“So why do we wear clothes again??”

‘I wish one had the liberty to slap these kids to senses and send them back to kindergarten to be taught…”Why do we wear clothes again??”’ (From J’s comment here)

So why do we wear clothes?

1. For protection from heat and cold? Most civilisations that did not need protection from cold did not have rigid rules for body being covered up.

Did traditional Indian clothing have blouses or shirts? Men and women wrapped a dhoti or sari, children generally wore nothing. Body was decorated with flowers, ‘alta’, turmeric, sandal wood paste, kohl and jewelry, wanting to look good was not considered inappropriate.

When invaders arrived from locations where clothing was necessary for protection from extreme heat or cold, they also brought along the concept of ‘shame’ and modesty. In ‘Chokher Bali‘ the newly wed refuses to wear a blouse with sari, because it was too British (modern).

Once the society starts covering women up, Margaret Atwood describes how the threshold for what is found sexually attractive changes, soon even a glimpse of an ankle becomes sexually provocative.

One example: Pakizah has the hero falling in love with Meena Kumari – after he sees her beautiful feet. Was that love?

2. Do we wear clothes to look better – to look sexually attractive?

Was there this fear that if women did not cover up, men might stop finding a mere glimpse of a part of a woman’s body attractive? (Margaret Atwood, Handmaiden’s Tale)

Mr Balvinder Singh’s experience in Nagaland shows making rules about covering up a woman’s body, is the beginning of objectification of women, to ensure ‘excitement’ does not ‘turn into monotony’.

“The men wore only a loincloth and the females wrapped just a shawl below their waists. The women folk of all ages were seen working in the fields, carrying fire wood or hay for the animals, pounding barley, washing clothes at village water points, knitting on hand looms (almost every house had a hand loom where the women would knit shawls etc) or attending to other such daily chores of life, wearing nothing on top.

While a small cleavage visible under the thin dupatta or through the pallu of a woman’s saree is certainly a pleasant sight for any man worth his salt, without harbouring any malafide thoughts in the mind, but there in the villages of Nagaland it was an anti climax to see the dangling pairs of bare boobs, available to look at in abundance in all shapes and sizes. Initially they were a cause of some excitement, which was natural , but gradually the excitement turned into monotony. I was reminded of the words of a famous poet that the ‘beauty that is veiled looks more beautiful’.” [Click here to read the entire article]

3. To prevent offending the sensibilities of those who think covering up is a religious/social/cultural/safety requirement?

This is extremely subjective.

Some people find even the glimpse of a woman’s eyes offends their religious sentiments, some find sleeveless blouses offensive, for many only traditional clothing no matter how much it convers or reveals is acceptable.

Some think it’s okay to wear anything so long as one can ‘carry  it off’.

Most people simply resist any change. So in most places,  there are rules regarding not just skin, but also how much of which clothing should not show.

So the sight of boxers and bra straps offends some people.

For many other people’s legs (shorts, bermudas), calves, arms (sleeveless) and knees (skirts), midriffs (saris, lehengas), shape, curves (fitted clothing) are offensive.

In  India showing one’s back and midriff is acceptable when one is wearing a sari, but not if the outfit is Western. Nigeria disagrees! Read Nita’s post – ‘Sari an immodest garment?’

So it seems what’s okay in some societies is not acceptable in some other societies and the rules change with times, all the time. Most societies seem to accept and rigidly follow their current – generally unwritten norms.

How do these norms get created? And how do they change?

How is it that more of these rules apply to women?

Could these rules be a means to control women’s sexuality?

Why do you think do humans wear clothes?

Related Posts: 

The way a woman dresses.

No Jeans for an Indian daughter in law.

Not just a pair of jeans.

All teachers except Indian women can do their job well enough in Western clothes?

55 thoughts on ““So why do we wear clothes again??”

  1. “Once the society starts covering women up, Margaret Atwood describes how the threshold for what is found sexually attractive changes, soon even a glimpse of an ankle becomes sexually provocative.”

    I find that so true! I live in a country where women are mostly is shorts because it is a very hot/humid climate. So as an Indian girl, when I walk around here in a sleeveless top or even skirts, I don’t get stared at or made to feel uncomfortable in anyway, even by the Indian men here and that to me feels like heaven. In India, no matter how hot or humid it gets, I am forced to cover myself up to save myself from staring men on the street. In fact, I wouldn’t dare wear something ‘revealing’ if I am going out by myself. I get stared at enough even when I am clad in a salwar kameez!

