RAMBLINGS ON FASHIONS AND FADS
Genesis Of My Fashion Phobia
This matter of the code of dressing and code of conduct (Nattai Yuddai Bhavanai) has always been an incomprehensible thing for me. The reason for my slow uptake in these matters connected with 'Haute fashion' is that understanding the subtle protocols of public behavior and dress etiquette is not easy. There is the normal daily way of getting around and special protocol one observes for occasions such as temple festivals weddings and other events in feudal Jaffna. To know these protocols Murai-Thalai -instinctively was in itself a demanding task. After having got to the rudimentary stages of this culture you are driven into the city life. The cultural (or more likely the lack of it) milieu of which, not only did not recognize any of the hard earned lessons of the village but additionally it demanded conflicting set of protocols. Some of these directly clashed with my upbringing. This was too confusing at that stage of student life, to say the least and at times seemed a personal affront. In the end exhausted by these incessant conflicts, the mind decided to ignore the whole thing and get on as best I can. This empirical law have been working fairly well in the tropics but at a time in life you want to say "quits" this comes back to haunt. " a thing that is not fully understood will come back again and again till understood so that it leaves no residue, only then the karma associated with the particular problem will go away" so the wise say. Therefore I have decided to address this issue in order to exorcise it.
One of vexing problem with fashion is to distinguish between an " authentic" luxurious stylish dress from the common garden varieties. Sometimes it is difficult to tell fashion per se without associating price tag and brand names. The dress in a designer boutique can cost you an arm and a leg. You circle and flirt around it. You make a series of visits compare prices and finally buy it. When you wear it is an anticlimax. What was gorgeous in the glittering setting with many of its likes is now a singled out orphan and is on you. For many reasons It does not now look all that great for the trouble. Obvious reason you overlook is that you dont and wont look great in any dress. This is the down side of retail therapy. Luxury has its price, including worry. New comers into western fashion world are learning to redefine 'fashion'. Of course the easiest way is imitation.
Going back to the old story. You see we had a simple notion back in Jaffna, that "silk worm" silk is the most expensive and 'original', lower in the hierarchy are "banana fiber silk" (Vazhai Naar pattu") cotton (mull or mill) cotton (hand spun), karikkan (unbleached rough cotton clothes), cheap printed cotton of gaudy floral designs(seeththai) etc. This is not just an idea but this is how we viewed the fashion world. The social ranks were firmly fixed by the material worn except for occasional excursions outside these norms.
The present fashion trends have firmly established the tough and rough materials such as karikkan (unbleached cotton), jeans (sakku) in ascendancy over the traditional silken variety of smoothies and softies. My simple "silk-cotton " theory of fashion developed back at home was based solely on the price of these materials. This system has collapsed with the advent of designer clothes and accessories' and brand names. In short my only reference point to the fashion world, which was firmly rooted in the "silk-cotton" principle is out of vogue, but the values still clings on. This is the best illustration for the truth that all our values are relative and short lived. To avoid internal conflicts caused by this reversal of values I try to empty the mind of these prejudices before shopping for clothes. This is a meditative process. Slowly I am getting there. (Above: Aishwariya Rai making a bold statement- A New face making young hearts flutter: courtsey Webpages )
Back in Jaffna we also had the luxury of designer clothes. Every Diwali, our shirts and shorts were made to measure by tailor Miskin. He had a small booth located in the main street of Chinna Kadai in the "Town". He sat there all day in front of a Singer machine. We had the options of specifying long/short sleeves, how many front/ rear/side pockets or whether to have studs, buttons, or 'dick' buttons. These are small round silvery two piece ensemble which closes with a sharp 'dick' sound - this variety has disappeared giving way to the universal Zips. Miskin looked after the rest of the fashion details for two rupees a piece. More than anything the pre diwali rituals of unwrapping variety of clothes for everybody amidst chit chats and the smell of new clothes with their exotic labels was exhilarating.
These practices of dressing seems to have some unwritten laws and nuances. Further more they change so very imperceptibly over time, that before you had time to adopt to the latest "in trend", without your knowledge the scene has changed and you are an "oldie" again. From a high point, you could say it is all vain and sense less, but obviously it makes lot of sense and costs lots of money to those who think that they are making "a statement" by their clothes and accessories. Why some one could not make a simple statement by mouth is not clear. But such is life. After a million years of existence as human beings we still need a few inches broad tie round the neck to distinguish efficient executives. You have to acknowledge that Gandhi made a challenging statement to the British Empire by his dhoti. There is something in all this after all. OK,Visual statement now I understand matters but it also matters whether you have anything worthwhile to state .....
