Last week I was unceremoniously evicted from the bar of one of Delhi’s last remaining bastions of old gentility. Unaware of the rule that jeans are permitted but torn ones are not, I was guilty of showing up in a pair of (brand new) fashionably ripped denims. This prestigious private club, known for its buzzing Thursday nights, where several generations intermingle over live music and subsidised alcohol, traces its history — and dress code — to when India was part of the British empire.
A stern but polite gentleman escorted me to the garden where I was banished for the evening, along with a few others who’d committed a similar faux pas. I wish I could claim to be enough of a rebel to find this humiliating kick onto the curb anything other than mortifying, even though my hosts found it hilarious (I daren’t mention this club by its proper noun for the fear they might never let me in again). According to their website, guests must adhere to their high tradition of decorum and etiquette. Fair enough, they don’t want guests dressed for a bacchanal. It would be an affront to this institution, whose mystique still relies on the delicate foundations of old world charm and propriety.
There’s nothing that dresses a room like a well turned-out crowd and proprietors know that creating the right atmosphere is crucial for night life. We don’t need a dress code to know showing up in shorts and flip flops for fine dining (unless you’re in Goa) is inappropriate. However, it’s been a long time since the hospitality industry dropped the norm of “jacket required”. We live in a world where Lady Gaga shows up at the MTV Video Music Awards in a dress made of raw beef and it’s named by Time magazine as the top fashion statement of 2010. Tattoos have become so mainstream even in India that studios have sprung up in south Delhi malls adjacent to shops like Home Store. Nobody takes a second glance when men sport earrings. The brand Ed Hardy sells rhinestone encrusted t-shirts with large motifs of skulls and dragons for Rs 6,000 each. Every Bollywood diva, from Priyanka Chopra to Kareena Kapoor, has been photographed at the fanciest of events in distressed denims, the raggedness itself signifying effortless style. Fashion standards are relaxed and personal, largely because of icons like the late Steve Jobs, who relentlessly sported the same clothes wherever he went: jeans, sneakers and a black turtleneck.
To state the obvious, times have changed. In this scenario it seems absurd that widespread, contemporary styles are determinedly unacknowledged just to hang on to a nostalgic past. In a way, clubs and the retirees who decide the code of conduct, reflect India as a whole. Instead of addressing why it takes twenty minutes to get a drink or why the kebabs run out at 9.30 pm, the effort is reserved for symbolic and meaningless trivialities. Of course, one must honour the rules but as far as dressing goes, proper attire is whatever fits your