Edited by: Maya M. Haidar
Clothing: an all-pervasive manifestation of crucial discourses of modesty, fashion, class, gender and identity, to name just a few markers of our selves. Can what we wear serve as a way to break free from societal norms? Can it also be used as a tool to perpetuate rigid categorisations in society? How do we begin to think about these social bodies that lie in our wardrobes?
In India, historical depictions of women and men in paintings and sculptures, like the black and white images of the Mauryan and Sunga (around 300 BCE) and Gupta periods (7th to 8th century), show both women and men wearing unstitched pieces of cloth. Apart from certain instances of women wearing blouses (in many parts of the country, women were bare chested), there were no clear demarcations between clothing for men and women during the Mauryan and Gupta eras. With an increasing confluence of interactions with people from different cultures—Arab, Chinese, Greek—ideas of fashion in the subcontinent changed. Indians started to wear stitched garments, and later adopted the salwaar kameez, under Mughal rule. By the 19th century, the influence of Victorian styles led to the adoption of blouses. These changes gradually introduced a different and rigiddly demarcated style of wearing garments for men and women.
The story proceeds until just after Independence, which saw the proliferation of Western clothing. While initially, Western clothing also had clear demarcations between male and female attire, women, over the years, began to step into men’s clothing. They broke boundaries by sporting pants, shorts, formal jackets, blazers and ties. Today, even though in many parts of the country women are still restricted from wearing non-traditional clothes and their attire heavily policed by family norms and propriety, it is a fairly common sight to see girls and women (especially the youth) in clothing that cuts across gendered categories.
Speaking from my experience of growing up in an urban setting, in contemporary society, a sense of being independent and well dressed is oftentimes synonymous with “male clothing”—as problematic as such a term may be, it continues to function as a category. Sporting formal pants, trousers, or blazers is considered to be a mark of an independent and successful woman; a woman who has risen beyond the rigidity of traditional clothes imposed on her by society. It is also considered a compliment to be called a “tom-boy,” which happens usually when girls wear shorts, American superhero t-shirts, and pants. Both instances highlight the erroneous conflation of clothing with one’s social identity. Does wearing pants and a formal jacket mark the success of a woman? Would wearing a salwaar kameez or a skirt downplay her identity as an independent woman? Similarly, a girl may well be equally athletic and sporty while wearing a salwar kameez or skirt, but I highly doubt if she would earn the title of a “tom-boy.”
It is because of this perception of so-called “male clothing” as being masculine and portraying independence, and no such overtly positive commendation for “female clothing”, that there are hardly any men who have the freedom to dress in socially declared female attire like sarees, salwar kameez, and skirts. This is also the very reason some people from the LGBTQ community are demeaned when they express the desire to break gendered norms of clothing and choose more gender-fluid and gender-neutral clothing. Do we look at food, books, or mobile phones and divide them into male and female categories? Then why do we do it for clothes?
When I speak to families about situations wherein males wear sarees, all I get is bouts of laughter from them. The idea is beyond absurd in their minds. Why is it so? Why is it so hard for our society to fathom a scenario of gender-neutral clothing? Each one of us has internalised the norms of gender-demarcated clothing. Our every interaction carries the weight of socially defined gender norms. Nonetheless, as conditioned as we all are to follow the path well-tread on, don’t we all desire some form of freedom—freedom in something as simple as choosing to wear what we wish to?
We all delve into our utopian worlds, drifting off into alternative realities. My utopian world is of gender-neutral clothing: a world free of gender binaries and barriers, where people are free to choose and define their own sartorial choices. Clothing in this world is inclusive of all gender and sexual identities, be they male, female, queer, or transgender. There exist no terms like “gender appropriate” clothing. There are people who identify as biologically male who dress in gowns and sarees. In weddings, the bride and the bridegroom are dressed alike. In clothing shops, there are no segregated spaces for male and female clothes and there is fluidity in clothing. In schools, uniforms are no longer assigned to people according to their biological sex and the decision lies with the child to choose what they are comfortable in. Within families, babies are dressed in gender neutral ways because there is no separate marketing or manufacturing of clothes exclusively for boys or for girls. There are no restrictions within the family to conform to gender appropriate norms of dressing up. Sarees, gowns and skirts are as “male” as they are “female”, and dhotis and waistcoats are no less female than they are male. Transgender and queer people are visible in public spaces, respected for who they are and their choices. It is a world where people can buy and wear clothes independent of their sexual characteristics.
I believe this is a perfectly achievable reality, but one that would require change at various levels of society, starting in the deep matrix of our ideologies. We can begin small by changing the way we police or structure clothing patterns in the family, by letting children decide their attire, by voicing concerns in school about segregated uniforms and finally, by not ascribing clothing to any sexual or gender identity.
So, boys in sarees? Oh, a definite yes!