(above: Typical Tamil film scene: Fashion has always been a fine art of balancing between what to hide, what to reveal, and what to enhance - of course subtly. The sucess depends on elegance & social acceptance; Courtsey Kumudham Web page)
Indianess in the Western Fashion World
It looks silly when you put these things down in writing. But notice that these sort of things have their strong hold on people and it acts imperceptibly and surely. The certainty with which these unwritten and often unspoken code of public behavior influences people has fascinated me. Violating them could mean a strong unconscious pull, either way for or against. To break out of this is not easy. They say it took the hippie generation -the radical flower children, quite a lot ot of drugs and some meditation to liberate the western civilization from its formal dress code. It is not surprising that this anti-establishment-beat generation (which was against any sort of discipline including the basic sanitary ones) did find the Indian bazaar a riot of colors and its utter chaos soothing. The elements of Indianness in western fashion probably gained momentum from then onwards.
Take for example the contemporary Western males, who have started the trends of wearing ear rings. This custom of males wearing ear rings was always associated by Jaffna people of the sixties as depicting a strong Tottering old image and a thing to be shunned (in short a taboo). When this "ear ring trend" appeared on the so called "fashion scene" I was sure this stuff was going to be picked up by the Tamil youngsters as well. Tamil youth nowadays have taken up this fashion. Is it perhaps in the belief that it is chic per se (by itself). Or do they feel they are expressing a sense of freedom by making a "statement" to their parents and peers? The youth may not be aware of the strong traditional associations of "oldness" of this wearing ear rings from a Jaffna perspective. But I am sure their parents would have pointed this out to their prodigies (Putra Packiams ) at the start of their ear ring career. May be this has become respectable and modern, sanctified by the passage of time, more importantly endorsed by the Western youth (read: Modern / sophisticated). Left Gandhiji with Lord Crippen, an encounter of the half naked fakir and the Raj. First assault on western fashion scene!
Social Changes impacts on Trends
This word Sophistication has a different connotation for Tamils than that is given in the dictionary or even as understood by Westerners. To get an insight, the " fashion scene" trends have to be put in perspective of an actual social context. What makes people tick in the way they dress then becomes transparent.
We have an idea that our grand parents and parents as vaguely unsophisticated (of course we love them, but a bit ashamed to introduce them to our friends). This value system can be traced from the turn of the century when lack of knowledge of English, the non-European dress and the lack of knowledge of the then modern ways were big disadvantages in life.
The Koadu (courts), Kutchery were all part and parcel of the colonial "western office system". This 'office system' was alien to us. This was fast encroaching into the simple village life. Similarly knowledge of Science were all alien at that time to the populace. We were used to making decisions on higher matters like boundary disputes and water rights sitting under a shade or on Thinnai . The matters were thus disposed then and there and people got on with their lives. The entire bureaucratic machinery with files and memos was intimidating. For one, people could not settle things as they used to by cajoling, pleading, shouting and occasionally by beating each other with mamotty handles and quickly getting on with life. Instead they now had to go through for years into a bureaucratic world chasing behind clerks, chief clerks, dorais (pukka sahibs),lawyers and a host of other aliens. Later on our people became so adept that instead of getting on with their usual 'life', now the bureaucracy became their 'life'. There is nothing new in this - it is like being engrossed in the beauty of the rain dance and forgetting all about rain, for which the ritual was organized. To get into these offices and manipulate was a victory and thus the image of sophistication was born.
We have developed an idea of linear progression over time, an idea that as generations proceeds we become smarter, more modern. In Jaffna colloquialism "modern" is always synonymous with European. Following example illustrates this point. In the Western world, a Scientist's son could become a carpenter, if that is his interest. There is no stigma attached to this career, but think of our societies. Though these inevitable do happen in our Societies, it was accepted with a great deal of reluctance. Hang on, where am I going? like those proverbial rain dancers. Yes, that's right - ramblings on the social dynamics that demands a fashion to express itself. I am going to switch in and out of these subject to weave shall we say, my theory.
Now coming back to fashions, I do not have any solid basis for all these deductions, and arguments but essentially I have relied on the youth hood memoirs of bafflement at all these confusing matters.
