LIBERATING SRI LANKA
HUNG UP ON COLONIAL HABITS
Priyan Rajapaksa mulls over the odd habits of an ex-British outpost
In New Zealand, cultural ties to Europe remain strong – 74 percent have British or European ancestry and New Zealand is essentially a white country. Nonetheless, neckties are an antiquity and formal jackets are being mothballed.
New Zealanders wear overcoats in the winter because it’s freezing cold. The suit and tie is only for formal occasions. Its clothing has evolved to suit the climate and identity of the new country, and we go bare-bodied for cricket matches.
Although the Royal Navy sailed west in 1948, 69 years on, Sri Lanka seems to be still hung up on its colonial past – and it’s going retro these days. I see an increase in images of brown people in black suits looking artificial, unnatural and unhappy – and I wonder why.
Thanks to the Lumière brothers and colour photography, it’s possible to differentiate between man and suit. Is it a lack of self-confidence to create our own image and practical identity?
At a time when Prince Harry appears on TV in an open-neck shirt, what makes us cringe and copy Europeans, slavishly wearing clothing that they’ve discarded?
My greater concern is for poorer parents outfitting their children. When the new academic year began in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, parents in both countries were fretting about outfitting their kids for 2017. The burden is greatest on the poorest and much like a regressive tax.
Should not sensibility replace colonial encumbrances?
Memories of the cost of outfitting two children in senior school last year flood back. Our bill was NZ$ 1,000. That included what is essential for New Zealand’s chilly climate like woollen garments, pullovers, waterproof clothing and optional blazers. The summer uniform is quite different – an open-neck grey shirt, blue skirts (for girls) or shorts (for boys) and optional sandals (no socks).
So what on earth are Sri Lankans doing to children by asking them to wear shoes and socks?
I will be facetious and say socks are usually worn to preserve body heat, and white trousers and skirts need more cleaning. As a young guy visiting my village Batapola, it was sad to see students in uniforms of white with shoes and socks bought with the meagre incomes of village folk.
Unlike in New Zealand, the Sri Lankan media does not highlight the cost of schooling. Some comments in the weekend press include ‘The cost of education in New Zealand has risen by double the rate of inflation over the past decade’: ‘For low-income parents, there is continued pressure on family budgets’; and ‘Even if a state school does not charge any fees, parents still need to meet the cost of a range of items such as uniforms, textbooks, computers, extracurricular activities etc.’
The introduction of digital devices in the classroom had been the main driver of increasing costs for parents.
“There continues to be greater pressure on family budgets and parents need to make choices around what has to give in order to provide that education, particularly during a period where we’ve seen historically low income growth,” writes the NZ Herald.
In New Zealand, most can afford shoes but barefooted children are a common sight and a cult for some adults. In Sri Lanka’s villages, the reverse applies, and a lack of footwear is a sign of poverty and health hazards. If we believe the statistics that Sri Lanka is advancing to global middle-income status, isn’t it time to walk the talk and redesign our image to fit our climate like New Zealand and Australia have done?
Sri Lanka is home to a world-renowned apparel industry that exports modern garments but we continue to import and dress in restrictive Victorian clothes that make us sweat. We then air-condition our buildings to cool down. Is this logical?
Why do we not utilise the expertise of the apparel industry and its designers to come up with practical and suitable garments using local fabric as much as possible for everyday and formal wear?
They should be able to improve on that impractical long-sleeved white national dress. Expertise or IP in design and garment manufacture are freely available, so why not utilise them for local benefit before exporting?
London-centric dress habits of community leaders are changing at snail’s pace. There are welcome signs of a few parliamentarians sans dark suits. True, the Prime Minister dons a suit but he works in an air-conditioned environment so we don’t need to follow his example. The majority of us use crowded public transport, sweat profusely and smell like garlic fried with curry powder by the end of the day.
In our youth, we rebelled and discarded shoes and socks for Bata slippers. Does it not make sense to liberate ourselves of colonial attire for that of our own – designed by Sri Lankans for Sri Lankans who know our climate and fabrics – so that our clothes are practical, affordable and marketable?
