Monday, November 26, 2012

On Dressing

The wonderful Rashmi Sachan of Fliplog posted a link this morning that I found truly hair-raising: children critising their teachers' attire.

My main problem with the article is the emphasis that the kids pay to things like perfect nail polish and repeating dresses.

I know, all too well, what it is to be judgmental over other people's clothes. My mother and I share a keen interest in clothes and although neither of us would ever make it to a fashion listing, we do notice what the people around us wear. When I notice pantylines and slipped bra straps and uneven tucks, it is part of the training my mother gave me. She is the one who told me to either wear makeup like a professional or not bother with it at all. (She doesn't bother with it at all.)

There are a couple of posts lying my drafts folder describing a personal project I started some time last year. I decided to stop judging people for what they wore. I come from a family where people dress more for comfort than for style so I decided to start at home but I found I worked the hardest when I was outside.

What I did was I constantly and ruthlessly questioned my judgments. If somebody's kurta slits were too high yes, it was an eyesore but how did it say anything about her aesthetic or moral nature? She could well be somebody wearing a gift that she hadn't liked to pass on. Or she could have fallen in love with the bright colours and didn't know how to fix the bared midriff. Or maybe she had more important things on her mind than occasional glimpses of bared skin. She could also think it was attractive, the way I sometimes wear a low neck or a high hem. Just because her style and mine were different, how was I to judge that hers was bad and mine was not? (My mother critisises my clothes quite a lot.)

When I was pressed to explain exactly why I raised eyebrows at people's appearances, most often I found myself lamely explaining that "it just looked bad". Which is no reason at all.

After some months of moral policing my inner fashion police I found that I just judged people less. I might dress a dear friend down for messily wearing her saree but I don't judge her for it. I might wish the man on the bus took the trouble to condition his long hair but it's his hair and I don't have a problem with his refusal to take what I think is proper care of it. It has worked very well, my little project. The bonus is that it has considerably broadened my horizons. A year or two ago I might have been intrigued by clothes like these but concluded that I would never dream of wearing a gamchha. Today I can see the inherent beauty of the fabric and appreciate the designer's vision.

The best part, to my way of thinking, is that I feel less bitchy. When I look at somebody, since I have been trying to teach myself to understand why they are wearing what they are wearing, I often notice little joys I might have overlooked otherwise -- a minute but delightful piece of accessorising, quirky colour blends, interesting hair or fabric or makeup details. Since I look at clothes because I like clothes and styling, it feels great to be less judgmental and more open to individuality. If I get over my mother's throw-on style of saree draping, I can admire the saree itself more easily (and my mother has a beautiful collection of sarees.) I have been trying to give Rahul somewhat greater choice in his daily wear and I can see the delight he takes in throwing together the most ridiculous colours -- and also how his clothes don't bother him at all, which I find truly delightful.

Being as I am on the other end of my little project, I find the comments by the schoolchildren saddening on a lot of levels. I know kids judge, I did too, but to say that somebody looks like an ayah puts the child, her teacher and the ayah down. Will the school explain that to the kid or will it direct all its focus on helping the teacher to not look like the ayah? (In Rahul's playschool his ayahs were always neat and often looked very pretty, with flowers in their hair and big, welcoming smiles on their faces.) Nail polish chips. That is what nail polish does, especially on the nails of an adult woman who works around the house and has a lot to do with her hands all day. Very few of us have the time or patience needed to maintain perfectly manicured nails all the time, so why judge somebody for chipped nail polish? It's not pretty but it's reality. (That particular comment mentioned in the article could have been made by a certain Miss Sunayana Roy about 15 years ago. I don't make any bones about that.)

Now, with all the fervour of the newly-converted I think people should stop thinking so much about what other people are wearing. Or at least, stop judging them for it and enjoy it a bit more. I promise you when you really look there is nearly always something to enjoy.

And lastly, while it is never a bad idea to help somebody dress 'better', I hope this school and all others where similar thoughts are discussed, keep a sense of proportion. These are children after all, here to be taught. A love of neat, attractive dressing and tolerance for eccentricity or unknown circumstances can go hand in hand and should do so.


R's Mom said...

I loved what you wrote Sue...I totally loved it...I am not a great dresser AT ALL..infact, let me not mince words..I am clean and neat, but I cant dress great to save my life...and yet, when I get judged, earlier I used to feel bad about it..but now after I turned 30, I have come to phase where I am just comfortable with what I wear...well, thats how I am! I loved the fact of being non judgemental about others dressing sense...I think its an amazing thing to do..something I have been telling so many people for so many dont know WHY the other person is dressed the way he/she is..

And that article :( well, it saddened me...while I agree teachers are definitely important role models, but for students to expect their teachers to wear eye make up or judge them on chipped nail polish is something I cant take!

Sunita said...

Interesting!!! You know I never cared about how I looked or how others looked untill I reached 30. That is not to say I did not like to dress up but I did it for my own satisfaction. My asthetics weren't great and my friends have made fun of some of my stuff. But I learnt and have changed. Now I am a lot more conscious of what I wear, of what I buy, of what others wear and why things aren't looking right and taking that lesson to my wardrobe. I have just about got experimental with cosmetics, infact I started basic kajal when I was 30 untill then absolutely no make-up, just the occasional nail polish.
So I think some people who are like how I was 15 years back wouldn't realize that I have just grey and maroon in my wardrobe. chatpat braided hair and no make up made the simple christian girl my mom wanted :). I am not sure what exactly happened when I touched 30.

