Guest column: To dress up or dress down, that is the question
Not so long ago, there was a great brouhaha over the ripped-jeans controversy. While it is certainly not immoral to wear ripped jeans, ‘Friday Dressing’ has sadly permeated official settings and universities as we forget basic dressing etiquette.
Even the Central Bureau of Investigation recently put in place a formal dress code for both men and woman as the agency’s newly appointed chief Subodh Kumar Jaiswal felt it was non-negotiable to indicate a professional work environment.
It is the norm to wear formals at universities in western countries. While I was studying at Cambridge University , in the United Kingdom, the faculty could not wear jeans to class, they had to wear trousers and a jacket (a blazer as Indians refer to it). Sadly, the same is not seen in our country.
I am a strong supporter of women wearing trousers, especially as it encourages the wearer to stay trim. However, I loathe to see doctorate students and sometimes even younger faculty wearing ripped jeans. This hardly aesthetic or appropriate in an academic set up.
I have seen students presenting seminars and even appearing for viva voce examinations wearing round-neck tee-shirts and open-toed footwear.
So do clothes really matter? Not to Albert Einstein, who felt if most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies. However, for lesser mortals like us, I would say, dressing up well is a form of good manners.
The legendary lyricist Gulzar would agree as he had famously given the Oscars a miss in 2009 because he did not have a black coat to conform to the mandatory dress code, though his song ‘Jai Ho’ won an Academy Award for the best original song. A decade down the line, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo deviated from the strict dress code and received their Nobel Prize in economics donning a dhoti and a sari, respectively.
It is strange that people who would not be caught dead attending a social function wearing casuals are unaware of workplace dressing etiquette. After all, one gets noticed and defined by their dressing sense. Try recalling an old friend or acquaintance. You will also immediately recall his or her dress sense, whether simple, elegant, flamboyant or shoddy. Each generation has always had their favourite style icons. During my teenage years, I pored over outfits worn by princess Diana, while my mom was fan of Jackie Kennedy’s classic style.
Bridal colours, funeral colours and clothes to be worn while visiting a religious place are all defined by society. In some mosques, it is mandatory for women to wear a burkha, while one must drape a saree to enter certain temples. In gurdwaras, one is immediately told to cover one’s head properly if the head covering slips by even an inch.
Traditionally, the Brits have been particular about dress etiquette. Our dress code and local customs seem rather strange to the English. Once our visitor, an Englishman, felt it was rude to take off one’s shoes and socks in public, so he decided to wait outside, while the rest of us went in to pay our respects at the Golden Temple, Amritsar. In another incident, a British friend of mine was amused to see men in western suits sitting cross legged on the carpet during a Sikh wedding!
While at Cambridge, a batchmate of ours was an alumnus of IIT. In the 1980s, the intellectual IITian would be seen in a kurta-pyjama paired with kohlapuri chappals and a ‘jhola’ bag. Now, this batchmate changed into the aforementioned attire for dinner at the college hall, oblivious to the fact that Brits take formal dining very seriously.
He was denied entry by a university official and told to dress up and come. Baffled, he muttered, “Oh! So in your country people dress up for dinner, while in our country we dress down for dinner.”
Indeed, during hot summer months, we wash up and change into loose sleepwear before sitting down for dinner at home.
The writer is a professor at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana