The language of dress code

It is a paradoxical case of societal norms versus what may be a practically simple thing to do and accept. When Justice D Hariparanthaman and two accompanying lawyers were turned away from Tamil Nadu Cricket Association club for wearing south Indian dhotis, it created a sort of foofaraw.

Were we still slave to colonial mentality – apparently the norms for the club had been set before Independence – or is it that some organisations want to establish their snob value by enforcing codes that are considered elitist.

Similar nature complaints have come up time and again for many of these institutes where getting admission or membership is the aspiration for many; and just to add - an aspiration that is mostly not realized in their lifetimes. I know of clubs that have a 100 + years waiting list for membership.

The points that can be made here are several.

First, indeed, some of the norms have become obsolete, as the administration at these places has been too lazy to review rules. Wearing western clothes was mandatory in pre-Independence years, as the British either wanted to keep the Indians out or that they wanted to prove a point by making Indians wear western dresses.

Most clubs including Gymkhanas and Defence Services clubs have or could include traditional wear including dhotis and elegant sherwanis.

Over the years, even the Queen of England has mended rules. Her grandson Prince William’s wedding invitation, which was possibly the most widely circulated wedding card, clearly allowed for traditional attires besides formal English dresses.

Second, the fact simply is that society is made in such a way where some clubs, localities, activities etc will remain elitist and have a highbrow value associated with them. And institutes linked with them will enforce rules that will reinforce their exclusive identity.

A recent survey in England, for example, showed how games like fencing and equestrian sports had maximum takers amongst those who had received private education versus those who had gone to government schools and played soccer and tennis.

Similarly, membership of exclusive clubs remains in the distinguished domain of the who’s who or the well to do or the well connected.

Not everyone can manage to attend the Royal Ascot; and what would it be without a trendy hat on a balmy afternoon at the race course.

By saying that we will not allow you entry is a way of confirming their ‘not so easily achievable’ status and ‘we don’t care a damn about who you are; we are snootier’ attitude.

Third, the truth is that dress codes do have relevance and value. One wouldn’t really want Test cricketers to wear techno-coloured uniforms rather than Whites or Corporate offices filled with CEOs wearing track pants, or boy scouts and army men turning up in casuals.

There is an elegance of wearing the right clothes for the appropriately suited occasions. One wouldn’t like to wear shorts and that little black dress to a traditional wedding, or turn up in a lehenga to do yoga!

The term power dressing is associated with board rooms and formal raiment at some elite clubs adds to the mood of the place. One goes to these clubs with a certain expectation of not seeing people clad in jeans and hawai chappals.

To this extent dress codes are justified. There is a message draped in these clothes, and some associations and people use it with knack to drive home a point.

Come to think of it, I am sure it wasn’t that Gandhi didn’t care two hoots about dress code when he had walked in for the round-table conference wearing his usual loincloth, he was definitely delivering a message to London.