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A school in Kerala has been forced to change the uniform for their students after a massive online row erupted, calling it “obscene”. A short blue jacket covering a checked tunic has caused this stir, forcing the school to issue overcoats. We know that civility is on the decline if a photographer would post an image on Facebook focusing on the chest of three school girls without their consent, though he blurred their faces. Even if it is for the purpose of drawing attention to the design, it invited a range of vulgar comments on Facebook, distressing students who were only following the dress code set by their institution.
This particular uniform is not indecent but the image most certainly is. In today’s fleeting social media scuffles, crude bawdiness is a way to ensure that the online skirmishes one creates have a longer shelf life. The victims, it is to be hoped, will recover from the ordeal of having an unflattering image floating around forever, in cyberspace. The Parent-Teacher Association president of the school has been quoted in The Indian Express as saying, “Obscenity is in the eyes of the beholder”. Ours is an age of few agreed-upon ethics.
And in our fragmented culture right now, there are fluctuating opinions on what constitutes decorum and vulgarity. It explains why so many people were horrified that Priyanka Chopra had the temerity to wear a dress that showed her knees while meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One comment on Twitter rued her lack of common sense: “You may be a big international star but I pity you because you don’t understand respect.”
This outrage at a skirt is all the more peculiar since girls in India, whether in an government-run or a private school, spend their school going years in one. Fashion is a modern political force and judging by the response to Chopra’s attire, the unwritten rules of etiquette in India suggest that that’s perfectly acceptable but a female actor be much more demure while meeting Indian men of stature.
However, this expectation, that Chopra should be breathlessly evaluating her sartorial choices for the supreme moment of her life — meeting the Indian PM — doesn’t take into account that she’s a busy girl with many bigger things happening for her. A less successful actor, perhaps, may have shown up in a sari but Chopra’s sensibilities have evolved beyond these provincial ideas of propriety. She herself has enough star capital to disregard unimportant matters like the length of her hem.
It’s not news that powerful women everywhere are judged, and often pronounced guilty, only because of their attire. International media gleefully dissects politicians’ outfits and stars’ red-carpet looks. As this Kerala incident suggests even school-going teenagers are not spared this scrutiny, or opinions of what they should wear, or look like. It is, perhaps, encouraging that many schools in Delhi have of late, like the Army, introduced gender-neutral uniforms: shorts in summer and pants in winter. When girls and boys are wearing exactly the same clothes, something will eventually change to end this deeply unnerving focus on women’s appearance.