A restaurant in Delhi is in the centre of a nine-yard controversy, as it were. It turned away a customer at the door for not complying with its 'smart casual' dress code. The lady turned away was wearing a saree.
A dress code at a private restaurant is not unusual. All or most restaurants have one. And the history of clubs from Lutyens' Delhi to Mayfair London is littered with many offended people turned back for wearing grubby trainers or clothes that didn't adhere to the dress code. Singer Jess Glynne had to apologise to a restaurant in London for alleging discrimination " she was wearing a hoodie when the dress code clearly stated no hoodie.
At the Delhi restaurant, called Aquila and the current scene of the alleged sartorial crime, the lady turned away is heard asking the staff at the door where it is written that a saree is not allowed. She is sounding clearly outraged.
The outrage has spilled over onto social media. Women are uploading photos of themselves in saree with hashtags such as #SorryButNotSaree in solidarity. Men are also taking it up as "a direct attack on Indian culture." All hell has broken loose.
An old pic with my colleague Shara Ashraf Prayag. The debate around whether #Saree is a smart outfit or not evaporates in the sheer pride with which we wear it 😊 Context : a Delhi restaurant not allowing women wearing sarees pic.twitter.com/LG2IWOLtJb
" Sonal Kalra 🇮🇳 (@sonalkalra) September 22, 2021
Saree is smart casual, smart formal, anytime&everywhere wear. Have even worn it overseas with pride, never felt discriminated against! Anyone in India who thinks otherwise is ignorant& in denial of India's own cultural heritage. They should apologise.
" Priyanka Chaturvedi🇮🇳 (@priyankac19) September 22, 2021
Images coming in from the #USA where women frm #Indian diplomatic mission and diaspora are seen in #sarees are tight slaps on #Macaulay kids in #India who consider the attire as an epitome of backwardness.#saree binds the nation across its geography & with the world as well. pic.twitter.com/6lq5JQK4lX
" Abhishek Singhvi (@DrAMSinghvi) September 25, 2021
There are a number of issues involved here, but the primary one is confusing fashion with clothing.
A saree undoubtedly as an item of clothing for Indian women has many meanings. It is a piece of our tradition and history. It not only has a place in our museums and literature and movies, but it also evokes personal memories of mothers and grandmothers, as also represented in pieces preciously preserved and passed down for generations. It continues to spell, for a large section of not only Indian women but simply Indians, heritage and craftsmanship and is undeniably linked to our identity.
It does not, however, seem to pass the test when it comes to fashion.
Unlike clothing, which is timeless, fashions are current. While the saree remains very much alive as a piece of clothing, what is the evidence that it symbolises a 'smart casual' urban lifestyle fashion, the audience that the restaurant is targeting and wants to attract as a clientele, a branding position it is well within its right to establish? Next to nothing.
For this, let us examine the use of saree today in its various contexts. The saree is, without doubt, a fashion, indeed the top fashion, in the wedding market, which would fall under the dress code of 'formal' wear. Indian fashion designers have been making a killing from it over decades.
While it is very much still a part of the 'business casual' workforce, this is restricted to the conservative workforce. Politicians and bureaucrats wear it to work as a norm. It represents the people. In many conservative heartlands, it remains the choice of wear for working women in fields and in labour force and at home, but this is not the audience the restaurant is trying to reach.
In the more liberal sectors of the workforce, though, the trendy lot that leads fashions, it has shown a steady decline over the decades with western pants-shirt or functional salwar-kameez as the preferred option and has today become an exception rather than the norm as a daily dress code.
It is trendy as 'cocktail wear' and ladies in glittering chiffon sarees holding champagne glasses are often seen in the glamour sections of newspapers attending book launches at five-star hotels.
So where is the saree in the 'smart casual' everyday sector in the trendy fashions of today that the restaurant is trying to embody as a brand?
Couturier Sabyasachi is on quote admonishing women that they don't even know how to wear a saree properly " and as king of the Indian wedding wear market, he would have an insight or two on this. He is referring to urban women many of whom go to parlours to be draped in Indian designer sarees for weddings, so rare is their patronage of the traditional dress " though of course the photo op lasts a lifetime and is aired regularly under #ILoveSaree hashtags.
Sure you'll have an occasional viral video of a woman doing the hoopla or then slipping into summersaults wearing a saree but these are one-offs " in fact, they go viral particularly because these feats are deemed so unusual to be seen performed in saree. In Bollywood, the other reliable yardstick of popular culture, you don't see stars stepping out in smart casuals to restaurants either.
In edgy-cool and everyday smart casual, the saree is more or less absent. This is also understandable as 'smart casual' while not easily defined, blends comfort with chic " the saree remains tedious to drape and hard to handle and manage for those who wear it only occasionally, and is least suited to on-the-go smart casual. There may be exceptions, but when a restaurant is setting its rules, it is not expected to take the exceptions into consideration; it is referencing current culture to locate and hence state its position within it, as it has every right to do as a business and a brand.
Many critics of the restaurant have linked the non-inclusion of saree in its dress code as a 'colonial hangover' and a sign of hatred of one's own culture, invoking the 'Indians and dogs not allowed' boards that British ruling India put up to cruelly target Indians in their own country.
You could argue that an overly sentimental defense of the saree " while ignoring the facts of its evolution and current standing in the culture's fashions " is a form of a colonial hangover by itself. The national outrage over any deemed insult, real or imagined, to the saree is an indication we are identifying the clothing too much as a symbol of nationality while it is as a fashion subject to changing trends and lifestyles. It's only a saree, not the national flag with its own code.
To be truly rid of the colonial hangover, perhaps we need to stop being over-sensitive about the saree and accept it in its present and evolving forms.
(The author is a columnist and independent journalist, and author of Among the Chatterati)