Op-ed and Comment

Clubs and dress code

It is a tough call to balance the gentility of wearing appropriate attire and tradition with moving with the times. I have been thrown out of country clubs in the US and in India for wearing wrong clothes–or rather for going with a man who was wearing wrong clothes. In particular, shorts. It’s probably why I don’t have a country club membership.

India’s clubs should move with the times and embrace different traditions

Shoba Narayan

July 22, 2014 Updated: July 22, 2014 06:10 PM

When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister a new sense of national pride swept over the country. But the colonial mindset of old still pervades certain dark corners, specifically private clubs in various cities. All these clubs have a dress code that harks back to when the British ruled the land. They don’t favour Indian attire, particularly for men. Instead, men are forced to wear long trousers and shirts. Those who don’t, aren’t allowed in.
Recently, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association refused entry to a High Court judge because he was wearing a dhoti, a loose sarong-like garment that is perfect for tropical India.
Dhotis, also called veshtis, have largely slipped out of fashion as more and more men turn to Western outfits such as tailored trousers, which they consider more comfortable and professional. The same Indian men wear dhotis at home or for religious ceremonies.
The issue gained heat when Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, threatened to take away the licences of clubs that denied entry to men who wear Indian outfits. She called it “sartorial despotism” and an insult to local pride. Ms Jayalalithaa has vowed to introduce a new law that will prevent clubs from enforcing their existing dress codes.
The objects of the chief minister’s ire include the Madras Boat Club, Madras Gymkhana Club and the aforementioned Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, all of whom frown upon men entering their premises wearing Indian attire. Women aren’t accorded the same level of indignity. They can sail through wearing a sari or salwar kameez.
I think it is about time that all Indian clubs get out of this colonial mindset that views Western attire as somehow more superior and elegant than Indian clothes. To disbar members who wear Indian clothes from entering club premises reeks of an inferiority complex that should have disappeared when the British left India.
Officials at these clubs have generally clung to the belief that it wasn’t so easy to incorporate Indian attire into the rules that govern their institutions. They said that they would have to bring up the issue at the club’s annual meeting, so that members could vote on the topic. Nonsense, I say. A starched white dhoti that doesn’t hug the legs makes perfect sense for Chennai’s hot climate.
Clubs are private bodies with erratic, nonsensical rules. Augusta Golf Club, for example, did not allow women to enter its premises until two years ago, when the chief sponsor of their events, IBM, was headed by a woman. As a woman who doesn’t belong to any of these establishments, I think they need to be shamed into changing their policies.
But things are changing in India. Nowadays, male CEOs often confidently wear the kurta pyjama to their offices. These clothes are sleek, elegant – and appropriate for India.
There is no reason to wear a wool suit in steamy weather, simply because it is deemed to be more professional.
And what do clothes have to do with efficiency and effectiveness anyway?
Companies in Silicon Valley are renowned for allowing employees to work in shorts and a T-shirt. India’s private clubs don’t need to go quite that far, but at least they can take pride in their country’s national outfits.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

8 comments

  1. I am a member of one of these elitists clubs. I strongly believe that clubs are private associations of members who are entitled to make their own rules. Govts have no locus standi to interfere and threatening to legislate and revoke licences is simply bullying.

    The judge and veshti controversy is manufactured. In Tamil Nadu other than at religious functions most of those who wear dhotis are politicians. This is not so in Kerala where most adults, including the well to do who are likely to use such clubs, wear dhotis or veshtis, Would the good judge allow a lawyer to appear before him not wearing the black coat and collar. That too is an anachronism and a vestige of our colonial past.

    Having said this, clubs need to move with the times. I was recently politely advised at my club that I was improperly dressed. I was wearing a kurta over trousers and closed shoes, but apparently ‘chinese collar’ did not meet the club’s standard of a collared shirt. As I was leaving, another member entered in a collared T shirt (polo0 sweat pants and sneakers. That apparently is acceptable.

    I have written to the club asking for a written copy of their dress code and will take up the matter with the committee after I receive it.

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  2. Kaushik I don’t think Shoba was referring to “nine-yard sari club” type of special interest club. Her post was to the so called exclusive clubs that still require Western dress. So then those (exclusive or not) clubs that have relaxed their norms are also excluded from the field of this article.