I think instead of being plain critical and never saying a thing, if you can help a friend that would be better.

R's Mom said...

Just to let you know, I wrote a post on this today and linked up your post

Nidaa C. said...

Hi... Got here through RM's blog. Great post... Being the official goofy tomboy people often criticize & laugh at the way I dress... Of course I laugh back and all but felt pretty bad. May be I still do, even though im 26 and should be mature enough not to mind? I was sooo shocked to hear the kids comments... how do they even get time to notice all this is beyond me :D
I dont bother with formals to office. After many heated arguments HR now leaves me alone.

Pratiti said...

Okay, this is seriously concerning. I too judge people in my mind for clothes sometimes, but that is my problem, not those people's. And what are these schools! What will these kids do when they go to college and some of the country's/world's greatest minds turn up to class in flip flops! God, the world is not a fashion magazine, and real academic schools are not finishing schools.

R said...

It doesn't matter what people wear. One does them no favours by not judging them, nor any harm by judging them, because honestly, they have pretty much taken that risk and decided it not worth anything when they have chosen to dress in an unconventional way. Judging pointlessly is a waste of time and hinders personal growth - that is the only reason I would suggest that one stop judging.

One factor you missed - a possible reason for bad dressing - is not being able to afford good dresses (both money and time wise). Also, for anyone trying to get into a habit of not judging clothes, may I recommend a daily trip in a local non-AC bus? :P (Well, I live in Kolkata, don't know about your city.) There is so much variety there that I never feel judged no matter how terribly I am dressed. (And I dress quite terribly.)

What bothers me about the news article is not that they are paying attention to their teachers' clothes, but how THAT is what they are taking away from them. Have they never experienced breathtaking teaching? And how can the teachers mollycoddle those feelings - do they not realise this is symptomatic of great failure on their part as academic inspirations?

Sachinky said...

I work as a kindergarten teacher in the US and I always take care to make sure I dress presentably. My hair is done, I have a touch of make up on, I wear comfortable gray dress slacks, a professional-looking dark colored blouse and nice shoes. Accessorized with big earrings or a bright scarf. Sometimes I wear heels but I kick them off and run around barefoot. If I have something important like a board meeting or a parent teacher conference, I will wear a formal blazer on top.

My kids notice. They are five years old but they notice. Whether I am wearing a new scarf, or I curled my hair differently or changed my nail-polish. They will *always* comment on it, too.

I spend almost nine hours at work so that's most of my day that I am awake and I like looking pretty. There are of course, other teachers who turn up in faded tees and running shoes and frankly, I judge them. Being an adult in a working world, means being able to present yourself professionally without having to look like you stepped off the pages of a fashion mag. You can be sure the middle schoolers are judging them too.

starry eyed said...

I loved what you write here. Having stepped back out into the world after a decade of dowdy dressing at home, I sometimes feel I'm going crazy imagining what others think of (and comment on) what I wear, my make-up and my hair. It takes so much energy to stop worrying about it and just let myself be the way I want to be that day. It helps that the 'dress code' in the office allows for a lot of variety.

I totally agree...everyone does something right, so instead of looking critically at their dress and style, I just appreciate that everyone does look good in their own way.

And it's interesting that when I'm supremely confident about something I'm trying newly, I attract a lot of compliments and appreciation, bit when I'm nervous and self-conscious, I get those bitchy stares and looks-up-and-down that say it all.

And yes, the dowdy dressing and lack of attention to my appearance for many years WAS because we had financial problems, and I was trying to cover up my attractiveness like a good Indian woman should. :( I did not appreciate the insensitive advice from people about my appearance.

Sue said...

R's Mom -- Hey, clean and neat is all it takes. If we all wore haute couture life would be pretty blah.

Sunita -- You know, I think I now want pictures. What colours have you added to your wardrobe recently? (Excuse my nosiness; I really do like to know what people wear.)

Nidaa -- I'm glad your HR leaves you alone. I've been dropped from client visits because I wasn't in a saree/shalwar-kameez.

Pratiti -- Well said. It's our problem, not the wearer's. :)

R -- I live in Kolkata and regularly travel in the public transport here. I didn't mention expense because I don't think it's necessarily a factor in bad dressing. What I notice are bad fits, colour mismatches etc. I know women with a fraction of my dressing budget who stay beautifully coordinated so money may or may not be a factor.

Sachinky -- I quite agree with you. My aunt taught junior school for many years and she taught me the same wisdom. I know my son and his friends pay keen attention to what their mothers and teachers wear and comment on what they notice.

My point was not that a teacher or her appearance is above criticism: I said that I expect the school to teach the children to express their opinions better, to take their teachers' feelings into consideration. If your kindergartner calls you or your dress ugly you will take a call on whether or not to teach him how to phrase that better. He is five, he has time to learn. A 15 year-old better learn fast because the real world is not that far away.

As for you judging your colleagues, well, I've taught myself to ease up on that and I find it's a nicer feeling. Diff'rent strokes, I guess, but you've been reading me long enough to know that I can be far too judgmental for my own good.

Starry -- Ah yes, confidence makes a world of difference. That's something I learnt from theatre. I speak as someone who wears neon orange and turquoise blue on her feet and feathers in her hair, not to mention corsets and halternecks on public transport. ;)