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  2. While the whole piece about how the clothes ‘evolve’ was informative, I still do not feel comfortable about going back to the stone-age in terms of area of body covered by a cloth ;).
    I do not sit and judge those who wear ‘less’ or ‘more’. But I would certainly think twice about wearing a short skirt to a ‘pooja’. It’s all about what you feel appropriate to wear. And whether you are a two year old baby or a sixty old grandmother, there is nothing ‘right’ that you can wear to ward away those creepy hands/eyes.

    Personally, I don’t wear clothes that are too revealing. But I want them to fit nicely on my body. Accentuate the curves? Why not? Is it to attract men? I do not mind compliments and praises ;) but I do not tolerate stares/bad comments. Is there any way to filter out the evil? No. So is it a wonder that I wear most of my ‘daring’ dresses only when I move out with hubby, and that too in posh parties or malls or resort?

    As for the young these days, the only thing I find lacking in some of them is ‘grace’ – in their mannerisms, dressing and behavior. You can be wearing the miniest of mini skirt and yet look good and non-offensive!

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      • My pet-peeve is un-ironed clothes!!
        Lack of grace is evident when these kids/youngsters give no regards and acknowledgment to those around them. I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable standing at a bus-stand (during pregnancy) and these ‘kids’ were speaking in fake accent and smoking away to glory.. I requested them not to smoke since it was a public place and I was pregnant (isnt smoking banned in public places?). And they gave me a weird look (or lets say they looked at me as if i was weird!)..
        I don’t remember what they were wearing. But I remember the looks they gave. And by not giving up smoking(when requested), they tried to show the ‘rebel’ streak in them!
        Its just the way you behave when you are out in public… the basic courtesies are much more evident than the designer labels/ in-fashion style.

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      • The comment was to reassert my point of view of not taking dressing as seriously as lack of grace in youth. The case in point was not smoking but ‘bad manners’ and complete absence of regard to others…

        I mentioned that ‘I don’t remember what they were wearing’ – because it just didn’t matter. Even if they were dressed in tiniest of shorts, I wouldn’t have noticed or remembered…. their ‘attitude’ was what stuck to my memory..

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  3. I think clothes and sexuality are over-rated and so is skin show. If skin-show would be the only reason why women are attacked then most attacks would happen in beaches which is not the case.
    Its more to do with mind-set. When a woman is viewed as an object of desire and an object to be controlled, what she wears or doesnt wear, really doesnt matter. It is an mere excuse to justify the society’s incompetence and helplessness in providing us with safety.
    Similarly clothes is also a tool to control women.
    When women are viewed as the weaker sex and secondary to men these kind of issues/justifications are bound to happen. Its very similar to the way “shudhras” were treated (still are), no entry into villages, temples, crossing path in the morning et al.
    While in the case of women the discrimination is not so blatant it is there and as I have maintained earlier its a different form of racisim.

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  4. Having lived in California most of my life I’ve seen it all from burqa’s to bikini’s.

    But the trend that was the most TACKY was the ‘butt thong’ or ‘whale tail’ or whatever you call it with the really low waisted pants so the ‘anal cleavage’ or ‘butt crack’ shows. YUK!

    Anyway as far as covering up goes……the sun is not our friend anymore!!! SKIN CANCER!!! PREMATURE AGING!!! All the years in the sun by the swimming pool in California are starting to show on this 40 something female.

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  5. I wear what I think is appropriate : NO ! most times its my mom who has to tell me that i should not just wear a salwaar kammez but a dark colored , very expensive one since its a puja etc etc ..

    What I do not wear is what I think will make me look not good ! Its not what others like but what you are conmfortable. If the stares and comments do not bother you, be my guest to wear a shorts in any place you want ! I can not.

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    • ladynimue, even the comments and stares are not the same everywhere. In many places people have got used to seeing women in shorts. It does seem that it is simply a matter of the society getting used to it.
      Today the society is used to seeing women in western clothes, earlier it wasn’t… how did they get used to it?
      Does it help women if they are free to wear what they are comfortable wearing?
      Do you think safer places are also those where women can wear shorts and go out at most hours?

