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Crown Of Thorns

Crown of Thorns

Over a year and half ago, I bought this accessory on a whim. It comprises a red flower made of net and fabric, attached to a thin red headband. Like all things bright and red, it caught my fancy. I wore it several times in the next few days. It made me feel like a queen. After all, a headband is a sort of a crown and this one is in my favourite colour.

The reactions that wearing this provoked, continue to this day. At first there was astonishment. I didn’t pay it heed. There was outright gaping. I ignored it. Then came the laughter, right to my face. It didn’t bother me. When I refused to get angry, the jokes got mean.

People stopped me to ask what manure I applied on my head, so a garden would grow there.

Someone sent me an anonymous note asking what was wrong with me, wearing that red flower on my head.

Two strange men on the road stopped right in front of me and refused to budge. I walked around them. They turned around and returned to walk next to me, pointing at the flower and laughing.

I wore it to coffee with a close friend who kept insisting I take it off and put it away. Two others refused to walk on the same side of the road with me, until I took it off.

A female friend would not stop telling me how inappropriate I was being, by wearing this. We were at a play and most of the time before the play and the interval after was spent in her trying to get me to remove it.

Recently, a friend who hasn’t seen me in over a year, forwarded a fashion pundit’s claim that ‘flower crowns are a major fashion faux pas’.

I want to know what about this innocuous red headband provokes such violent sentiments from people. Why do friends and colleagues think it is okay to badger me about a minor aspect of my appearance? These are intelligent people who consider themselves forward thinking. Do they realise the meaning of their actions?

I am not breaking a law by dressing indecently. I am not wearing anything that could offend anybody’s religious sentiments. Beyond that, why should what I wear be anybody’s concern? I realise that most people do not like the way it looks. They have a right to their opinions just as much as I have the right to wear it. Why are they allowed to get away with statements like ‘it offends my eyes’? I find men peeing in public far more offensive. And I find the attitude that other people dictate what I wear, most offensive of all.

And finally about the fashion faux pas bit. I refuse to conform to what a fashion pundit or a style magazine says. Why does that give everyone the right to deride me?

It also reminds me of another occurrence over ten years ago. When I started working in 2000, I began wearing scarves draped/knotted around my neck, with formal shirts and trousers. I had seen the style in a few international magazines and movies. Nobody I had seen in real life wore them and I had to go to some trouble to find those scarves. Later, I went back to college to get an MBA degree. I continued the same style of dressing. The teachers and students uniformly believed that sarees were the only appropriate wear for presentations. I was the first female student to wear trousers to a class presentation. The scarf around my neck had become my signature style. One of my male classmates said I looked like a ‘rowdy’. Another said it looked ‘raapchik’. The adjective got appended to my name. Then two of them asked me what my rate for a night was.

This incident may sound extreme now. You’ll probably think my friends and classmates were country bumpkins from back of beyond. But this was at a time when Indian women did not wear scarves to work. The only reason I stopped wearing them was because all the hospitality services (retail, restaurants, airlines) adopted the style for their uniforms. Today, the scarf-around-neck style is synonymous with a service person in one of these industries. Hence it is ‘normal’. But because I wore it when it was not, harassment came my way. It feels like history repeating itself.

I realise this seems like a trivial thing. Most people would ask me why I don’t just stop wearing it. But that is precisely the point. Would any man be hassled this much over a minor article of clothing? I posted a Facebook update about this. And while I was typing up this post, a friend responded to the update asking why people had lost their joy and whimsy. She nailed it. That is why I wear it. It makes me feel good. It cheers me up.

Her comment made me realise a broader issue. The only men I know who may have faced something similar are a few brave gay men. Earlier in the month, a man was hauled over by the cops in Chennai and beaten up, because they didn’t like what he was wearing (Read his account on Gaysi). I want it to say, it is the same thing. We are all supposed to follow rigid rules on how we appear and any deviation is considered punishment-worthy (even if the law does not explicitly say so). There is so much difference-shaming that is considered normal and anybody who refuses to be perturbed by it, is the troublemaker.

Here is a picture of the now famous headband. It’s unwittingly become a crown of thorns for me but I refuse to hide it away.

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Dress Restrictions: Equal Opportunity Offense

Chain

Chain (Photo credit: HeatherKaiser)

Yesterday I was denied entry into a building. I was there to attend a business event, peopled by serious professionals. The reason for my not being allowed admission is that I was wearing a dress.

