Dress Codes: The Real Class War
I picked a Twitter fight with a stranger last year about dress codes in Indian private clubs. Well, “fight” is too strong a word to describe the snarky remark I made before leaving the discussion. But, the man — your typical, thin-skinned Indian rightwinger — had a bone to pick about the archaic colonial-era rules that operate in many Indian clubs. This particular incident involved journalist Shekhar Gupta who was asked to leave a Bangalore club for wearing a kurta-pyjama instead of shirt and trousers or a suit.
I’ve always defended the right of people to be admitted to private clubs as long as they are dressed appropriately. My call has been consistently for club committees in India to expand the notion of “appropriate wear” to include traditional dresses from India’s northeast and south. I am also for wearing a dhoti-kurta to the club — my God, how fantastic would a properly starched and aesthetically-crinkled dhoti look in any club?!
So why reject the poor shakha pracharak when he’s making rare common cause with his leftwing peers against the relics of colonialism that still guide club rules in India? The problem, you guessed it, lies at the intersection of class, ideology, and commerce. And private clubs are smack-dab in the center of these colliding forces. The way clubs and employers treat domestic help on club premises would take up entire dissertations, so let me just stick to dress codes for club members and their guests.
No jeans allowed? OK. But dark trousers are fine, right? Well, then similarly there should be no crumpled kurta pyjamas but starched kurtas should be OK. As should be bandhgalas and achkans. No open-toed chappals? I get that. But Khassa juttis should be allowed. No colorful lungis? Sure. But a nice white silk or starched cotton veshti should be fine.
Dress codes in Indian clubs represent a colonial problem in a postcolonial setting — the problem of categorization and classification. There is the inability of club management to grasp just how diverse India really is. As more Indians get up and move for work to cities outside their home states, staking claim to spaces in their capacity as Indian citizens, the different clothing traditions they bring with them will generate debate over what is appropriate wear for which space. Falling back on colonial practices is safest for club managers since there is only one kind of uniform to monitor instead of the several hundred that would crop up invariably if more Indian dress codes were admitted. Streamlining and homogenizing into one or two manageable categories the overwhelming variety of various Indian dresses like the veshti, the mundu, the angarkha, the jama, and so on, is a daunting task. Clubs are upper-class oriented so filtering all these diverse clothing for class identification (which is the real goal of dress codes) takes too much time. So, lazily, they reach for the easiest filtering method — the suit, the collared shirt, the sari, the salwar kameez.
But, instead of giving in to idiotic ignorance as the Delhi Golf Club did with an Indian citizen from Meghalaya, clubs should galvanize their management committees. This is what they are designed to do — tackle things like this. Indians, especially upper class Indians sitting on the prime urban real estate that are clubs, should discuss these things, educate themselves about the vast diversity of the land, standardize accepted practices and clothing from different parts of India, so that there is clarity on such issues instead of confused resentment. And, so this becomes an opportunity for education instead of classist/racist exclusion.
I have a love-hate relationship with dress codes. I grew up with them. As a military kid, it was ingrained in me to stand for the national anthem, know my fish fork from my salad fork, and of course dress properly for the right occasion. No canvas shoes for mountain climbing and no hawai chappals in the mess. Where I diverge from colonial-era stodginess is that I want more types of clothing to be included in dress codes. I also want definitions of appropriateness crafted and not left vague.
I grew up in a buttoned-down culture and I live in a reserved, buttoned-down part of the United States and so nothing really has changed. I dress very casually chez moi but when I leave the house, I dress according to what I feel is appropriate for my destination. Sometimes the destination has been my workplace, at other times a country club. I do not wear denim jeans to either place. But, that’s me. It’s in my DNA now — a love of rituals and a compliance with dress codes. Let the discussion begin.