    I also don’t think it is in very good taste for you to compare the Judge to a two-bit lawyer. I may point out that the Judge may have read the Indian law very well but he does not need to be versed in the laws of the club to justify his judge ship. What if the exclusive club invites someone who only wears saris (say MS Subbalaxmi), is the invitation automatically nullified? I think clubs could be more sensitive in handling such matters and, if I may say so, so can you, Kaushik.

    As for CM, she should get on with her day job, be it in sari or trousers.

    Vaidehi (is baaaackkkk)

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    1. Yes, you are baaaacccckkkkk, Vaidehi. I was thinking of MS too, but clubs are strangely “good” with respect to women’s clothes. Not insisting on the Colonial type dress, i.e. pant-shirt.

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    2. Vaidehi – OK I agree the club should have been more sensitive about handling the judge. My point, though, was that the judge should have known enough to consult the club laws (no different than consulting Indian laws for his legal cases). That’s the most basic decision making process isn’t it?

      The article labels clubs as eccentric and nonsensical. It’s not fair to make such a potentially libelous accusation. Also, I don’t see a basis for making the assumption that clubs somehow view Western attire as “superior”. Maybe it’s simply that the club hasn’t changed its rules since the 50s. Many Indian laws are still like that. How is it “Nonsense, I say” if a club puts the dress code to a member vote? Isn’t that how any civilized group makes decisions? So many clubs have since relaxed their norms after putting the matter to a vote.

      How can we link wearing saris or veshtis to Silicon Valley? The Silicon Valley types may wear shorts and play foosball at work but when they pitch to a Wall Street executive (I have seen this many many times) they also dutifully don a suit. So also is the case for the kurta wearing Indian CEO who dons a suit when he has to brief Western investors – seen this many times, too. People make dress decisions based on the occasion and situation and business at hand when it comes to business or social (public) engagements. Comfort and national pride drive decisions in their homes (veshti or lungi or whatever else) and for other national functions. They are hardly the same.

      Shoba – what is the nature of your disagreement? I am asking (with all due respect of course) because you once before snapped back at me before you agreed. (See here.) OK this is your blog, surely an acclaimed journalist like yourself has more to offer than “OK, we disagree” ??

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      1. Hi Kaushik
        my disagreement with you is that the colonial mindset hasn’t left India. For example, my daughter’s eighth grade class is doing a module on the classics. The only classics that they have chosen are English ones. I felt sad that there was no Indian literary classic on the list–no Tagore, Kalidasa, or Silapadikaram. I fear that our rich literary heritage will no go beyond a few specialists.

        As far as clubs, I take your legal points, and realize that this is not a legal issue. As you said, private clubs can do what they like. However, unlike you, I feel that shaming them into changing their minds is possible, and this will only happen if many people, both members and nonmembers express a point of view which is similar to mine.

        Frankly, it is more interesting for me to hear your points of view than my own 🙂

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  3. I do not agree with this at all.

    Clubs, by definition, have their own rules and laws. Shoba you may have strong feelings about clubs permitting Indian outfits, but depending on the nature of the club and its activities, a club is and should be free to enforce its rules on its premises. A nine-yard-sari club may not permit skirts and a headscarf club may refuse entry to the bare headed.

    It is plain ridiculous for a chief minister to revoke or even threaten to revoke a club’s license. By that token a “veshti only” club should also have its license revoked for refusing entry to trouser-clad men? Any two-bit (do kaudi ka) lawyer will say that a club has its own interpretation of freedom of expression and is free to enforce its rules on its premises. I say let the CM spend her precious little available time on more pressing issues like getting the goddamned metro on schedule or modernizing the idiotic and pathetic Chennai Airport.

    You have also neglected to mention the full story of the Judge at the TNCA. He argued that the club’s laws apply to its members but not to visitors; he was a visitor attending a function. But (and this surprises me) that the judge has not read up the laws of the club that say, first, that visitors have to be escorted by members (in this case the member who extended the invitation) and that visitors, too, have to abide by club rules.

    Nor can we conclude that clubs have dress rules only as a throwback to colonial times. Many clubs have extended their dress code to include jacket (over kurta) and dhoti (North Indian style which requires a more tidy tying up, not the South Indian veshti which can sometimes fray out. No, I am not one of those people who get miffed because of this even though I am a proud South Indian. I would prefer South Indians to wear tidy, if ordinary, trousers over a frayed veshti.) But getting a chief minister all razzed up about this is totally ludicrous.

    It’s a slippery slope, even by veshti standards.

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