Why Is It So Darn Hard To Let Women Dress The Way They Want To?

I’m all for practical, occasion appropriate dressing, at times for one's safety as well, but the freedom to attire ourselves in the clothing of our choice should be a given.

I’m all for practical, occasion appropriate dressing, at times for one’s safety as well, but the freedom to attire ourselves in the clothing of our choice should be a given.

Were you ever told as a young girl to wear a tight chemise so that your budding breasts woudn’t jiggle like jello? (What an unbecoming sight!)

Were you cautioned as a teen to avoid sleeveless tops so that your hairy armpits could be covered up like a top secret WMD? (Hair-moinee. Tsk tsk.)

Were you instructed as a young lady to cover your legs so that it wouldn’t send random people (you’ve never met or are lucky enough never to meet) a wrong message about your upbringing? (Haw! Abominable.)

If you’ve nodded your head even once, chances are that you’ve bumped into or lived with the ‘Sanskari Nari Vastra’ Police. They come in all shapes, sizes and ages. From doting grandmothers to potbellied, nosy neighbourhood uncles to rank strangers, everyone has advice or admonishment when it comes to how girls, women, even grandmothers should be attired.

Oh, you assumed geriatrics are spared? Not a chance. My grandmother and her sister decided to rid themselves of their lifelong bondage from bras in their 70s, yet some jobless relatives helpfully pointed out that their wayward mammaries were swinging with gay abandom in everyone’s faces, much like Mowgli and his friends and it was unbecoming, especially with children at home! So they should strap up, which they did. Ridiculous? You bet.

The can and can’t of what to wear

Besides young children and their parents who are irresistible magnets for unsolicited labelling and advice, women across age groups are inherently conditioned to interacting with the self appointed jury of the Runway Project. Each one dipped and glazed in buckets and decades of conditioning that dictates that what women wear shapes society and is hence everyone’s business.

Of course I’m all for practical, occasion appropriate dressing, at times for one’s safety as well, but the freedom to attire ourselves in the clothing of our choice seems to be a right given liberally to opinion mongers who decide for us, rather than the ones donning the clothes.

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From being asked to “not wear shorts or short hair since you’re a girl” to the eternal gender appropriation w.r.t to colours, from being told to wear super tight bras (to reign in the ladies and curb lusty and roaming eyes) to being labelled an unsexy auntie if you choose to wear loose and comfortable clothing, you’re dead between the do and don’t.

Widows must dress as if they are in constant mourning while the widowers can wear florescent cycling shorts on their morning walks and start ‘living their lives’ again. Workout clothes shouldn’t be too tight, (god help if people realise that boobs bounce along with us!) women athletes must have their derrieres hanging out for all to see while they sweat and try and give their best, but then in other sports, expressing your personal style is frowned upon and penalised. A confused conundrum of double standards and baseless, rampant censure.

Dressing for ‘respect’

I read some hilarious clickbait article which spoke about what would be absolute fashion disasters for women above 40. Never wear short skirts (you tramp)! Never show cleavage (still a tramp)! Don’t wear loud colours or make up! (Do you think you’re a pantone shade card?)

Yikes! It’s as if the day you turn 40, you’re heading for vanvaas and if you want to avoid samajik bahishkar (ostracization), you must tone down everything.

This mindset is so strange. Doesn’t fashion stand on the basic tenets of personal style, comfort and expression? How does bracketing women into age brackets and curtailing their natural selves help anyone?

I’ve seen my mother and aunts sweating under the burden of daily chores wearing heavy saris instead of the simple, practical salwar kameez, only because of the ‘bade buzurg’ (respected elderly) diktat. I’ve seen women wading into the sea packing water into their track pants and full sleeves under the watchful eyes of their family members. I’ve seen others struggling with pallus and burkas alike, trying to seek either empowerment or emancipation, laden with the weight of familial, religious and societal expectations. Life is hard and here we are, splitting hair over threads, fabric, and mere packaging, when what matters is the wonder on the inside.

Dress diktats, but are we safer?

It isn’t as if women, across decades, from all walks of life haven’t rebelled. I’ve particularly enjoyed following the various bra burning, knicker sending movements, pink, blue or otherwise, taking cudgels against the utter stupidity of social diktats.

This road has been riddled with trauma, critique, derision and heartache, yet they soldier on. Enough powers that be have waded into the action, laying the ground rules on what is acceptable in schools, colleges, offices, on the streets even.

What’s ironical is that if all this fashion policing had made us safer, hell, I’d cover up my arms in an instant, just for that privilege for my friends, loved ones and women at large. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and till we come upon a time when the world has changed enough to making the writing of this article redundant, I’m happy to be the outlier, denying people the pleasure of running my life or my wardrobe and using my laughter to cancel their entitlement and righteousness. Join in, and let’s have some fun!

Image source: a still from the film Cocktail

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About the Author

Richa S Mukherjee

Richa is a Ted X speaker, an award-winning writer, columnist, ex-journalist and advertising professional. She has authored four books of which three are being adapted for screen. She is a blogger and travel read more...

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