01 January 2013

Whose coat are you wearing, by the way?

About a week ago I wrote about A E Goonesinha, the ‘Father of the Labour Movement’ in our country to a weekly newspaper. The piece prompted a lot of comment, including the following about his statue in Goonesinhapura: ‘What a ghastly sanitization is the statue of the old man breaking rocks, as punishment for refusing to pay the Road Tax, but dressed to the Ts in full suit, minus only his fedora!’ 

The issue of the suit hadn’t struck me until I received that email from Tissa Devendra. It got me thinking about coats, though. The other day I was passing the old Parliament building and saw D S Senanayake being baked inside a full suit under the noontime sun. S W R D Bandaranaike, green-tinged, seemed more breezy in contrast.
It’s not just statue ‘clothes’ of course. I remembered the title of a Master’s thesis written by a colleague who is now a professor in a North American university: ‘Time is a coat’. It was a study on labour relations in the garment industry. The title referred probably to the Marx’s theory of value generation and its relation to ‘labour time’. No need to get into all that here of course. 

I remembered also an anecdote related by cartoonist Vinnie Hettigoda. This is a nutshell version.
A man borrows a friend’s coat. The two go on a journey, with the man wearing his friend’s coat. Let’s call them ‘Lender’ and ‘Borrower’ for narrative ease. They meet a mutual friend, and the Lender immediately informs, ‘this coat...it belongs to me’. The Borrower is embarrassed and requests that the Lender not make mention whose coat it is.

They meet another friend. Lender says, ‘This coat....it does not belong to him’. Borrower is annoyed. He says ‘This coat, while we are on this journey, does not belong to you, ok?’ Lender agrees. They meet another man.
Lender: ‘This coat that my friend is wearing....it is not mine’. In this way he communicates whose coat it is. Borrower says ‘can you stop talking about the coat?’ Lender agrees. They meet a fourth person.
Lender: ‘This coat...well, let’s not talk about it!’

I can’t get down on print the facial expressions, the inflection and emphasis, but it is not hard to imagine. Vinnies was talking about censorship and how to get around it.
Clothes are political. They are political statements. They mark status, class, religious faith, preferred identity and even political affiliation. Coats are particular kinds of markers. They are class identifiers. They give status. They help you believe that you’ve made it across some kind of social barrier and are now a member of some elite club. They are part of our culture now. Nothing wrong with wearing coat and tie; it’s just another ‘garment’ after all. On the other hand, it is good not to get carried away by dress, not what one wears and not what one sees another wear.

I have found that dress covers a lot more than naked flesh. Clothes are like words, I think. They are used to express something.
They are used to conceal, to disguise, to mislead, to impress, to be seen, to be marked, to be accepted. They are used also to exclude; those who dress differently, talk differently are basically given the message, ‘you don’t belong’ or ‘we are different’.

The words we use, the language(s) we speak, the accent that we grow into and those that we acquire, constitute a wardrobe, it seems to me. We pick and choose what we wear for which occasion and the company we might find ourselves hanging out with. Like make-up, I suppose. Certain perfumes for certain occasions, certain kinds of company. Different coloured lipstick to go with different clothes.
Disguises, like words, can slip. There are ‘standards’ to follow. Membership rules. If you get them wrong, you may lose membership. People form clubs because they are comfortable with people who look like them, think like them and act like them. They don’t like outsiders. This is why there are rules. Similarly, if you want to be ‘one of them’ you have to wear their clothes, do their thing, speak their speak etc. And you have to keep it up. All the time.

I have no issue with people’s wardrobe preference. There is a popular Hindi song which I believe addresses the issue of clothes and what they mean, what they can mean, what you want them to mean and how important they are to you. What matters in the end is not the cloth, the cut or the appearance. It’s the definite article within. We hide even as we reveal and we render ourselves naked even as we try to clothe ourselves.
This is not the first time I’ve thought of coats, clothes and clothing (what they hide and reveal). I wondered, for instance, almost four years ago: When we wear the clothes that are demanded of us, do we stuff our unhappy skins in a trash can or turn them into drums beaten to unfamiliar rhythms?

I think it is something to think about, these hot and humid days of May. It won’t harm to ask ourselves whose coat(s) we are wearing or desire to wear.
I think it is useful to ask ourselves what happened or happens to our skin when we engage in ‘wardrobing’ and what kind of tunes we are able to or allowed to dance to as a result.



sajic said...

This is very good. How we delude ourselves!