From social identity to popular culture

From social identity to popular culture
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Dress also plays an important role in uniformed services such as the police and the military. Dress regulations are so strict in the armed forces that the entire regime is reduced to a perfect system.

Dress also plays an important role in uniformed services such as the police and the military. Dress regulations are so strict in the armed forces that the entire regime is reduced to a perfect system. Different dresses are prescribed for different parts of the year, and for different events, all represented in terms of numbers. For instance, 5SD stands for the peach coloured shirt, black tie and olive green blazer along with a beret or a peak cap to be worn by officers in the winters. All ranks wear the popular Olive Greens (OGs), standard uniform in all peace areas. Likewise, Code 6 represents the mess dress for the Indian Army.

While on the subject of the armed forces, one must make a mention of the colourful dresses worn, and the magically melodious music made, by the 'bagpipers' at the 'Beating the Retreat' ceremony during the Republic Day celebrations every year at Delhi; originally from Ireland and Scotland, where they are known as Pipers, they wear skirts and perform with amazing precision and striking coordination.

On somewhat similar lines, officers of the Indian Administrative Service are also covered by dress regulations. Officer Trainees (OTs), while at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, have a code for dining in the mess. Their classroom dress is full sleeved shirts and trousers, with neckties in the summers and full sleeved shirts, jackets and trousers, with neckties in the winters. Leather shoes are also mandatory. Lady OTs are required to wear a sarees or a salvar kameez or churidaar kurta or western business suits, with formal shoes and sandals. Some states also prescribe dress codes in their Secretariats. For example, all officers working in the Karnataka government Secretariat at Bangalore wear a blue shirt and navy blue trousers.

Wearing fancy dresses is one of the most exciting experiences for children. They love to dress as, and resemble, their favourite animal, fruit or a cartoon character. All schools host fancy dress competitions once in a while to amuse the kids. I recollect with great amusement my participation as a school student in a fancy dress competition in a Boy Scouts entertainment programme at Chennai. Although I had stood first, I was only given a small soapbox, while a good friend, who had stood second, got an attractive leather purse. I remember telling my mother that, had I known that, I would have preferred to be the second prize winner!

'Sunday best' is the expression for the best clothes possessed by a person, worn on special occasions, such as attending a Church on Sundays, marriages etc. When we contrast that with the requirement in Hindu temples in India, particularly in the southern states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which requires male devotees to shed their shirts and vests and wear only a lungi or a dhoti before they enter the temple, one can see how dress habits vary sharply from region to region, culture to culture and religion to religion.

The mid-20th century, saw the emergence of fashion as a concept. The power of institutions to dictate who could wear what and why became diluted. The locus of authority establishing norms of dress also began to shift. Dressing was, therefore, no longer driven by circumstantial factors determined by special interests and a dramatic shift took place in the way that clothing was both conceptualised and used. Social norms about dress began to relax somewhat, and historians note a trend towards self-determination in this important form of self-identity and self-representation.

And, today, clothing has evolved from a purely functional personal item to one of great creative significance, means of conveying the nuances of one's identity. Dressing sense is a quality that the reflects person's personality as also the occasion for dresses are proudly divided into casual wear, formal wear, comfort wear and traditional wear.

Unlike in many other countries, the traditional Indian dresses do not appear to be in any danger of being subsumed by westernisation. However, the Indian palate has welcomed Western (and Eastern) cuisine. Pizzas, burgers, ice-cream, and noodles are commonplace in Indian cities and towns.

On the lighter side, it would be interesting to recall, in this context, that, traditionally, Hawaiian women used to wear grass skirt made of is leaves until the beginning of the 20th century. Till today hula performers there and also in the US mainland continue that tradition.

Today, there are many materials with which clothes are made. A person can choose from purchasing clothes made from natural origin materials, like silk, wool, and leather, but may also select one for the man-made fibers extensively used in clothes manufacturing, like nylon, polyester, Lycra and Gore-Tex as also organic materials such as bananas and mulberry fibers. With the recent technological developments, there is a great speculation about the direction future clothing will take; in fact the clothing electronics industry has just started.

Several steps lie, between the production of cotton or silk in the field and turning the raw material into a garment in the market. Cotton is first ginned, then spun into yarn, either manually or in a factory. It is then used by a textile mill, or a power/hand-loom weaver, for conversion into cloth, which then goes into the hands of the tailor or a machine to be converted into a garment of the desired shape colour etc. Similarly silk worms are grown in fields and the yarn they give out is spun into cloth which is then converted into the desired dress. The fineness of cotton or silk yarn is measured by what is known as the 'count'.

I remember an interesting incident in this context. For a very short while, cotton yarn production in the country had been nationalised by the Government of India. Yarn produced by private and public spinning mills and, therefore, to be allotted by the state government to master weavers, weavers is textile mills for production of cloth I was the Additional Director of Handlooms and Textiles Department in the state of Andhra Pradesh in 1975 and handling that responsibility.

The Secretary of the Commerce Ministry in the Government of India had called for a meeting to discuss the modalities of implementation of the newly introduced regime I accompanied V K Rao, (Advisor to the state government at that time, as there was President's rule in force), Malakondaiah, the Director of my department, to attend that meeting. In a briefing session before going to Delhi VK Rao innocently asked a question, 'what, precisely is this thing called count'? Everyone present drew a blank including Malakondaiah. Luckily, I happened to have done my homework for the meeting and knew that count represented the length of cotton in units that would go into one unit weight. The finer the count the longer the yarn that would go into the unit weight. And that saved the day for all of us!

The knights in armour of medieval England went to battle covered in metal armoury from head to foot. But wrestlers even till today carry on practically undressed. Which reminds one of Deborah Kerr, upon seeing the king (played by Yul Brynner) to her son in the yesteryear movie 'The King and I,' 'Not quite naked but half naked'.

One can hardly leave the subject of clothing without making a reference to Mahatma Gandhi and his legendary "Charkha". The spinning wheel represented everything that Gandhi stood for such as self – reliance, perseverance and determination. While it had its significance from the ancient times it was during the Swadeshi movement initiated by Mahatma Gandhi that it assumed special significance. Colonialism manifested itself in many forms, one of the most exploitative of which was the shipping of raw cotton from India to England and finished material coming back to be sold at exorbitant prices in our country. The farmers as well as the consumer's commerce suffered huge losses consequently. Gandhi, therefore, encouraged Indians to spin their own cloth and the Charkha became a symbol of self-sufficiency and freedom, so much so that the Indian tricolour originally had the spinning wheel etched in the middle although it was subsequently replaced by the Ashoka Chakra. Though the Indian spinning industry has come a long way since then, the Charkha remains a mark of faith and sacrifice in every patriotic Indian's heart.

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh) (The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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