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.