22 December 2015

Let's de-code the dress-code

I am thinking about dresses.  Appropriate dresses. Dress codes.  I’ve seen this on invitation cards: ‘Dress: Smart/Casual’.  I have always wondered what’s ‘smart’ and what’s ‘casual’.  Does the slash imply that you can either be ‘smart’ or ‘casual’ but not both?  Beats me. I have concluded that I am too much of a godaya to be able to fathom these subtleties. 

I remember being invited to a play by some visiting British theatre company (I think it was ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, thanks to the fact that my then girlfriend happened to be the President of the Peradeniya Dramatic Society.  I think she got one of those ‘cordially invites………and one other accompanying person’ cards from the British Council (Kandy).  There might have been a dress-code mentioned but I am sure it would have been Greek to me.  I didn’t know it was a social gathering. There was a party afterwards. The artsy crowd of Kandy was there in full force.  The perfume was enough to throw me.  I staggered around quite out of place and in an utter state of disorientation until I saw someone who seemed similarly ‘thrown’: Gamini Haththotuwegama.  ‘Haththa’ greeted me like a long-lost son.  We both survived the Kandy High Society, its dress-code and perfumes.  Haththa might have added ‘and the conversation too’ and laughed in that inimitable way of his while vigorously brushing his hair back from his forehead with his hands.

I am quite a misfit in such situations, but I think by and large, people decode the dress-code fairly well.  They know what kind of costume and what accessories go with what character and are appropriate for what occasion. 

Some people can look good out-of-costume as long as they get into a costume that goes with physique, demeanour and stature and as long as the person looks the role or the role doesn’t have a specific ‘look’.  We have half-baked revolutionaries masquerading as political scientists.  There have been terrorist-lovers posing off as human-rights activists, union leaders and journalists.  Not too difficult.  We had terrorists disguised as civilians and suicide bombers disguised as pregnant women.    I think Sanath Jayasuriya would not look incongruous in a rugger jersey.  W. Jayasiri is not exactly priestly or world-renouncing in his ways (and he will be the first to acknowledge this), but he has fitted the role of ‘bikkhu’ quite well. 

I suppose it is easy for actors because they have directors, make-up artists and costume-designers to correct for any physical mismatches.  Politicians are also quite good at doing the real-life version of Wilson Gunaratne’s ‘Charitha Hathak’ (Seven Characters).  They can be politician now, upasaka the next moment and within the course of a single day or even a few hours also function as hired lamenter at a funeral, champion of the oppressed, bailer-out of the ‘in-trouble’ wealthy, a buck-passer, a saint, a villain, a nincompoop and sometimes, rarely of course, even a statesman. 

I was wondering though about people getting the dress-code wrong.  A clown wouldn’t quite look the part would he if he were dressed in tie-and-coat of the ‘executive’ mould?  Arjuna Ranatunga did not look un-cricketer like when he had pads, gloves, helmet and bat; but could you imagine him in swimming trunks?  How about Ian Thorpe in Sumo-garb?  A politician in an amude?  Doesn’t quite make them govi raalas, right? 

Anura Kumara Dissanayake can wear a red shirt but there is a bad-taste-in-the-mouth mismatch when he spouts revolutionary rhetoric from the J.R.Jayewardene Centre.  Sunil Handunnetti might have to consider wearing green next time he comes out to defend the ‘compromise candidate’.   It is not too difficult.  Here are some pointers.

Drop the red. That’s crucial.  Mr. Compromise is not a red, not a Marxist, probably doesn’t know Lenin from Stalin or Trotsky and might think that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels referred to 4 and not 2 people.  He’s the ‘Green Candidate’ and that should be remembered.  Beards?  Sorry.  They are out of style.  Get a haircut or at least some effective hair-gel. Got to look soldier-like these days. 

And it is not just about hair-style, preferred colour and uniform. It is about language too.  No more ‘comrade’, comrade.  It’s the green-lingo that’s ‘in’ and ‘appropriate’; red stuff is passé.   They’ve got to learn something from the Sirikotha boys, who have quickly fallen in line, handed over the party, whittled all aspirations and got into puppy-dog costumes. No, not Dalmations but happy pets nevertheless. 

Remember that the line has to shift as and when the candidate shifts position.  Not too difficult. Just watch his lips.  When he says ‘abolish executive president’, repeat the words after him. When he says ‘I am not going to be a Gopallawa’, follow the gopalla like suvacha keekaru lambs.  If he says, “forget it, I fought for the exec-prez and I will not drop the ‘executive’ part”, then find a rationale.  There must be something in the Marxist canon that can be quoted out of context to justify. 

Cardinal rule: don’t contradict the greens.  And don’t speak first.  The greens won’t be happy to contradict you.  The candidate can do without squabbles inside the camp.  Got to be nice to Mano, don’t forget.  Is that tough? No, not at all.  The hardest part is done: mending fences with the sworn enemy.  The rest is easy. 

If all this sounds hard it is because you are new to this game.  Here are some colourful characters who might offer some inspiration: Ronnie De Mel, Anura Bandaranaike, G.L. Peiris, S.B. Dissanayake, Rauff Hakeem, Arumugam Thondaman.  They are lots who are of the ‘been there done that, come back done this and if necessary will go there again’ type.  No, it is not scandalous, not at all.  This is how things happen.  Remember what’s most important is not ideology or policy direction, but ‘dress code’. Get that right and you will never feel shy of not been left anymore.  And there’s this bonus: you won’t get left behind!

Most people manage the dress code, I would say; especially politicians and especially since they have a veritable army of communications-experts cutting their cuticles and pruning their tails at every turn, so they look the part.  Some people get the dress right, but not the words; and some get all that right, but fail at ‘gesture’. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the early days of his 2005 campaign could not complete a sentence but has since then done his homework and turned out to be an excellent public speaker.  Ranil Wickremesinghe suffers from trying to be what he is not or cannot be; messes up the script, and gestures out of cue.  He forgets that ‘clown’ was not the part he has to play.  The tragedy is that the man, for all his shortcomings, is certainly not a clown.  There are times when he is extremely lucid and perhaps far more coherent than anyone in the UNP.    Let’s call it ‘tragedy’.  Too late to lament. 

Then there’s this final thought on dress-codes.  Some people look smart, authoritative and appear to be oozing in confidence in certain costumes.  Like military uniforms. Out of them, they appear quite wimp-like. Pedestrian, in fact.  I would say, without malice, that such an individual resembles me and ‘Haththa’.  Out of place, out of depth, out of sync, out of order and glad to rush off at the first given opportunity.   It is like a priest who has disrobed or unfrocked.  Takes time to get used to the new clothes.  Yes, the new role too.  Can be done.  Must be done.  If not what will be remembered is not uniform-glory, but ‘un-uniformed ordinariness’.


This was first published on December 14, 2009 in the 'Daily News', for which newspaper I used to write an 'everyday column' titled 'The Morning Inspection'