I was at a very fancy restaurant in Delhi (the city’s single most expensive establishment located in its top deluxe hotel) the other day when I saw an American (well, white, at any rate) couple taking photographs of the chefs as they grilled meat in the open part of the restaurant kitchen.
I find food paparazzi faintly ridiculous but the photography was not the bit that fascinated me. I was more interested in the manner in which the man was dressed. He was wearing the sort of pseudo-Tibetan clothes that foreigners buy at every roadside stall when they want to look like flower children on the road to enlightenment. But while this uniform requires baggy cotton
made of thin fabric, the food paparazzo was wearing sloppy shorts.
The manager of this fine restaurant is a friend of mine so I asked him the obvious question: would he have let in a couple dressed like this if they were Indian? Wasn’t he tolerating their attire only because they were rich white people? (How did I know that they were rich? Well, you can’t be poor and eat at that restaurant; besides the man was using a serious camera so he was clearly rolling in it.)
My friend denied the charges. First of all, he said, the couple were hotel guests. Secondly, he did not believe in imposing a dress code on those who wanted to enjoy the (admittedly excellent) food. And thirdly, he said, he did not discriminate on the basis of nationality: Indians wearing the same clothes (
and shorts) would be equally welcome. So far, so good. But then, just as things were going so well, he spoilt it. “The only thing I will not allow in the restaurant,” he said, “are sandals.” So you can wander into Delhi’s most expensive restaurant wearing shorts and a
. But even if you wear a nice linen suit and pair it with sandals of the softest calf leather, they will turn you out. Makes no sense, does it?
To be fair to my friend, the manager, I suspect he did not have soft Italian leather sandals in mind but was talking about the plastic Nike-type sandals that are sometimes called floaters. But not everybody distinguishes between varieties of sandals. Many clubs in Bombay and Delhi will throw you out if you wear any kind of sandal. (This leads to many complications when people are wearing Indian dress; are they expected to wear ankle-high boots with their churidars?)
This is as true of Singapore and Hong Kong. In Bangkok, nearly a decade ago, I was told I could not get into Spasso, the Italian restaurant at the Grand Hyatt, because I was wearing sandals. Except that they phrased it differently: “We do not allow people who do not wear socks.” So they gifted me a pair of socks. I wore them under my sandals. And all was right with the world. Crazy, isn’t it?
At Bangkok’s Sirocco, Deepak Ohri imposes a strict dress code. The guy in the banian and shorts wouldn’t have been allowed near the lifts, let alone the restaurant, no matter how white or how rich he was. And each time I have dinner with Deepak, I take care to change into a pair of shoes (which I pack specially for these occasions) for fear that his bouncers will look at my sandals and throw me off the top floor of the State Tower.
I have nothing against dress codes. I tend not to dress formally myself, but a restaurant has the right to decide how it wants its clientele to look. My objections are (a) to double standards – many chichi Indian restaurants will get tough with you or me over what we are wearing but will gladly welcome some banian-wearing hippie only because he is white and (b) to the prejudice against sandals.
All my life I have been an inveterate sandal wearer. According to me, it makes no sense, in the hot wet climate of most of Asia, to wear shoes and socks unless you are wearing clothes (a formal suit, for instance) that require closed shoes. Women understand this instinctively and no hotels or clubs bother to impose footwear codes for them. But men face all kinds of hurdles if they dare wear sandals. Many fancy (and some not-so-fancy) places will insist on shoes and socks even if the heat is nearly unbearable that day.
My response to these absurd footwear regulations has been to refuse to go – in the Asian summer – to restaurants that demand shoes and socks unless the food is too good to miss or I have been invited by a particularly good friend. Strangely, I have never had problems with sandals in Europe and America. There are places that require jackets and ties (and therefore, shoes and socks) but no restaurant that allows you to walk in wearing an open-necked shirt or a T-shirt bothers how your feet are shod in the way Asian places tend to. In the South of France and in Italy, sandals are a summer uniform.
I used to think that perhaps the Asian aversion to sandals came from a desire to keep out hippies and Australian tourists in shorts and plastic sandals. But given that many places will now welcome T-shirts and shorts (to say nothing of banians and pyjamas), that can’t be it. There is just something perverse and illogical in the Asian attitude to sandals.
A couple of months ago, I found myself in Paris during Men’s Fashion Week. Each day, the papers would carry photos of ultra-thin models ambling down the ramp in the latest collections. At almost every show, the choice of footwear was the same: sandals. At Louis Vuitton, the sandals were criss-crossed, Roman-style. At Salvatore Ferragamo, they looked surprisingly like Indian sandals. At Zegna they were take-offs on the Quo Vadis sandals popularised by Bata in the Seventies.
The one show I attended – Hermès menswear – was a delight. Veronique Nichanian is the thinking man’s designer so she paired the most luxurious and sensuous fabrics in beige and pastels (only for the show; the full collection has more colours) with a clever tweaking of elegant men’s classics. But guess what? The models wore sandals. Very expensive Hermès sandals, but sandals nevertheless.
The late Alexander McQueen made his reputation teaching women to show off the cracks of their bums in low-waisted trousers and by putting skulls on things so that rich women could look like the molls of Hells Angels. But among his many influential fashion innovations was the gladiator sandal. Clearly inspired by ancient Roman footwear (or, in McQueen’s case by the sandals the hunky Russell Crowe wore in Gladiator), the sandals were such a rage that this summer, the English high street was full of knock-offs. Reasonably priced variations on the original McQueen design were on the racks at Kurt Geiger, Topshop, etc.
Some Asian establishments are revisiting their sandal prejudices in the light of European fashion trends. The official policy at Bangkok’s Oriental is that it will not allow shorts, singlets and sandals in the lobby (let alone the restaurants). But each time, I have stayed there, I’ve worn nothing but sandals. I asked a member of the hotel’s management team why I was allowed to break the rules. It turned out that I was not the only one. The Oriental has re-thought its no-sandals policy because a large number of its well-heeled guests now wear expensive sandals and flip flops (another fashion trend on the catwalk this year) in the Bangkok heat and are faintly incredulous when they are told that this is ‘improper attire.’
But because the hotel still wants to keep out people in shorts, bathroom chappals and plastic shoes, it positions the board stating its dress code prominently at the entrance. Staff are trained how to recognise expensive sandals from cheap ones and to respond accordingly.
What a waste of effort! Can’t you just see the management herding bell boys and receptionists into a hall and projecting pictures on a large screen while going “This sandal is very expensive so you can allow it” or “This is a Nike floater. Throw out anyone wearing it.” Isn’t it easier just to allow anyone wearing sandals into the hotel?
In all fairness, the prejudice against sandals extends beyond hotel managements and encompasses the Indian elite as well. At my boarding school they encouraged boys to wear what they called kolhapuris (but were actually closed sandals) in the summer – sensible given how hot it can get in Ajmer. But I was one of the few boys who wore kolhapuris. The others saw it as being not classy enough and preferred regulation Bata black shoes.
Those boys have grown up how but their kids have inherited their prejudices. Smart young people today will wear loafers or yacht shoes with no socks, a sort of fashion trend that ended 20 years ago when Miami Vice was cancelled but will remain reluctant to wear sandals or chappals.
Frankly, I don’t understand it. Munna Jhaveri of Joy Shoes makes very comfortable sandals for me and I wear them day and night throughout the Delhi summer. My love for Munna’s sandals means that I can’t get into some smart places but frankly that’s a small price to pay. I’ll take comfort over glamour any day.