‘Clothes Maketh a Man’, the Bard said and its true we often judge a person by his/ her clothes. In our class-conscious society, we pigeon-hole people based on whether he wears designer wear or bought from a roadside hawker, a boutique or Fabindia, whether they are bespoke or readymade. Frankly, I have seen young men dressed in simple shirt and trousers looking much smarter than men do in a three-piece suit with a bow tie. Women dressed elegantly without shouting out a message. At a ‘formal diplomatic dinner’ once i had come across a woman wearing a gown whose neckline plunged so deep it made even the onlooker uncomfortable! Tragically the lady herself was in such discomfort that i heard her moaning how she regrets spending a couple of thousand dollars on it!
I believe clothes are for protection and to give us comfort. And anything that is comfortable would look good. The women in Kerala traditionally wore the set-mundu, i.e. the petticoat-like skirt with a blouse and a long piece used as a wrap-around to cover the exposed mid-riff and the chest. But this was not a very handy set of clothing to carry out daily chores. So, the women normally went around the house only in the mundu and blouse; it was only when there was a visitor or they were going out that they would use the wrap-around piece. However, in the 70’s they got introduced to ‘the nighty’, a single piece, half-sleeved gown which covered from neck to ankles, had the mid-riff covered and did not cause any discomfort if one had to accost an outsider all of a sudden while bathing the baby or washing clothes. So much so, the nighty became a compulsory item in every woman’s wardrobe, easy to maintain and inexpensive.
A colleague from Tamil Nadu told me that a large number of women died in Nagapattinam in the 2004 Tsunami because their sari got entangled around their necks with the swirling waves. If only they were in tights or shorts, she had lamented. I recall, before we report at our training Academy in Mussoorie we receive a note informing us that the sari is the national dress for women, hence rules demand that we wear mainly saris while on training and only saris on special occasions. Thankfully the rules have since been modified and now the salwar-suit is also accepted as a national dress. But not the western suit yet, perhaps that will take a few more decades.
I think clothes are a part of a culture and every culture evolves. As it evolves it adjusts to local needs, cultural, environmental and practical. Surely one can’t go mountain trekking in a ghagra-choli or paragliding in a dhoti or a sari. We need to dress according to the need of the hour. Don’t worry, our Kanjeevarams and Baluchoris will remain to be worn on those special occasions: weddings, festivals and on days when one wants to sail into work looking grand. At other times when one has to go on a site visit or make a hasty day-trip, the salwar-suit or even trousers will have to do. Let’s admit it, the sari is one of the most elegant of attires, but it is also one the most time-consuming to maintain and uncomfortable in an emergency.
Frankly, I love each of my saris more because each one has an emotional story to tell. I invariably give away a sari gifted to me by someone who i do not like. I have saris that belonged to my great-grandmother which i wear very sparingly and store them with love and care. My mother used to admire how i managed to keep even my decades-old saris in spotlessly new condition. Some think i am crazy being emotionally attached to something so crass as a piece of clothing. But the point i am making is that clothes can be close to one’s heart, yet one should dress for comfort and ease and not always ‘to show off’. I believe the present generation is lucky as clothes are much more globalised now and many more women are going into professions where the sari is not always the most comfortable attire. So let’s have open minds and stop judging people by their clothes. And let’s also learn to dress as the situation demands without feeling bashful about it.