I think the details of the dress are not important but anticipating debate on that, I’ll clarify. It was a printed dress, sleeveless, knee-length and loose-fitting: a summer dress. It was a Sunday after all, and a hot one. Of note, it was not the event organizers who blocked me but the college in which the event was being conducted. The college is a very reputed management college which also conducts other professional/postgraduate programs. I think it’s safe to say that the average age of a student there would be mid-twenties.

Back when I was a teenager, colleges tried to impose restrictions on our dressing. Hats/caps were not allowed. Any attire not full-length was restricted (leading to my being pulled up for wearing a pair of calf-length capris). Sleeveless was banned. Notice here that all these restrictions pretty much apply to female attire.

Over the years, the shorts/three-quarter culture got popular among men as well. I remember questioning why I was being pulled up when I could see boys/men around me showing off their knees. A few places now ban people of both genders from these. I don’t see this as progress, just equal opportunity offense.

I am not against the culture of uniforms in certain situations. There are merits to having school children in uniforms. It reduces, at least visually, the economic disparity in playground drama. It helps the authorities manage the children that they are responsible for, a little better. In the uniformed professions, especially defense & the police, it certainly helps the system and their purpose better to be identifiable with their roles. Similarly so, for nurses and other such caregivers in populous situations, where it is necessary to be able to distinguish caregiver from patient and visitors. And finally, prisoners for the same reason as schoolchildren – to be able to identify and manage better.

I cannot think of any other situation where a uniform would be necessary. Dress restrictions seem to be a milder form of uniforms, an attempt to impose control and homogeneity.

When I was studying for my management degree, there was talk of introducing a uniform dress code for the students. I was entirely surprised to find some of my classmates championing this. When I asked one of them why she believed we should be uniformly dressed, she said,

“Do you know they do this in such-and-such college? Think how bad it looks for our college when ‘corporates’ visit and see students in jeans and casual clothes.”

I didn’t buy that logic then and I still don’t. Having been a ‘corporate’ myself, I know I don’t judge a college by what its students are wearing to class. It would be important that they be appropriately dressed at interviews and later on, working situations. But those are loose norms and certainly not to be imposed on adults sitting in classrooms for lecture. On the contrary, I’d wonder about the kind of people who let themselves be sheep-herded into this kind of forced uniformity by an authority. Would they have the sense to question their surroundings? Would they have the courage and strength to make the kind of decisions a professional has to make, without succumbing to peer pressure?

I want to reiterate that I believe this imposition of dress code in situations other than the ones I listed above, has to do with society’s control over women. In places of worship and every other social setting, dress restrictions have always been imposed on women. You dress up on happy occasions, you wear Indian wear to the temple, you wear certain colours on certain days. And you don’t expose your knees, your arms or your cleavage. Why? Because it doesn’t show respect to the system. Which somehow magically translates to your being ‘bad’.

I don’t see this as any different from women being forced to wear burqas. In fact, it’s even presumptuous to force women to not wear burqas, if they want. After all, why should anybody have the right to tell an adult what they may or may not wear?

I expect to be treated like I know how to conduct myself in every situation. Wearing a dress might be inappropriate if I had the job of a firefighter or rock-climber. But it is perfectly suitable to an afternoon spent sitting in a classroom/boardroom environment. It might make me stand out but that’s my call and the consequences are mine to bear.

Dress code as seen at a London Club in the Soh...

Dress code as seen at a London Club in the Soho area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Incidentally, I am also tickled by the notion that restaurants and pubs feel they can impose dress codes on their patrons. I found a pub last year which turned away men in shorts or open sandals. I did not think they were being progressive, especially since when I inquired if women were allowed, the bouncer gave me a broad grin, his eyes darting lasciviously to my legs and said,

“No ma’am. Women can dress in what they like.”

As far as such a place is concerned, if they are willing to turn away paying customers for the privilege of dictating what they wear, that’s their business. They won’t have any of mine.

I don’t see how it is progressive to extend these shackles (and make no mistake, that’s what they are) to men as well. Dress restrictions on adults are demeaning, in an equal-opportunity way and that does not make them okay. Tell me what you think in the comments.

Update: Buzzfeed carried this article titled ‘7 Insanely Rigid Dress Codes for Women‘ that essentially addresses the same thing.

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