The changing dress styles
K S S Pillai
Had Rip Van Winkle woken up from his twenty-year sleep now in Kerala, he would have been so baffled by the attire of people moving around him that he would have gone for another swig of the mysterious drink and slipped back to his second stint of stupor.
While nature has created man with intelligence and left him free to choose his attire to protect himself from the vagaries of nature, it has provided animals with a dress suitable to the climate where they live.
Sheep that live in a cold climate have a natural source of insulation in the form of wool that keeps body heat in and the cold out. Camels are provided with a thick coat of hair that protects them from the desert heat during the day and keeps them warm at night. Their humps enable them to travel up to a hundred miles without water. Their long eyelashes keep sand out of their eyes. Their thick eyebrows shield their eyes from the desert sun.
During my childhood, schoolchildren were not required to wear a uniform dress. Some boys went to school in half pants, and some even in small dhotis called mundu. Girls wore long skirts and blouses.
The colour of their dress was usually chosen by their parents. All students came bare-footed. Male teachers came wearing white dhotis and shirts of the colour they liked. Women teachers came in sarees or ‘half sarees’. While some of them had sandals on their feet, most did not have any.
People who wore trousers were almost non-existent. If a person appeared in trousers, he was referred to as a two-legged guy. Mocking eyes would follow him till he went out of view. In the college where I studied, only one or two teachers came wearing pants, driving their cars.
On Sundays, Christian women used to go to the nearby church wearing the traditional chatta and mundu. Both would be made of spotless white cotton. At the back, the mundu was neatly pleated and folded into a ‘njori’. That dress has permanently disappeared. Most of the women now wear only sarees while going to church.
The only booted and suited men we saw were the heroes of Malayalam and Tamil movies. They chased lungi-clad heroines, singing romantic songs, without removing or loosening their neckties. Even when the heroine looked much older, the song would usually refer to her as a damsel in her sweet seventeen.
Most people now send their children to private English medium schools. Students are required to wear uniforms of particular colours, a necktie with the logo of the school, and a pair of black leather shoes. If the school is one catering to the affluent section of the society, the uniform may include a woollen blazer that has to be worn even in the sweltering heat.
Mercifully, most colleges do not ask students to come in uniform dresses. Boys and girls wear jeans or trousers with shirts. Some girls are seen in salwar-kameez and dupatta. Though the dupatta was intended to be an additional cover for certain parts of the body, it is now carelessly thrown around the neck, leaving nothing to the imagination of onlookers. Traditional skirts have bid their adieu long ago. Teachers are also free to dress as they please, within the limit of decency.
The only dress code that has not changed over the years seems to be that of the worshippers in certain temples. A male devotee is expected to go bare-chested, wearing a white dhoti. If he is wearing a shirt, he removes it from his right shoulder and leaves it dangling from his left side. Sandalwood paste thrown into his outstretched palm by the priest is smeared on different parts of his body. Once he comes out of the temple, the shirt is worn properly.
With the dressing style changing so often, we can’t blame poor Rip Van Winkle if he thought he had woken up in a strange land.
(The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to The Kashmir Vision, his articles and short stories have appeared in various national and international publications)