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Getting shirty about strappy tops

Inderjit Singh may stock cool tank tops in his shop in North Delhi’s Karol Bagh market, but he admits he would not like his wife to wear them. A HT-CNN-IBN survey suggests while a majority of respondents are against dress codes, an equal number would not extend the same freedom to women. Monalisa Arthur & Darpan Singh report. Graphics

india Updated: Aug 14, 2009 01:31 IST

It’s hot, so it’s cool. That’s how Inderjit Singh (33), owner of trendy garment store Top Shop, explains why cool tank tops sell like hot cakes in the summer.

Singh may stock them in his shop in North Delhi’s Karol Bagh market, but he admits he would not like his wife to wear them.

“We live with my parents,” he shrugs. “They’re conservative.”

Singh’s conundrum points to unease in Indian society concerning dress codes, freedom and ideas of public and private morality.
http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/images/Khanejas.jpg
Agreeing to disagree: Priyanka (left) and Prachi Khaneja’s (extreme right) parents don’t always agree on what the girls wear. Their dad thinks it should be left up to them; their mother is upset if they show too much skin. Sociologists say this is because women are conditioned to act as protectors of the family’s ‘honour’. Raj K Raj/HT

A recent HT-CNN-IBN survey suggests that while nearly 60 per cent of respondents were opposed to a public dress code and believed in the freedom to be clad as they pleased, an almost equal number said they were uncomfortable with women wearing strappy tops and jeans in public places.

In Uttar Pradesh for instance, the opening of colleges in July coincided with a slew of diktats on what girls should and should not wear.

In Kanpur, four colleges banned women from wearing jeans on campus “to halt sexual harassment”. Nearly 70 per cent of respondents supported such a move. Students in Kanpur, however, appear flummoxed by the reaction of college authorities.

“Jeans did symbolise daring a couple of decades ago. But it’s regular wear now,” says Sherry, an MBA student in Kanpur. “My family has no objections and I don’t care about anything else.”

Fashion has always played the role of agent provocateur, challenging pre-conceptions and pushing boundaries.

Those polled appear uninterested in aesthetic nuance. Almost 50 per cent of respondents believed that a woman dressed in revealing western clothes had “low moral values”, with the number rising to 64 per cent in small towns.

Surprisingly more men than women were comfortable with their sisters or daughters wearing spaghetti-strap tops, though both were in the low numbers.

Forty per cent of men surveyed were okay with women wearing strappy tops and jeans in public places while only 37 per cent of women concurred.

It’s a divide reflected in the Khaneja household, where Prachi (21) and Priyanka’s (24) parents don’t always agree about their daughters’ dress.

“Personally, I have a slight problem with how much skin is revealed sometimes,” says Sarita (54), a math teacher, speaking from their spacious two-bedroom apartment in west Delhi. “But then, it is all normal nowadays.”

Her husband, she says, is the ‘culprit’.

“Why shouldn’t they wear what they like,” smiles business consultant Lalit (54). “We can’t ask our girls to dress the way our generation did. The world is changing. We should too.”

“As long as they are like Rani Mukherjee and don’t become like Mallika Sherawat,” retorts grandmother Sumitra Khaneja (68).

Kamala Ganesh, sociologist from the University of Mumbai, puts this down to the intense conditioning of women through their lives.

“They have grown up with more strictures, which they internalise and reproduce,” she says. “Also, women all over the world are given the burden of maintaining group identity — family and caste honour etc. And women’s dress and behaviour is considered very central to this family status. Dress is symbolic of much larger things.”

Vineet Kapoor (33) would agree.

“In our profession, we have to offer sexy designs to our customers,” says the owner of a sari shop in Karol Bagh. “But when it comes to our own homes, it’s different. I wouldn’t let my wife wear noodle straps.”

She used to wear tank tops, Kapoor adds. “But she stopped when I told her I’m not comfortable.”