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      • Not safe from crimes – its a person’s mindset which accounts for the crime to happen. but the society getting used to certain kind of dressing avoids unwanted scenes in daily life ! the behind the back talks , the remarks and smirks and above all , judging a girl based on what she wears!

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  6. I wear what I feel like wearing and let others do the same. Saves me the bother of policing everyone else. And I don’t listen to unsolicited opinions about my choice of clothing.

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  7. There are so many reasons why people wear clothes. One example would be self expression I supposed. If we didn’t, the fashion industry wouldn’t be such a major force. Then there’s wearing clothing to show social class and your position. For example in Imperial China emperors were giving yellow jackets and was forbidden to be worn by anyone else. Also in medieval Europe purple was worn by royalty.

    How is it that more of these rules apply to women?

    Could these rules be a means to control women’s sexuality?

    In answer to both questions, yes it does seem like these rules are used to control women’s sexuality. But it’s also very complex, you have cultures where women walk around topless and this is perfectly normal behavior. They’re not sexualized either. I feel this is where the concept of shame comes into play.

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  8. “what is appropriate to wear” unfortunately differs from individual to individual basis and on a individual to society basis. I guess one just needs to find a personal balance on what is comfortable for your own self and does not offend the people around you. I personally dont dress with any particular agenda in mind. For me, dressing comfortable is the most important criteria. Which is why I dont prefer tight fitting clothes (even though they are supposedly the “in thing” ). And then there are occasions where I have worn say a black dress for a puja, and was told by my mom to change it because its not appropriate. So this is one case where I thought a particular dress was appropriate but someone else didnt.

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  9. I wear whatever i please here inthe US, when i visit india i wear whatever keeps me cool. however i refrain from shorts etc., outside the house, at my in-laws place i’m the bahu draped in salwar or sari — no no to jeans even, Never bothered me since my MIL has seen mein my skimpy western wear, an has no opinion on her dils’s clothing preference, however we all 3 DIL’s have noticed that people in her area gossip and to save her the pain of listening to such garbage decided to keep to salwars /sarees or maybe jeans and a kurta..
    although my lovely MIL told my eldest co-sis “arn’t you hot in that sari, what happened to your knee pants ( capris ??) andwhen she relied she didn’t want to cause tounges to wag my lovely lovely mil said ” areey wear what makes you happy and generates less laundry :-) hang them folks, they’ll even talk if you buy a kg of bhaji.. all jobless idiots, this britishers came and ruined our free spirit ” — see even a 70 yr old knows

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  10. I was once told an interesting story about the ‘Ghunghat’ custom in ancient India. Contrary to the popular belief, it was not to protect oneself against leering mens’ eyes. In that age women were considered extremely sacred. So much so that even a glimpse of a woman’s face could make your day and hence the prerogative lay with the women-folk to selectively show their faces to them upon whom they intended to bring luck. Might be an apocryphal tale. Might be true. My point is, after hundreds of years it is not that simple to state why a certain civilizations’s clothes and dressing were the way they were. Or for that matter, why today’s dressing practices are acceptable and preferred over the days of the yore.

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    • I am not sure how how true that is…
      In large Joint Families where many brothers, uncles and nephews lived together, there was a fear that women might prefer someone other than the man they were married to (remember they had no choice in these matters), so along with the ‘ghunghat’ we also had (still have) rules like women couldn’t talk to older male relatives – fathers in law included.
      Similar fears also resulted in rules which confine women at home. Basically ensuring that the children they had were of the man they were married to.

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      • IHM, our community happens to be one of those that still have this rule about not talking to your father in law et al–while the basic purpose might well have been to prevent the father-in-law from being sexually attracted to a younger female in the family, my assessment is that it was also sought to prevent the daughter-in-law from talking back.

        My father-in-law prides himself in being a ‘straightforward person who tells it as it is even if it means antagonising the person sitting in front of him.'(!!) Sometime after my marriage, he took to poking fun at/passing barbed remarks on my father and brother, smug in the knowledge that poor lil DIL is going to have to listen to all that silently. Unfortunately for him, I hit back each and every time he tried it. Very quietly, in a very low voice, but made sure the message went home. Disapproval was writ large on his face but to his credit he left it at that. Soon enough he learnt to hold his tongue, at least in front of me.

        me – I agree S, this is also a big reason! I feel if a family wants a new member to join them they should be prepared to respect her, and respect her an an equal. I am glad you could convey your disapproval of disrespect for your parents, I know many women who couldn’t/can’t.

