When she was in school, Noida-based online content creator Swati Sen (name changed) was horrified when a teacher lifted her skirt to check if she was wearing shorts underneath. “The same teacher used to also grab our shirts to see if we wore a slip inside. It was humiliating,” recalled the 23-year-old, adding that one day, she was even chastised for wearing a skirt — part of her school uniform — which was “too short”. “The same teacher — she taught us Mathematics — took me aside and said curtly: ‘Your skirt has become old, your thighs are visible. You are growing up now; ask your parents to buy you a new one which runs at least till the knees’. The 14-year-old me was disconcerted by this experience.”
Over the years, even though Sen stopped paying attention to what people thought about what she wore, another irksome experience had her fuming, so much so that she walked out mid-internship, when the HR of an organisation told her that the tank top she wore to work one day was “not decent”. “She actually said: ‘Yeh mat peheno’, suggesting that I change it right there and then. By then, I had had it,” she shared with indianexpress.com.
That some Indian institutions enjoy schooling people is not unknown. It becomes problematic and dangerous, to some extent, when a diktat on clothing gives someone the leeway to make personal comments on a person, question and judge them, and also create an environment that may make them feel throttled.
Recently, the Maharashtra government has banned T-shirts, jeans and slippers for employees. According to an order issued by the general administration department on December 8, workers are to refrain from wearing clothes with “deep colours and strange embroidery patterns or pictures”. While women ought to wear sari, salwar, churidar-kurta or trousers with a kurta or a shirt, and a dupatta if required, men must wear trousers and shirts. Additionally, employees have been advised to wear khadi once a week.
Instead of slippers, women have been directed to wear chappals, sandals or shoes, while men are expected to put on shoes or sandals.
What kind of regression is this @OfficeofUT ji? Next time I come to Mantralaya I will come in a #Skirt.
Most of govt staff have a simple dressing style, they really don’t need policing. #RejectDressCode https://t.co/wxmLVRhiuG
— Preeti Sharma Menon (@PreetiSMenon) December 12, 2020
Interestingly, this has not been the first time that a state government has mandated a dress code. Earlier this year, a circular was issued by the Madhya Pradesh government instructed employees in the Gwalior division to stop wearing faded jeans and t-shirts in office, and instead wear “dignified, decent and formal attire”. Likewise, in 2019, a similar order was reportedly issued by the Bihar government, which banned wearing jeans and t-shirts in the state secretariat, regardless of the employees’ ranks. They were asked to wear “simple, sombre and light-coloured attire” to work.
In 2018, the then Rajasthan government had asked students to wear only salwar kameez or sarees to college. The rule, however, was revoked after protests.
To understand the experiences of people who have been called out and made an example out of, for violating some kind of ‘dress code’, indianexpress.com reached out to adults who shared details of their hurt and humiliation, and the futility of it all.
Twenty-eight year-old Ria Ghosh from Chennai — a teacher by profession, who finds herself comfortably working from home in pajamas and tee shirts these days — shared that she had once walked out of an interview, having found the mindset of the school principal “appalling”. “I had appeared for an interview at an ICSE school in the city, some time in December 2019. I was dressed in western formals and when I asked them if they had any dress code, they said teachers are expected to wear Indian formals only, since the students are used to seeing them as such,” she said.
Ghosh countered this with a question. “I asked them if they expected their students to stand out, or be a part of the crowd. The principal, a man in his early 50s, had a confused look. He began to squirm and finally said while students have to stand out always, teachers should wear Indian attire only, and follow Indian culture. I walked out, letting him know I was just not interested in becoming a part of something so crazy.”
Till now I heard that for school there is a dress code, now the employees also has a dress code.
Instead of bringing these type of order, bring some serious law/order.
I hope Gujarat or Central Government doesn’t applies this order…#DressCode#Needs_to_change pic.twitter.com/SUNZXXYoNO
— Rutwik (@rutwik_mervana) December 13, 2020
Bengaluru-based freelance editor Shiby Varghese calls it a product of patriarchy. Varghese said that when she was studying in a Catholic college, in the first year, they started a rule which said female students were not allowed to wear sleeveless tops or shorts. “Basically, no showing of legs. One day, I was walking to class with a friend who was in capri pants. She was stopped by the Dean of science, a woman, who told her to change her clothes. She obviously did not have spare ones, so had to leave college, buy new pants, change, and then return!”
The incident created quite a stir in her college, and many students protested. “But nothing came of it. Later security guards were instructed to turn away female students if they wore anything ‘revealing’. We were also told to wear white and skin-coloured bras only, lest we ‘enticed boys’,” she shared.
— Jingurr (@jingurrji) December 13, 2020
In Varghese’s college, her friend’s sister had faced a harrowing episode, too. “She was on her way to have a word with the principal, a Catholic priest. He refused to meet with her because she was — in his words — wearing ‘a tight shirt and jeans’. She came to me crying and asked if we could swap clothes just so she could meet him!”
While across the country, it is understood that it is generally women who are subjected to such biases, men are not immune to these kinds of unpleasant experiences either.
A Pune-based corporate employee shared with indianexpress.com on the condition of anonymity that when he was pursuing his engineering degree at a college just outside of Coimbatore city, he was pulled up on numerous occasions “for wearing jeans and not buttoning the cuffs” of his shirts. “It was funny because I could wear sports shoes with formals, but rolling up my sleeves and wearing jeans was a problem,” he said.
There was a dress code for his hostel, too. “We could not leave wearing shorts. Even if I wanted to go to the cafeteria, I had to wear track-pants or jeans. Girls were only allowed to wear salwar-kurtas with dupatta; leggings were not allowed either. They argued we are all here to study, and so they were disciplining us for the ‘corporate culture’. I agree that corporate organisations have a dress code, but it is not this strict.”
Currently in the US, Priya (name changed), who did her bachelor’s in history and political science from a prominent university in Bengaluru, says unless the institutional mentality changes, no real change will happen. “The university I studied in, is infamous for its strict dress code. I was not aware of it at the time of interview. I found it strange that during orientation, there was a whole segment on what men and women are allowed to wear. For us, they had kurta-pajama with dupatta, and for men, they wanted them to be dressed in formals — no uniform, but a dress code,” she laughed.
New heteronormative nonsense in govt offices in Maharashtra. What about people who don’t want to adhere to this ridiculous code because of their chosen gender expression? https://t.co/u8omTHODTX #Maharashtra #dresscode #govtoffices #women #righttochoose
— Paroma Mukherjee (@ParomaMukherjee) December 13, 2020
Priya said once a week, they were also expected to wear a proper suit — coat, shirt, pants, shoes and a tie. “I dreaded those days, because I did not like the attire — it was badly stitched.”
Some incidents are still fresh in her memory. “I would often get ticked off, because I was a student who asked questions when the administration wanted us to be quiet. I got reprimanded for it. The Dean of my department wanted to make an example out of me. One day, as I stepped out of the auditorium, the Dean and the academic coordinator pointed to my shoes and asked me why they were ‘torn’. They were Vans and I told them they are supposed to look like this. They snapped and told me I was psychotic and that I needed help!”
She further said that once when she was in the lift, two professors walked in and noticed she did not have a dupatta on her — which was not mandatory. “They began whispering right then how some girls are not aware of how their body looks — referring to my breasts — and that it is disgraceful. They also said I had a ‘loose character’. I heard it all.”