It was my 11th-grade class party. Almost every girl in my all-girls class turned up in a saree or salwar. I arrived late in a well-fitted white top and slacks that I’d gotten especially for the occasion. I was taken aside by the school supervisor and given an earful for my fashion choice. I’d been covered from neck to toe but apparently, the tightness of my outfit seemed to have offended her in some way. She questioned my motives, my character, my parents’ lack of discipline and if I had stuck around any longer, I’m pretty sure she would’ve pegged half of the misfortunes in the world as a direct consequence of my “obscene” outfit. I spent a good half of the party, sniffling in the corner until my super amazing class teacher told me not to pay any heed to the supervisor’s words and that I looked gorgeous (her words, not mine, not swayampokkaling).
Cut to a few years later, when I stepped out of my hostel on a Sunday, dressed in a pair of skinny jeans and a regular t-shirt, when my warden stopped me and pretty much said the same exact things my supervisor had years ago. Except this time I had to go back and change into a demure salwar before I was allowed to step outside.
Why is it that in spite of there being infinite pressing issues that should probably be addressed more often, the thing on the forefront of a majority of people’s minds is the way a woman should dress? It doesn’t matter where you are – a party, a wedding, a place of worship, school/college or even a friggin’ funeral, a woman’s choice of fashion will always be noticed, scrutinised and talked about if she gets it wrong as per the “unwritten handbook of dressing like an uthama sthree”.
I don’t know when this handbook came into existence but it is still very very prevalent in society. At a wedding, an ammayi of mine very casually told my cousin that she looked like a prostitute simply because she had worn a bright coloured saree and red lipstick.
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Upon seeing a 2nd-grade student in shorts, a teacher at my sister’s school expressed her concern about the type of “culture these kids will be left with when their parents themselves encourage them to wear such indecent clothes.” A friend of mine who lived in a joint family often changed into different clothes after she left the house in order to escape the family’s scrutiny of her attire.
There are so many more stories but the fact is that it doesn’t matter how old you are or what your marital status is, such regressive and downright stupid comments by many self-entitled spokespeople of morality will come your way throughout your life if you’re a woman. People do not fall short at all when it comes to putting in their two cents when it comes to women and the way they dress.
Have you heard or uttered any of the following words?
Pennayal idhupole irikkanam.
Ivak okke idhinde vella avishyam undo? Prayathin ansarichculla vasthram dharichal pore?
Idh mathedha (mathedh meaning sex-worker).
Saree odukaan ariyatha nee okke oru penn aano?
Inganthe oro vesham ketti irangiyal, enganeya anpillare rape cheiyadhe irikum? / aval ittirna vesham kandille – Chodhiche maydichadha!
Aare kaanikaana ee vesham ketti irangirkunne?
Dress kandalle ariyaam, aval ithri peshak/pokk case aanen.
Scroll down the comments of any female actor’s Instagram post and you’re bound to come across at least a few of these. From celebrated singers who considered women who wear jeans as a “cause for trouble”, senior writers making misogynistic comments about those who wear tight-fitting leggings, learned professors who compared his student’s bosoms to watermelons, or even a large section of the internet who seems to be flabbergasted to learn that fact that #womenhavelegs, females everywhere have been told time and again how to behave like a “proper” woman.
To those people who often question a woman’s need to expose her body (more than the permitted amount) for the world to see, I’d like to ask, how would you feel if almost every part of your very own body – legs, thighs, upper arms, stomach, chest, back and more – were considered to be weapons of mass destruction? Potentially dangerous things that if exposed to public view will result in the ultimate death of our most valued “culture”?
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An uncle once pointed out a news anchor on TV just to show me how one should drape their dupatta correctly like a good woman like her rather than bunch it around their neck or even go without one (gasp!) like ippolathe pillare.
Without a dupatta or a saree pallu covering it, a woman’s breast that is already enclosed with two layers of fabric might just open fire, shooting daggers into many a man’s fragile eyes. Isn’t it funny how breasts have been sexualised so much that even just the sight of a bra strap is enough to set some men off? And yet there are individuals that seem to believe that touching a woman’s breasts “without skin to skin” contact is apparently not considered sexual assault.
