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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Dress Code

It really doesn’t matter what you wear; you can be a feminist in both a sari and a skirt

Women and clothes. It really doesn’t get more complicated than that. There’s conflicting advice coming from every corner. Everyone has an opinion on what you should or should not wear (and where you should or should not wear it). There are people who seem to believe that your choice of outfit has a direct connection with your personal safety. But no matter how much care you take to dress every morning – or evening – you can rest assured that there will always be someone out there who believes that in those clothes, you are simply asking for it.

As for me, all through my life, I have tended to take the path of least resistance when it came to clothes. Growing up in Calcutta, where I went to a school and college run by nuns, there was a certain assumption that ‘good girls’ always dressed conservatively. And quite frankly, I never had a problem with that. I wore salwar kameezes and churidar kurtas routinely and felt incredibly grown-up whenever I wore a sari on special occasions.

Looking back, I often wonder why more of us Loreto girls didn’t rebel against the unspoken dress code that even outlawed something as tame as pedal-pushers (if you have no idea what these are, consider yourself lucky). My guess is that it was mostly because we never really paid that much attention to what we wore. We didn’t see clothes as a means to making some sort of political statement. And I most certainly didn’t think that they defined who I was in any manner.

Clothes definitely did not make this woman, I would have said if I had given any thought to the matter. But quite honestly, I never did. I had more important things to think about (like when I would finally get through the interminable James Joyce opus; and why I could never keep all the characters in War and Peace straight in my head).

After college, I began working at the ABP group, which – in those days at least – was a bastion of orthodoxy. All the women wore saris to work (only one lady with a particularly racy reputation would wear tight kurtas with trousers, which was regarded as the height of daring) and I duly took my cue from them before relaxing into the odd salwar-kameez and finally graduating to that old journo standby, blue jeans.

However I may have dressed on my time off, at work I always veered towards the line of sartorial safety. I would no more have worn jeans and a T-shirt to cover an election rally in a rural area than I would have worn a bikini to an official banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The idea was always to blend in, to seem non-threatening. If I was going to be the proverbial fly on the wall, then I had to be a cipher, nondescript enough to disappear into the background. I couldn’t be that girl in a Bermuda shorts, who thought she was striking a blow against patriarchy by showing off her legs.

But then, these are choices that most women of my generation made, because we wanted to be taken seriously – and we had bigger battles to fight. So, we wanted attention to be focussed on our brains rather than our bodies. And we wanted the conversation to be about our talent and professional abilities rather than our clothes.

I guess we’ve come a long way from that (er, baby, as the sexist Sixties line would have it). And in a way it is comforting that we now take enough of our freedoms for granted to finally be able to have that conversation about clothes. At some level, I suppose it must be seen as a sign of progress that women are all charged up to fight for their right to wear a mini-skirt and not be leered at.

But speaking for myself, I still find the idea of a Slut Walk risible in the Indian context, when women in rural areas who are wrapped up in six yards of fabric get sexually molested, assaulted and raped every day. And call me sexist if you will, but I find it hard to sympathise when women complain of being leered at after putting their breasts out on display in their latest push-up bras. Hell, there are times when even I gawp in horrified fascination at those acres of cleavage on display, so I’m not one to point fingers.

When it comes to clothes, though, I think the common-sense argument is the most compelling one. Of course, you can wear what you like. Of course, you can go where you like while you’re wearing it. And of course, nobody has the right to molest or rape you because of the way you’re dressed. But there is such a thing as ‘appropriate dressing’, and we would be fools to deny it just to sound politically correct. For instance, I still wouldn’t wear a short skirt to a political press conference. And I certainly wouldn’t wear a skimpy top while reporting from a rural area.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that clothes are really not that important. Because what you wear is not who you are. So, let’s not make the mistake of believing that our identity is wrapped up in our clothes. It is possible to be a feminist in a sari as well as a skirt – and we should never forget that.


Clifford said...

Hey Seema, I actually witnessed a scene in a public transport bus that summarizes what you say in this article. Here's what happened.
A teenage girl in a really skimpy t-shirt was sitting in the seat opposite to a man (probably a migrant).
After 5 to 10 minutes, the girl suddenly yelled out angrily at this guy in Hindi saying "Kya ghurta hai re?" (Why are you staring?)
The migrant shot back "Andhaa ban jaoo kya?" (Should I become blind?)
Sanity prevailed and the conductor moved the migrant to another seat.

Superna said...

But don't you understand that bad manners are bad manners and one must never justify them. For you, breast exposure might be horrifying but for a boy from the village, a girl wearing knee length shorts is equally horrifying. Would you justify leering in his context?

Shoumitro said...

never read a mor sensible post on the issue than this.

Appropriate dressing is the main thing. Liked it when you said you guys were more interested in drawing attention to your brains than to your bodies. Because I have seen some cases where the opposite has been purposedly done. Consider this scenario. In an office, there are 5 boys and 5 girls and their male boss in a team; just one girl takes advantage by displaying her body and thus makes progress in her career. The others do not do it -- so they are in a clear disadvantage.

About the recent case of teasing in barasat near Kolkata -- my experience is that women clad in behenji fashion get more molested because they are considered more meek and vulnerable.

Mohamed Iqbal said...

If clothes are not important, why does HR insist on men wearing formals only and on clothes being ironed etc etc? And why are there sayings like "clothes make the man"? Ultimately, things have to be appropriate not just for men, but for the women also.