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On Matters Sartorial

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

One of my childhood memories is of me and my two brothers walking to the school dressed in the sartorial splendour of what was called a bush shirt, all made of a material called linen, bottle green in colour. We never thought it was an incongruous choice of costume!

This came about since my father was a great believer in the economy of scale through wholesale purchase, and that particular summer, the local Seematti shop had a huge stock of green linen. I remember Chakrapani, the tailor, rambling deliriously with admiration for the material, to the great happiness of my father.

Green and pink linen bush shirts were exceptions rather than the rule since the school frowned upon any colour stronger than grey. Half trousers and later mundu with half shirt was the standard attire. which also reined in possibilities. School and later college saw the continuation of these subdued expressions of different shades of white and gray.

White remained the preference even when I got a teaching job at the Athanasius college in Kothamangalam, with the difference that I could afford better clothes without feeling guilty. The pants that many of my colleagues wore were an allurement, but I was too much of a native at heart to be lured by western garments.

My first encounter with a suit saw me as a loser, as it would happen in most of my future sartorial adventures. While teaching at Kothamangalam, I was called for an interview in distant Delhi, a CSIR interview for a research scholarship. This was to be in December, and the Delhi winters were known to my father to be severe. Ever a practical man, he decided to have a woollen suit stitched for me, in deference to the weather and the occasion. Knowing that I would have objected because of the cost, he decided to get this done without consulting me. The tailor was shown a person of my approximate build and was told to dress him up. The shops in Trivandrum, not known for the winter collection, yielded coarse grey wool. When I landed in Trivandrum, ready for the journey north, I was handed down the apparel, which, considering the circumstances of its birth, fitted me reasonably well.

Later, when I reached Aligarh to start my Ph. D work, my friends sternly told me that the pants I got stitched in Trivandrum had a 1930’s look. They insisted on a complete outfit change, despite the fact that this was going to be an expensive affair. Considering their appreciation of my selections, I decided not to tell them I was the proud possessor of a suit. This led to another splurging for the winter suit. The Trivandrum suit remained with me for a long time, never worn, until my wife decided to exchange it for an aluminium utensil, much to my grief.

Seeking freedom from whites and greys made me go through a phase of rash experimentation, which ended only with my marriage. The shocked expression on the face of my would-be wife when she met me for the first time at the airport when the flight from Delhi reached Cochin (I was wearing a creation in mustard yellow) made me realize that my experiments with primary colours were over. She continued to be in shock until we met again in the traditional custom of selecting the bridal sari- manthrakodi- at Seematti shop, with me in the traditional white of the Syrian Christian bridegroom. Much against the desire expressed in various quarters that I should present myself in a suit at the wedding, I chose to wear the traditional white.

The liberalization of the late nineties brought new temptations to the market: ready-made shirts and trousers. Raymond was one of the pioneers in promoting apparel retail in India. After liberalization of the nineties, textile manufacturers began set up retail chains before any other sector. Raymond, selling readymades over the counter really took off then. Raymond’s stores led to its instant brand recall to this day. The relationship started in Ahmedabad and has followed me to Kottayam, which has an excellent Raymonds showroom.

With family and children, the focus shifted to children and how to dress them up in modern styles. Then, with my moving to Ahmedabad and a job with the Physical Research Laboratory, occasional trips abroad became an excellent opportunity to buy intelligent dresses for the children who admired father’s selections.

In my sixties, I realized the virtues of what is called the polo shirt. This is despite the taint the polo shirt has because of its association with delivery men or college boys. The Polo gets further damned as the preferred raiment of the sartorially challenged — an event demands a shirt with a collar, but one can’t be bothered to button up.

A Polo shirt has an identity crisis since it falls between a t-shirt and a dress shirt. However, it is an ideal wear for the many events in life that falls between formal and casual. I have found it exceptionally convenient to wear a polo shirt and jacket on my many ITER trips. Google tells us that Polo got its name from the designer Ralph Lauren, who called his line of casual wear Polo. At a time, outfitters Lacoste and Lauren battled it out for dominance.

Serious thinking on the wardrobe happened when I got the assignment at IAEA in 2001 as the head of the Physics Section. IAEA job is defined as International Civil Service, and there are guidelines on what to wear to work and for formal occasions. Fortunately, by this time, Ahmedabad had a collection of stylish outfitters. So I assembled my wardrobe, considering both the severe winter in Vienna and the sartorial demands of my job. We chose Jade Blue to execute the project.

Another occasion which demanded severe thinking on what to wear happened when I was invited to the Padma Ceremony in Delhi. The protocol was prescribed, which covered what to wear. This time in Delhi, it was the blazing April, and in deference to that, I chose to wear a light suit stitched for the occasion.

As youngsters, we deferred to our parents’ views regarding dressing up. We had no Facebook to set our fashion standards. The dress was not something to be fussed over. My grandchildren have strong opinions on what to wear, colour, and cut. I believe I saw its emergence in my children, but never with the vigour of the third generation.

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