Apart from a whack society, there is also the entertainment industry that chips in on how to dress like an acceptable kulasthree. In most Malayalam serials, the ones who dress in flamboyant brightly coloured/ western fashion and makeup is always the antagonist or the villathi. Movies from the 90s’ like Pavithram, Valsalyam, Thalayanamanthram, Ayalathe Adheham always equated a woman’s desire for modernization as one of the root causes of her charithyam nashikalling. And if these didn’t make things clear enough, we have songs with lyrics like “Aanalla…Pennalla..Adipoli Vesham..Pennayaal Kaanille..Perinu Naanam..” or “Pottu kuthedi pudava chuttede, muthedukkadi mudiyil vakkadi, chikkam chikkam cheetha penne chik chika (Aahaa! Vayalar ezhdhuo idhu polathe manoharamaya varikkal!)
So taking into account all the conditions set forth by these upholders of women’s morality, let’s figure out what exactly is an acceptable attire for women.
Leggings are obviously a huge no-no because it causes accidents and the flesh coloured ones will only play mind-games with gullible men.
Skirts – Unless you’re in your pavada prayam, wearing skirts, and that too short skirts is absolute asambhandham.
Jeans cause trouble, accentuate parts that must be hidden away and is just an attempt at mimicking western culture. America OK! India not OK!
Shorts – Enne kond onnum paraipikanda!
Saree, of course, is the uniform of the perfect kulasthree. Although an excessive amount of tummy exposure will result in your being tagged as immoral. And don’t even think of letting that pallu slip down your chest even for a second, exposing your crowning glory. No sleeveless or strappy ones, your upper arms are offensive. As for a low cut blouse – Aare kaanikaana??
Salwars are acceptable, but not with leggings of course, and only with a dupatta draped like a thick curtain across your chest. And high slits simply cannot be tolerated.
Nightie/Maxie, the unofficial dress of Kerala women, are great for lounging in the house, but make sure if it is loose like a circus tent, none of that figure-hugging stuff. And the above mentioned dupatta must be present in case you plan to step outside or if a guest comes over.
On top of all this if you are a plus sized woman, then you are subject to a whole other set of rules of what you can and cannot wear.
No matter what you wear, a woman’s fashion choices will never cease to be a favourite topic of discussion. In a society that dictates numerous things to us like who and when we should marry, what time we should and should not venture out of our homes, what is expected of us as a mother and a wife, how can something as inconsequential as fashion be left out?
But let’s consider where this particular habit stems from. Like my friend once suggested a lot of the problematic practices in our society may have had pretty logical beginnings. This protective instinct towards women, making sure they cover up, may very well have originated from the age old concept of prey vs predator. If a woman travelled back around 300 years, she may be forced to modify her clothing and cover up because society wasn’t as safe as it is now. Despite the fact that a certain section of the society will act like pigs whatever century we are in, back then there was no system in place to keep them in check. So onus fell on the individual to protect themselves and those around them. However, in the current scenario, things have shifted but only on a legal and social level. In terms of evolution, we are still wired to be protective.
I’m not saying that the warden who stopped me was controlled by Darwin. But it’s just a tiny nut onto which so many other layers are plastered. Layers like media representation, religion, sexuality, parenting, and even the gender ratio!
To all the young women reading this, no matter what you wear, someone or the other will have a problem with it. It’s difficult to rewire certain beliefs. So you might as well wear what you want. The responsibility of upholding our culture or values does not lay in your attire. Your morality cannot be displayed through your choice of fashion. It is OK for you to wear whatever you want, but it isn’t OK to ridicule or judge anyone who chooses to wear something you wouldn’t.
And finally to all those who shower us with their unsolicited opinions on our fashion, we appreciate the concern. But it’s the bloody 21 century. I think it’s time to call your mindsets back from the Dark Ages. The next time you see someone outraging your Indian culture with their cleavages or bare legs, try this – Step back, avert your eyes and walk away. Crisis resolved!
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