How You Dress : Important Or Not?

Posted: October 23, 2014

Do you judge people by the way they dress? Don’t judge so quickly; larger stereotypes are at play when it comes to dressing up or dressing down, says this post.

Recently, I had a strange experience. Passing by a building, a girl in a burkha waved wildly at me. For  a moment, I was blank, and then proceeded to wave back rather doubtfully, wondering whether if  it was me that she was waving at or someone else. After a while, I realized that in all this confusion, I did not even know who she was! I am somewhat of an obsessive organizer of thoughts — I get a little worried and upset if I do not know whom I have spoken to…or in this case, waved at— so, I got thinking. Did she not realise that I would not recognise her? Or was she so comfortable  in her garb that she forgot that her face was covered?

This incident got me thinking – do we all think according to the way we dress? Seemed like a weird thing to ponder upon initially, but as I thought more, the more evidence I got that it may be true.

As stereotypes go, from the time I was in school, dressing differentiated the good from the bad girls. Girls who had long hair, slathered with coconut oil, bound into two tight braids, with the uniform ribbon, their skirts hanging a minimum of four inches below their knees, and a bindi were the clan of ‘good’ girls. They were teachers’ pets and were often cited as examples of good “indian culture” to the other  non-conforming set (which  usually included girls with short hair, shorter skirts, and a propensity to make friends who were boys).

Most of us wanted to conform so badly, that we dressed down and behaved in ways which did not make us comfortable at all

Most of us wanted to conform so badly, that we dressed down and behaved in ways which did not make us comfortable at all—all because we wanted to be a part of the approved set. Over a period of time, surprise surprise…some of the girls also started thinking and behaving in stereotypical ways and frowning down upon the other set (not that others  minded in any way!).

After growing up in a small town where dressing was all about covering up as many of your flaws as possible, moving to a big city for my higher education was something of a major shock! There, dressing was all about celebration. Dressing was all about attitude. Flaws (apparent ones… I am one firm believer of the fact that we look best as we were made) were accepted and not given much importance. It was really an eye-opener.

Our dowdy dressing which was held in high esteem back home was now looked at with raised eyebrows, silent laughter, and polite advice about where the best boutiques were. There, I realised that I lacked the confidence to face the world according to my way of thinking. I was defined by what others thought of me. But my friends were fun, confident, and had clear views of what they wanted. Was it because of the way they dressed up and me down? Or vice versa?

Nowadays, we see corporate dressing as power dressing. Pencil skirts, high heels, and a confident stance. These seem to go hand in hand. I am sure not all of the girls who start working in the corporate sector are used to dressing that way. So, why that way of dressing? Is it because it increases their confidence of working, or is it to fit in?

Most Indian soaps show good, docile Indian women as dressed to their nines in grand gaudy sarees dutifully covering their heads, complete with sindoor and loads of jewellery. And the vamps are usually the ones dressed up in so-called “western wear”, with loud make up! So much so, that my three-year old can recognise who is the villain of the piece based on her clothing!

Dressing is personal. I feel that dressing symbolises the way you think, and your attitude to life.

Dressing is personal. I feel that dressing symbolises the way you think, and your attitude to life. Beyond this, it is also an instinct. There are some of us who effortlessly manage to look or dress great anytime, and a few who struggle to get the same effect everytime.

Instead of stereotyping, I think what would matter the most is to not create lasting impressions of people on the basis of their dressing and your mental stereotypes. Because, personally I have met people wearing shorts and tank tops, who are extremely religious and also superstitious; and some who wear salwar kameez but are super promiscuous (belying their modest clothing).

How comfortable you feel in the dress that you have chosen, is how comfortable you should be. Because, unless you are in your comfort zone, work or pleasure cannot be enjoyed to the fullest.

So, here is to all the girls (and boys) who choose to feel comfortable in their skin and clothes, caring two hoots about a judging world! Girl in the burkha, I promise to wave back more enthusiastically next time!

Pic credit: Image of woman deciding what to wear via Shutterstock

I am a psychiatrist by profession, a mother twice over by choice, and a dreamer.

