Running in heels
Is it too much to ask for uniformity when it comes to uniforms?
Most people find this a bit strange, but I’ve always had a particular fondness for uniforms. There is something very liberating, it seems to me, in never having to worry about what you should wear every morning. No agonising about putting together an ensemble that works; no anxiety about repeating an outfit too often; and no worries about getting accessories to match. You wake up in the morning knowing exactly what you are going to wear that day, right down to your shoes and belt.
What’s not to like? You don’t have to think about your wardrobe choices so your mind is freed up to concentrate on things that matter. There is no heartburn because other people around you are dressed so much better. There is no danger of being jealous of their designer togs or superior taste. And there is no question of updating your look every season to stay on the right side of the fashion police.
Even though as school-kids we’ve all done our best to subvert the prevalent dress code – hitching up our skirts, loosening ties, leaving buttons undone, and worse – I now tend to look back on my uniform-wearing days with nostalgia. In fact, I’m even a tad jealous of those who get to wear uniforms on a daily basis at work, which takes out all the stress of getting ready every morning.
Of course, in some curious way, we all devolve uniforms of our own in the course of our professional lives. In fact, such is the stereotyping that results that sometimes you can tell what a person does simply by seeing how he or she dresses.
Handloom sari, kohlapuri chappals, big red bindi and oversized jhola mark the NGO types. Khadi kurta-pyjama, with or without waistcoat, denotes the Indian politician. Tight white trousers, printed chiffon top, oversized sunglasses and designer handbag is how you can tell the ladies who lunch. Black or navy suit, white shirt with monochrome tie is the accepted dress code in the financial sector.
And so it goes. In one way or another, we all have a uniform we consciously or unconsciously adopt in our working lives. But some of us are lucky enough to have one imposed upon us, which takes away all the angst of working it out for ourselves.
In that sense, uniforms are the great equalisers of the work place. And even when they do denote rank or mark out hierarchies, they do so in an entirely transparent, almost democratic way. Nobody can show off how much money or style they have because everybody has to dress in exactly the same way. In a uniform, we are all equal.
Or so, I thought anyway, until my illusions were rudely ripped away on a visit to Delhi’s swanky new airport terminal, T3, widely touted as the largest of its kind in India (or is it Asia? Sorry, I never can keep up with all the hyperbole). But I can confirm that it is certainly very large – in fact, it is very, very large indeed. So much so that you could easily have to walk a couple of kilometres from the check-in counters to your boarding gate.
But while that is punishing enough, remember that while you will only make this trek once, the airline ground staff will make this journey several times over in the course of a single shift. But while the men will stride swiftly in comfortable, flat, rubber-soled shoes, the women will have to do this in heels.
Yes, heels are mandatory for all women who work as ground staff on airlines. So, they have no choice but to mince along on their heels, trying hard not to wince as their knees and backs groan under the pressure, even as their male counterparts whiz past them in their sensible shoes.
To add insult to incipient injury (I wonder whether the airlines will step up and pay their medical bills when their backs and knees give up on them) the women also have to suffer the rigours of an Indian summer in tights, while the men go around in loose trousers. And in the winter, when the temperatures drop, they have to freeze in their skirts while the men are nice and snug in their pants.
Hardly uniform, it is? In fact, it is a tad inhuman, if you ask me.
Honestly, is it too much to ask that when it comes to uniforms there should be some uniformity? After all, our women police officers get to wear the same uniform as their male colleagues. Nobody asks them to slip on the high heels just because they are women. So, why ask female airline ground staff to do so? They have to run around just as much as the men. So why force them to do it in heels? Where is the justice in that?
Ginger Rogers famously boasted that she did whatever Fred Astaire could do – only she did it in high heels. And more power to the likes of her. But surely we have come far enough that women don’t need to prove their worth by accomplishing the same tasks as men – only in more difficult conditions?
Which is why I think it is time we asked for a level playing field – and a nice pair of flat-soled shoes in which we can briskly stride across it.