Sri Lankan workers and parents deserve it, our children relish it and efficient resource utilisation commands it.
We must openly embrace the goodness of both cultures and disregard what is unnecessary. A valuable and thought provoking read for all regulatory authorities who blindly impose rules for schools and students for the sake of culture and rituals.
Despite being captured in records, many children drop out of school or get regularly absent, as they afford a pair of shoes and socks and the type of school bag which are used by fellow students. The inability to have these items is one of the key reasons that compel students to stay at home. Dropping in the first term is much sensitive; because once they get used to staying at home, children lose interest in schooling and parents fail to see the value of education, over their unmet needs.
This expensive colonial habit – i.e. copying the British attire – would cost at least over Rs. 5,000 which is a unaffordable to many low income earning families who make a living on agriculture or irregular sources of income with low income growth. Therefore, changing the outlook, eliminating such unnecessary expenses can be a relief for these innocent civilians.
A truth well told! However, I wish to express some concerns for the working population which exceeds the student population of Sri Lanka.
There are still many people who wear the traditional six yards – the saree as the work outfit. Many organisations such as private banks consider it decent attire that portrays staff professionalism and corporate image. In contrast, in Japan, the traditional kimono is only worn for special occasions.
In an era where resources are scarce, rational thinking would be that the saree can be a burden not only in terms of comfort but resources, maintenance and mobility/safety. There is a question as to why wearing a saree on a daily basis is such a hazard when in the days gone by our mothers and their mothers and many generations of women before that managed effortlessly with it. Such thoughts can permanently hinder any form of change for the better. An employee can be clothed professionally and decently with material less than six yards.
Heartiest thanks to firms which are now adopting contemporary dress codes which enable convenience, joining the early entrants that introduced the ‘smart official/casual’ dress code to Sri Lanka’s workforce.
In complete contrast to what the good article describes, you suggest that we drop the only sort-of authentic dress a part of our community put on!
Saree is one very professional attire that even the private sector, which is not under any regulation to abide by the code-of-ethics or the dress code of the public service, often encourages their employees, including senior female management to use. Saree, may be six yards but it is a single piece of textile that is more affordable than any ‘smart, official or even casual’ dress, which will essentially remind us the legacy of the colonial experience.
Let’s be open to what is favourable and appropriate for the purpose, place and era we live in.
Workplaces are now about professionalism cum ergonomics, with affordability and safety.
There are many who cannot be decently attired in a saree. I totally agree with Karunaratne’s viewpoint whereas according to that comment, your perspective is one of those with hindering thoughts, which overlooks changing for the better.
If wearing saree is okay for women, why not allow the national costume for men?
That’s a strange view point, disregarding how sexist the world is. There may not be a formal dress code for men but that perhaps is for a reason. Men never tend to wear revealing clothes and it is the women who closely follow fashion trends. Occasionally sexual harassment of female teachers can be found in the media but hardly a story of a male teacher being subjected to sexual violence is reported. We have enough problems in the country, this kind of change will not do any good but add to that list of woes. What we need in education is an overhaul of the syllabus not the dress code. As they say, don’t fix it, if it ain’t broke.
Until recently, due to the lack of fans in most schools, children would arrive home in a state exhaustion, caused by having to be attired in a long trouser, socks, shoes & tie. Despite the tropical climate, in years gone by, many of our countrymen wore cotton blazers, long sleeved shirts and some a hat as well, as part of their work-attire.
The factors for this may have been the disregard for comfort, lesser expenses due to simpler needs and the uncomplicated lifestyle practised in that era.
Despite it being cumbersome, washing and cleaning did not seem to burden any house-hold, as they were also privileged to have sufficient help at home. Many considered working in a household a privilege and many hung framed pictures of the colonial rulers in their houses. They never considered the colonial dressing sense as odd and therefore it was not an issue.
Comfortable and smart clothing which suits the environment we continue to live or work in make us feel good and help perform better. All this requires sensibility and simplicity -fewer clothes equating to lesser costs. It could be agreed that our attire would serve us reasonably well with comfort at a reasonable cost. In addition, it allows one to be appropriately dressed for the purpose and place. People friendly attire is now already a globally accepted norm.