The Fashions and mode of behaviors (Nattai Yuddai Bhavanai) changes from time to time, from place to place. For example in Colombo of the say 1960s, the Government Servants and other white collar Tamils, could never comfortably walk in the Streets of Colombo dressed in Sarongs/ Lungis. They should not be seen outside the house without footwear, Shirts and Pants. That was an unwritten code of conduct. That an occasional outing donning Sarongs, was considered as a minor adventure, in the Wellawatte boarding circles, should underline tightness with which these proprieties were observed. The exception is that you could wear Veshti/Angavastram when you go to Temples or functions, but discreetly, and not certainly in the buses- Strictly within Temple premises.
The correct word for some of these strong sense of improper/ proper public behavior is 'Taboo'. I think from, as early as the 1920s, there has been a Taboo, for males wearing earrings or ornaments of the ear. This must have been quite a strong prejudice, because it was customary for ears of male children to be pierced even in 50s, but they were not encouraged to wear ear rings! If we examine this particular aspect further, wearing ear rings was considered to give 'an elderly tottering image' for the youth. The 'sophistication' lied in wearing Western Attire for males and speaking English. Strangely women who sported western costumes were considered as 'fast. 'These were important factors in the marriage market. It ia amazing how our attitudes have now changed!
But I should say that, in the 60s, there was a sound practical and strategic reason too for not piercing the ears. In 1958, the rioting thugs wanted simple methods to identify a Tamil on the street for imparting a sound thrashing. They hit upon a solution. They Checked the ears for abandoned hole, smelled the hair for Gingelly oil (Thala-thel in Sinhala), two sure signs of Tamil identity!
Reflecting further on ear wear, during the early part of the century, the life centered on agrarian pursuits and pastoral jobs was fast declining. The cause of this was the economic factor. The change of life style needed a corresponding shift in inward life and values. The simple spiritually oriented values of Jaffna were found to be a hindrance to enter and then succeed in the Colombo bureaucratic life style. The outward change from traditional dress to European dress created a value system, which looked down on wearing ear rings as "Old fashioned"
SMALL SMALL DIFFERENCES
You may have seen that traditional leather shoulder bags of ladies and gents brief cases are now being replaced by bags made of Jute hessain, rough Karikkan (Kadar or Khadi) clothes, bags woven from leaves of Palms. This modern trend is associated with the movement of going "back to the nature" supported by the Greenies. I remember, this type of bags were also used widely in Jaffna and these luggage were called variously as Sakku, KoNi, Umal. Take the case of Umal, Kadakam, Petti . These are all bags and boxes made of Palmyra leaves and fibers (naar). Gentry shopping with these bags and boxes was not considered as 'cultured' (Nagareekam). The people who would be seen with these kind of luggage in public places are farmers wife, laborers and such proletariats, who then would carry these on their heads or shoulders - the most practical way without straining the arms. The families of Government Servants clearly distanced themselves from this habit of carrying things on their heads. Instead they labored in carrying the shopping bags by hand. In such small ways they showed themselves to be of a distinctly higher class from the working class. This phenomenon could be said to be a manifestation of the 'clerical culture'. (left: Bharatha Natyam exponent Malavika Sarukkai in a dynamic pose. Courtesy Web page Artsedge.Kennedy-student-center.org This dress and art are an enduring colorful icon for Indians and a source of identity for Tamils abroad. For the expatriate Tamils this dance form has come to symbolize the essence of culture and a rare occasion for wearing Kancheepuram silks- an anchor. It has gone beyond the exotic and is now functional- a socializing spot for girls. The other art forms are in rudimentary stages of development without proper organized teaching. visit )
In Colombo, there were three distinct suburbs where Tamils lived. The Wellawatte, Cinnamon Garden (also known as Colombo 7) and Kotahena. These suburbs developed sub cultures of their own. They made small differences into established traits to distinguish each other. The Cinnamon Gardens 'crowd' considered that tracing their ancestry to Manipay and Vaddukoddai as something desirable, but at the same time displaying an ignorance of Tamil as a sort of sophistication. Owning ancestral property in remote Jaffna was a status symbol, but never had seen it and mentioning this in an offhand casual way was the done thing. These have all now changed. I may be even making an error in having prejudices against Colombo 7 folks.We were quite prone to this at that time, relying on tid bits of images picked up without validation.. But I am only reminiscing.continued >>> page down
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