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  11. I am glad that we do not have the liberty to slap kids for the clothes they choose to wear. It is not my business to police what others wear.

    Every generation has had issues with the clothes and values of the next generation. When women started wearing Salwar Kameez, there were many people who were outraged. When they started wearing jeans, even more were outraged. Now people are outraged to see women and teens in shorts and tank tops.

    I have seen many mentally disturbed homeless women roaming the streets in India with very little clothes on. All the moral police do then, is turn a blind eye. No one even bothers to buy a cheap nightie from the street and offer it to them. The moral police here refers to women too.

    Even if women are dressed from head to toe, they get lewd stares. The stares come from other women too in India.

    I personally do not like the sari and prefer Salwars or Kurtis. However, I have no issues with women who are in sarees.

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  12. Well, clothes are definitely a bit of a social construct. I’m normally stuck wearing a formal suit for a large part of the day, because that has been traditionally designated as “professional attire”. On the other hand, techies are generally given a much wider latitude when it comes to dress code. There’s no reason why legal and finance professionals should be made to wear suits while IT professionals are allowed denims and semi-formal jackets.

    It’s all arbitrary and in the end, I’m inclined to think that it’s all bullshit. You don’t need business suits and denims in the middle of April in New Delhi. If it were upto me, clothes would be totally optional.

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  13. As kids on vacation in Rajasthan we saw our topless daadi pottering about in the house while her DILs roamed with long ghunghats .It was a big joke for us and we teased both sides about it. Daadi was confident , unselfconscious and graceful in her walk while the DILs were awkward and unsure ..we wondered why then, but we know now, that the difference had nothing to do with clothes but everything to do with the position they had in the huge joint family .
    Personally, I agree that we clothe because we have to and may be we won’t given a choice.:D
    Liberation..what fun!!!

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  14. I am glad not all our wishes came true…!

    Well, lets say there is a time and place that is or is not suitable for certain kind of clothing.
    One may feel most comfortable in a bikini but to go grocery shopping or wait at the bus-stop clad in one, one must also be comfortable with the glares n stares n random comments.
    Its how confidently you carry yourself, that determines how good you look even if you are dressed in a bikini…but is it respectful ?

    Schools, colleges, workplaces have dress codes for a reason.
    Our dressing styles compliment our personalities but when we represent an institution…we cease to be ‘just’ individuals. Our personal choices, comfortability factors take a back seat when dressing up to attend a class, or give a lecture, or attend a meeting etc. etc. In a class if a student or even a teacher is dressed provocatively…it distracts the kids. Its about being respectful…like when attending a puja, or a funeral we dress accordingly.
    Well…that is what I was taught as a kid. And I never found anything wrong with the logic.
    As a DIL I covered my head before my FIL and loved doing it…’cuz I was told, it was to show respect. And I contd the tradition ‘cuz I didn’t mind showing respect to someone I admired so much.

    To conclude, ‘clothes don’t make a man/woman…’cuz angels hide their wings and devils may be dressed as a lamb’ (guess they r lyrics from a song)

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    • the part about ‘while representing instituions we cease to be ‘just individuals’ is bang on’..isnt it why all kids in schools have a uniforms regradless of what backgrounds they come from ?

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  15. This is more in india i think,
    I will tell u truthfully when i had initially come ot uk it was EYE feasting time cause i had come with the indian mentality of watching the half naked girls, come the sun out suddenly girls are walking in almsot bikini’s but over the time i guess it doesnot matter to me anymore, as such summer is here so this is common sight and not jsut white but asian girls too.

    I would say its more of human mentality.

    But on other hand i also beleive that its the situation too one should be mindful of what they are wearing or not wearing it will be stupid to go in a bikini in MY village lets say in india ,

    I wear clothes to hide my aweful physique.. thats the reason if i had six pack i would go in shorsts no second thoughts about it .. :)

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  16. Amidst all this controversy over clothes and stuff, I sometimes wonder if we would be better off without them altogether (except to protect us against the elements)! It would be worthwhile to dig into the behaviour of the earliest homo sapiens in this regard.

    But forgetting all of that and accepting things as they currently stand, I would second J’s comment above that there is a time and place for everything.

