Of Dress Codes
Dress Codes Nightcafe Image
“Look at that heap of suitcases”, Manika exclaimed, as the taxi driver shut the door on the trunk of his Innova, and we waved goodbye to the bride’s uncle and aunt.
Before I could react, an Ertiga drove into the hotel porch, and stopped by the flower-edged sign that announced the next wedding. A young couple emerged from the car, clothes hangers shrouded in black, held aloft like pennants, while the bellboy hoisted 3 suitcases out of the trunk, and wheeled them into the lobby. Hostesses draped in saris greeted the new guests with necklaces of faux pearls.
“Time was, a beach holiday meant travelling light”, I muttered, largely to myself.
“But we were given dress codes for every event”, Manika defended the two suitcases she had ferried in for two nights in Goa.
Friday had been the big day for our wedding party. The Haldi ceremony at 10:30 dictated its own colours; baraat and Indian wedding ceremony at 4:30 demanded Indian formals, and most everyone obediently trotted out in celebratory silk and heirloom jewellery, never mind the Goa humidity. When the band came out to play at 8, it made sense to scurry back to the room and change into your dancing shoes and clothes that breathe.
As a theatre person, I’m no stranger to costume: costume is performative, it plays to an audience. But in social settings, the performers are also the audience, which makes for a reflexive, almost incestuous, dynamic - we all dress fancy for each other, perform for each other’s benefit. This wakes the rebellious streak in me, demands, “But I’m your friend, your uncle, your cousin, you love (or hate) me for who I am; how do the clothes matter?”
Costume in theatre is also narrative, and aids the credibility of the story-line. But here? None of us need the help of costume to help us believe that this mandap is real, that the priestesses have been flown in from Kolkata to preside over the nuptials, that we have all gathered to bless the couple, to dance in celebration of their formal union.
One sociological take on dressing is that it is ‘positional’: the clothes you wear signal your place in society. This is less and less the case - today it seems as if all men at Indian weddings wear brocade sherwanis. You’d have to be quite discerning to figure out exactly how much that one costs, and what that implies for the financial net worth of the wearer. And if that metric concerns you greatly, please go ahead and take your call on the implications of my FabIndia kurta. Do note, though, that it was new, and I especially chose the green and blue abstract pattern to celebrate the sea-side location of the nuptials.
Talking of signalling, I recalled for Manika the story of two old college friends who met at a dinner party after a couple of decades. One had married the son of an enormously wealthy industrialist; the other pursued theatre, while her husband taught mathematics.
“What gorgeous diamond ear-rings!”
The wearer dimpled graciously. A few minutes later, she beckoned her actress friend into an alcove and took off her ear-rings,
“Since you liked them so much…”
“I can’t take such expensive jewellery from you, just like that.”
“They’re fake… when you have a surname like mine, everybody assumes they are real.”
Wealth signalling, in the right hands, is quite capable of cocking a snook at those who live by it.
There are two other dimensions of expensive dressing that I think of often, the ethical and the economic. The first is often expressed thus,d
“What a waste of resources…”, and often suffixed by,
“...especially in a poor country like ours.”
In my way of thinking, there is a strong contradiction between those two phrases. Our country is poor, not because we lack resources, but because we have failed to employ hundreds of millions of people. The textile industry is one of our largest employers, and gives direct work to 45 million people, with another 60 million Indians engaged in ancillary sectors. Every intricately embroidered lehenga, every sherwani with a hand-finished collar, every pashmina shawl draped over a muscled shoulder, is a source of employment for an Indian living at the lower end of the economic pyramid, and sustenance for the richness of our crafts tradition.
For this reason alone, give us more Big Fat Indian Weddings.
But, excuse my intransigence to dress codes, which has nothing to do with ethics, morality, or economics. Mark it down simply to laziness, and a preference for function over form.
Don’t have a card no.
I pledge support to your yearly membership coz…. I love your innovative thoughts and the way you present them in your good writings.
Our people aren’t poor because of unemployment but because
a. they are unemployable,
b. they won’t do work that is available or
c. they just want govt jobs where they need to do nothing but pile up because of the power of the chair.
I really support you sir in the cause for no dress codes Sir.