I started writing this blog Unni-Verse in 2016 and the first post I wrote was titled ‘Worldly Wardrobe Woes’. I was at my daughter’s place in Chicago and reflecting on my sense of traditional/ethnic wear and the Western choice of clothes. Today I came across this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in the newspaper and was reminded of the same, social norms or mores (characteristic customs and conventions of a society) with regard to dress.
Hobbes is stating the norm or mores of the Western way of clothing where in summer everyone strips down to the bare minimum! “Don’t you get hot wearing long pants in the summer?” Long pants out, shorts are in!
In my post of 2016 I recorded a similar ‘Hobbes’ sentiment as expressed by ladies in New Haven, Connecticut. I reflect in my earlier post “In the early nineties, when I was a post-doc at Yale University, I insisted on not shifting to Western attire. ‘We are proud of our culture and will stick to it’ attitude! Well I wore long sleeved salwaar kameez through the four seasons. As summer set in, the Secretaries on my floor started to shed their apparel and were soon down to short skirts/ hot pants and much less! I continued in my long sleeved clothes. One day one of them could not resist her curiosity, ‘Do you not feel hot?’ ‘Hot or not, these are the clothes we wear. The max that changes is the fabric, silk in winter and cotton in summer’ And so it went on till a little over a decade ago.”
What do the clothes you wear convey? As long as you live in a closed and safe environment of your culture and associate mainly with your peer groups in the same culture, this does not strike you. At least it did not strike me that what you wear is some sort of signal to observers. That is, for the larger part of my life, till after the game changing event in 2001!
I was in United States again in 2002, in Washington DC. I reflected on the situation I observed, or sensed at that time, with regard to what your dress signaled to the public at large. “In my travel to the West, I started to notice much more attention directed at me or my salwaar kameez! Once when I lived in DC for a few months I had borrowed my daughter’s trousers and T-shirt to wear at home and go downstairs to do the washing etc. One day, due to sheer laziness I walked down the street to do my shopping at my usual local store in the borrowed trousers and T-shirt. Suddenly I felt that I was invisible! No one looked at me, I seemed to melt into the surroundings! What was it? Obviously the colour of my skin or the colour of my hair did not attract attention, it was my clothing! So finally even the patriot in me has resigned to the idea of Western clothes, at least in public places while travelling in Western countries!!”
The situation has, however, changed over the past few decades in India as well. Beginning with the opening of the Indian economy to trade in the early 1990s and now with an over active social media and the selfie culture, what you wear and how you look seems to mean everything. The era of the Millennial’s is here and the society, media and even public policy panders to their imagined needs. Or perhaps the corollary, the consumer society creates the needs of the Millennial. And one MAJOR need is to look good at all times!
The ‘corporate culture’ definitely had clear norms of dress. In the post of 2016, I reflected on the ‘corporate culture’ of ‘dressing in shades of black, white or blue through events at the management schools in India. “As I lived on the management school campus for two decades, I was always struck by the sudden change in attire of the young student community, both boys and girls during the insane period of Placements! All the colour on campus suddenly disappeared. Black and white, at best grey or blue! Not just colour gone, the whole world collapses into a unisex dress code of black trousers, black coats and white shirts. The guys may infuse some colour with a TIE!”
“What is the psychology/sociology/economics (?) behind this? They call it corporate culture in the top management school in India. Is it corporate culture or just a copy of the West? The place reminded me of the Western local airports and some local stores in Europe. Completely devoid of colour! The competition was intense to get into the top consulting jobs (PwC/MacKenzie/E&Y) or investment banks (Goldman Sachs/Du etch Bank)! Why take the risk? Girls in particular lose out, no gorgeous silks, dupattas, aachals flowing! Not professional, I suppose, is the idea of corporate culture.”
The corporate culture of dress codes has also apparently changed. According to my ‘Marumagan’, who works in a corporate attorney firm in London, “Before I joined the firm, I’d always assumed people would be suited-booted all the time, but I discovered this wasn’t always the case. It’s usually only when people had client/ other meetings that they were impeccably dressed. Otherwise ‘business casual’ is the order of the day- and that can be quite wide ranging in meaning depending on who you ask. There’s also a variety of ‘relaxed dressing for charity’ days- like the dress-down day, jeans for genes day and the ever-favourite Christmas jumper day – one of the partners even came dressed in a jumper which had a pop up hoodie to make him look like a decorated Christmas tree!” In more recent ‘corona’ times, “people are all the more happy to be dressed down while working from home. I am one of the few people still wearing shirts like I would normally wear to work. While others are dressed in comfy tees, the only concession I have made is that I wear chinos/jeans and roll my sleeves up!”
And there is this fetish about wearing shoes. While working on a research project with a Japanese collaborator we were to visit the Maruti-Suzuki automobile factory in Gurugram, India. My Japanese collaborator tells me ahead of the visit, ‘Please wear shoes for the visit’. I asked in amazement, ‘Why?’, ‘Japanese formal dress’. I was furious. We are visiting a factory in my country where open sandals is the norm for women in hot weather, how dare he? I stuck to my open sandals during the visit and we were none the worse off for it!! There is a similar fetish with regard to ‘no brown shoes’ in Western countries. Read here.
Yes, of course, in the ‘work from home’ mode dress codes have changed dramatically. Dress code for the upper part of the body and lower part are different, with the official codes applying only to the upper part of the body!
In the academic world what you wore or how you looked was not as important as what you spoke and even more so, what you wrote and published. This is changing as well. In the Universities and academic world of conferences in India one sees more of the western dress among women today than one did a decade ago. The saree has almost disappeared and even the salwaar suit is given the go-by. One reason perhaps is that the Millennial students, who are our clients after all, relate better to the Western style of dress! Perhaps that is true, but my preference remains for the traditional ethnic wear! And unlike Calvin I don’t need an excuse like ‘Short pants touch my feet, OKKK?’! 1
Do read my original post ‘Worldly Wardrobe Woes’.