Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Clothes Make a Man, But a Woman is Damned Whatever She Wears

So Smita Sabharwal, an accomplished IAS officer from Telangana, known for her “ethnic style” wore “a trendy trouser and frilly top at a fashion show” and grabbed eyeballs.

The story first appeared in a column titled Deep Throat in Outlook magazine recently and sparked a controversy because it made derogatory remarks against the lady. It said that she makes a "fashion statement with her lovely saris and serves as 'eye candy' at meetings." The caricature carried by the magazine is distastefully sexist and, quite rightfully, the IAS officer has slapped a legal notice on the magazine.
This is the caricature carried by Outlook 
The problem is not just that the column sought to insinuate that the lady held a position of favour with the Telangana chief minister, it also made crass remarks about her having worn perfectly acceptable attire to a fashion show – trousers and a top – which, the officer clarified in her legal notice, she attended with her husband and not in the capacity of a civil servant.

The episode serves to highlight the conundrum for many of us – what should we wear to suit the occasion? Working women who often have to juggle other responsibilities (such as raising kids and having a ‘real’ life, which could mean catching up with friends after a hectic work day) must spend a lot of time each morning deciding what to wear depending upon what their plan for the day is.

A linen kurti with jeans if you’re teaching in a college is acceptable, or a tee with the same blue jeans to go grocery shopping. But you surely can’t wear a tee with jeans to college because you’re a ‘teacher’ and have to set the right example!

You would be gawked at if you wore a western formal suit at a civic body meeting (aren’t journalists ‘supposed’ to dress fuddy-duddy?) and would perhaps be confronted with questions like, “What’s the special occasion?” if you wore a sari to work one day instead of the usual salwar-kurta. A linen skirt wouldn’t work at an evening party, or at a seminar. But a shirt with jeans or trousers would probably work for both.

Most often, the confusion exists because working women want to be seen as serious and professional in the workplace and so the way we dress becomes important. We can’t be seen as being provocatively dressed (sleeveless tops, a skirt shorter than ankle-length, or tight-fitted trousers would fall in this category) or dressed too well (the silk sari falls in this category). As long as we wear the kurti that covers our butts, a dupatta that covers the bosom and a salwar or trousers to hide our legs, we have a chance at being considered ‘decently dressed’.

In the case of Sabharwal, it seemed like a double-edged sword because the saris she wears to work and the trousers she wore to a fashion show, both became talking points for the magazine.

Sadly, hers is not an isolated case. In the recent past, Malayalam writer and secretary of the Kerala Book Marketing Society, Babu Kuzhimattom wrote a Facebook post saying that the leggings women wear are provocative and ‘arouse’ men.

It seems that the freedom to wear what we choose is a Utopian ideal confined to the Page 3 sections of newspapers and websites. In real life, a woman will probably get undue attention and unwarranted observations for wearing a swimsuit to a pool.

This post first appeared on 

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