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  1. Deepa Damodaran -

    Hi Preethi, your writing took to my school and college days. In school, I used to have two plaits which were nicely oiled. I was soo used to them, that for any functions, I used to have my hair plaited. Then I got a name called as ” Amul dabba”… was put by my cousins. It was for fun and I used to take it in the same sense. Then came my college days. I studied in MCC, Bangalore. Before entering the college, my relatives and friends adviced me to join another college as I was not MCC types. But I proved them all wrong. The initial years were a struggle….but I had a Statistics teacher who once said to the whole class ” No matter what we wear, always have a confidence and attitude”. Her words ring my ears even today. I took that sentence rather seriously. I started following it. My college days passed with flying colors. Then came my working days in IBM BPO…..there also I made it a point that attitude and confidence matters. I had a good time. Then came my days after marriage. Now, staying in USA with my family, here,the way of dressing is so different. I had to meet many of his colleagues who were Americans. Believe me, dressing need not be taken as an issue if one is confident, pleasing and have a right attitude. I could very easily relate myself with you Preethi, thank you.

    • preethi shanbhag -

      Hi Deepa, nice to hear from you. What you say is right. The point is that we need to inculcate the right attitude from the the start. There are many who shy away from taking the center stage just because they are not “hep” enough! Hope they realize that whats inside of them is what matters!

  2. Hi Preethi, your article took me back the memory lane- I apoligize, if my writing cross the line and becomes ranting. I would like to think I have had my fair share in dressing up or dressing down struggles. To have grown up
    in a city and being on of those liberals who celebrates what they wear,
    struggles of having a boyish body of not having the Indian version of being attractive by having heavy boobs or butts and moving to a small town. All I ever wore in the small town was salwar and that felt very suppressed to my identity. To be honest, I don’t think I made any friends from my 2 year of stay in the small
    town. I came across as a overly confident girl, who did not wear bindi or had
    long hair or talk to guys without looking at their toes, but scored good grades
    and spoke better English than even most teachers at school. My classmates hated
    me, treated me as the other, nobody wanted to be my friend, because I didn’t
    belong there.
    My trouble with dressing doesn’t stop there- I couldn’t take this after 2 years of not making friends and not being able to connect, I decided I have to move back to the city for higher education as I saw no purpose of myself sticking with the people who thought I was very different. Being in a city didn’t change much. Now it was all about finding the right clothing for my identity. Sadly, I do not belong to
    the average Indian women body size and finding the clothes I wanted, was a
    struggle. I had the freedom in the city- I could wear jeans, salwar or a dress
    anywhere, but here is the kicker I never found any clothing store to have my
    size of clothing in the city. I had to get everything altered as I was extremely
    slim. When you buy a clothing and have to change the perspective that
    everything that you buy is to be altered is a bit overwhelming.
    I was extremley happy to have found a happy zone in dressing sense only after I moved to US. I couldn’t believe I can find the entire section and even a store just for size 0 or even size 00. With all my struggles, I believe that one chooses to dress up or down with many things in regard- where they live, the purpose of the attire and does it make you comfortable with a hint of your identity. That is all that
    has mattered to me, not the glaring looks that I don’t wear bindi or surprised
    look that ethnic Indian wear or how polished the cute brown girl looks.
    Dressing up or dressing down it’s a part of your identity that you choose to
    let other people see you in.
    For example women who go to gym in US wear a sports bra and leggings to work out, I wouldn’t see that happening in India any time soon, a modern Indian women would be wear gym clothes. This makes me think its because she knows how she will be perceived and will become the eye candy of the gym when she is working out with men in the gym. Lets consider the example that to you have given as the power women who are in pencil skirts and high heels- that is because these women want to be taken seriously by the people who they may have been working with, these women will be dealing with American or English people. As, American and English people do wear pencil skirts and can associate with that, maybe not so much with her accent or her experience or her thinking style- dressing is the one thing that the women can make herself ease into the rest of the corporate world, that she has chosen tot identify with. That same very girl in high heels and pencil
    skirt might be wearing the holy thread around her hand or neck. Why should a girl in pencil skirt be critcized for trying to fit in?
    Truly dressing up or down is in people’s mind, who see you as to where you might belong- I believe in dressing for oneself.

    • preethi shanbhag -

      Hi sanjana, I truly agree with you. But there are a lot of people out there who still have illogical biases in their mind. Kudos to you for having stood up to who you are despite disapproving stares! May your breed grow.

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