded after a while. Hopefully, that would’ve sent a message to most politicians — tread lightly when it comes to jeans.

(A-Z: This series of light hearted explorations on familiar objects from everyday life dear to the urban Indian middle class looks at how they shape our wants & desires and ultimately make us who we are as a people.)

(Hamsini Shivakumar is a Semiotician and founder of Leapfrog Strategy. Prabhjot Singh Gambhir is a senior research analyst at Leapfrog Strategy.)