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  17. Good post. Humans started wearing clothes as a protection.Later it became a sign of identity and position in the society. Dress codes began to be imposed on the weaker sections which included Women.
    What we wear is decided by the Society in which you live,your parents,peer pressure,your need [or fear] to stand out from others etc.
    As Society becomes more and more liberal I am sure we will witness an explosion of dressing styles in the future

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  18. I have a problem with the “carry it off” sentiment. That to me is just another attempt to control what another individual is wearing.

    Also the “carry it off” is another attempt at objectification. Basically dictating Women/ men must look a certain way for it to be ok for them to dress themselves.

    I have heard it so many times in so many forms and grates on my nerves that intellgent/ tolerant folks don’t realize the damage that sentiment does.

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    • The thing is, men don’t have much of a choice either.

      For one, we can’t really choose between different outfits that accentuate our bodies in different ways. If you look fat in jeans, you would also look fat in slacks, dockers, cargo pants, shorts and kurta-pajamas.

      More traditional Indian dresses like dhoti are not really considered acceptable in Indian middle-class society, unless you are , maybe, 70+. And even then, wearing such a thing in public would attract weird looks. By and large, urban Indian men have no option except to stick to Western clothing.

      I was once made to wear a dhoti, courtesy of certain relatives of my wife who were hell-bent on having fun at my expense while I was at her ancestral house. I found it extremely comfortable and well-suited to Indian weather conditions. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded wearing it a bit longer. :D

      But the incredulous looks I recieved from my wife and the realization that three SILs had already clamped their hands over their mouths in identical fashion to stop any sounds of laughter from escaping, pretty much dissuaded me from trying it again even at home. :D
      I simply can’t “carry it off” without looking silly.

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      • You know getting weird looks is not that bad, I know I will definitely get weird looks if I started wearing sari – I tried it once when my kids were young, and took them to the park in a sari, and everybody asked if I was fasting or going for some puja. But I know if I really do decide to wear it in my everyday life, the worst I will get are some comments and weird looks. But women who are not ‘allowed’ to wear jeans have less choices in other matters too. Being able to wear what we choose to wear is about much more than clothes, most women whose choices in clothing are controlled, are also subjected to seeking permission for meeting their family and friends, working, earning or spending, saving, even having kids, eating food etc.

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      • True, true.
        For women, it is only one particularly symbolic restriction amongst a multitude of others.

        As well, no one calls a man in dhoti “immoral” or “provocatively dressed”. People may laugh at him but that’s about it. For women, it’s a whole different story. Wear a pair of jeans and you can be accused of a whole bunch of things, ranging from “immoral” to “corrupted by Western society”.

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  19. You have raised some very interesting questions in your post, and it was fascinating to read the varied reactions. Clothes are a social construct, and like all other rules in society, the powerful decide what the folks with less power should wear.

    A book on the evolution of clothing and clothing norms in different societies would make a really absorbing read.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  20. One of my colleagues here in the office rightly commented,

    You girls seem to look modest when you come in a pair of jeans and a shirt or a teeshirt ( which is supposed to be immodest as per our so called tradition setters ) and look sexier in sarees and asked us not to spoil the work culture by wearing sarees to office :) .

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  24. While I agree with the author’s premise, how we dress does have an effect on how one is taken as a person. As a man, I dress to the occasion when I’m out. The clothes a person wears and the style he/she presents himself in, determines how much respect (or otherwise) he or she gets from others. If I dress like a pseudo-American hippie backpacker, I am unlikely to be treated like an A32S first officer while trying to book a hotel.

    I also agree that the reaction to clothes is culturally relative. A girl wearing a skirt in Shillong might get comments such as “Your legs would freeze. It is cold, put something on!”. The same girl, wearing the same dress in Delhi might get, “She is from North East. Loose morals.” When something that is supposed to be a comfortable piece of clothing becomes a signal of sexual availability, it is a sign of a sexually repressed culture.

    @ pujathakur
    I agree that smoking as a rebellion is fool, considering there are scores of healthy ways to rebel with. However, I find blaming youth for mannerlessness and discourtesy a little cliched. It was probably two discourteous individuals who did not have decent role models in life, not ‘youth’. I have seen a lot of discourteous and mannerless behaviour from the so called ‘elders’, so it is not like the elders are paragons of virtue and courtesy.

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