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National Dress suits our country, climate and culture

Sri Lankan President
Mahinda Rajapaksa

World Leaders in their different attire

SUPPRESSION: The British who subjugated the whole of Sri Lanka in the year 1815 took various measures to suppress national resurgence. They broke the backbone of the peasant by confiscating the lands under the Waste Lands Ordinance.

They enthroned English and Sinhala that was treated as the language of the kitchen. The indigenous culture was looked down upon and the villager was downgraded and was called 'Godaya' or the rustic.

The government institutions during the colonial regime functioned in the English medium. It was compulsory for the clerical grades and upwards to attend office in full Western suit comprising coat, trouser, tie and hat. It was only those who wore trousers and could speak English was called 'Mahathmaya' or gentleman. Normal dress of those who did not know English was coat and cloth.

The higher strata in society took pride in slavishly imitating the West. However our Tamil and Muslim brethren were less prone to Westernisation than the Sinhalese. The Tamils preferred Kamisa or Banian and the Vetty that suited our climate than the Western dress.

Our womenfolk appeared in cloth and jacket, Osariya or the Indian Saree and were more or less averse to the Western frock.

With the dawn of the 20th century there was a national revival in Sri Lanka. As a result of this national awakening both Sinhala and Tamil leaders looked for a suitable national dress for the Sri Lankans.

At the inaugural meeting of the National Reform Society held at Ananda College, Colombo on July 24, 1931 attended by G. P. Malalasekera, P. de S. Kularatne, T. Devendra, W. A. de Silva, A. Meevanapalana, C. Sunderalingam and others, it was resolved that in the evolution of a national dress, cloth for men and saree for women should form the basis.

Former Prime Minister
Sirimavo Bandaranaike

In due course cloth, nationals and shatakaya (shawl) were adopted as the national dress for men and saree for women. Even before that in 1920's G. P. Malalasekera and P. de S. Kularatne appeared in the national dress.

The national costume which resembled the dress worn by many Tamils at the time suited our climate and society. Soon intellectuals like Munidasa Kumaratunga, Dr. E. W. Adikaram, Prof. M. D. Ratnasuriya and political leaders like S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe and Leslie Gunawardena appeared in the national costume.

Many Sinhalese who wore the coat and cloth now changed over to the national dress.

During the World War II (1939-45) due to shortage of textiles and other problems, the rules were relaxed and government officers were allowed to come in shirts and trousers instead of the full European suit.

However the full Western suit remained the normal dress of the elite.

Though Sri Lanka gained Independence in 1948, morally and culturally it did not appear to be a free nation. The rulers at the time just followed the British in their ideas and ideals way of life, dress and outlook. Many of the national leaders participated in the Independence celebrations in top hats, tail coats and striped trousers.

In 1954, the government declared that Sharvani should be the national dress for men. However the Sharvani did not attract the general public. During this time the national costume too underwent a change and the shawl was worn only for special occasions like weddings. At present very few wear the shatakaya or shawl with the nationals.

The victory of the MEP in 1956 brought about a social revolution in Sri Lanka, and there was a cultural renaissance as well. The Ministers and the MPs of the MEP government took their oaths in the national costume. It was a pleasant sight to see the Muslim Minister C. A. S. Marikkar and majority of Tamil members in Parliament in the national dress.

Indian Premier Manmohan Singh

After 1956, the national costume became very popular. At that time some university students and some in leading schools in the metropolis like Royal, Ananda and Nalanda too appeared in the national dress.

There was a general consensus from 1956 to 1977, that the banian and cloth was the national costume for men in Sri Lanka. It became the most popular dress among the commoners. Today, we could see that the national resurgence and cultural renaissance set in motion in 1956 is being eroded in the midst of open economy.

It is the fashion among the youth today to slavishly imitate the West. Now-a-days you could hardly see a youngster in the national costume even for a special occasion. At present it is worn mainly by the politicians and some sarcastically call it the 'Kapati Suit.'

In the meantime another dress similar to the national costume has come to the scene. There are some who wear the nationals with a tunic collar over the trousers. This dress however convenient it does not reflect the serenity and solemnity of the national costume - the nationals and cloth.

Men in the West wear the coat, trouser and tie to suit the cold climate. We who live in tropical countries should wear a dress that would suit our warm climate and environment. Instead we could see men in Sri Lanka wearing waist-coats and double-breast coats in keeping with the latest fashions in Europe undergoing further inconvenience.

I wore the national costume for my wedding. I was never uncomfortable as I was in the Western suit and was at ease all throughout the day. Will not those who wear coats, trousers, tie and waist-coats or double-breast coats made of heavy woolen material undergo difficulties at weddings? It is a common sight to see young men wearing full European dress at weddings, sweating and moving like scarecrows in front of photo studios on auspicious days.

The national dress compared to the European suit is very economical. A national dress with best material for an occasion like a wedding would cost less than Rs. 1,500. The tailoring cost alone for a Western suit would far exceed that amount.

A European suit made with so much expense could be worn only for a special occasion by an average person. It would be out of place for other occasions. After such limited use the style would go out of fashion after some time. The national dress on the other hand would suit any occasion.

Former Indian Premier
Javaharlal Nehru

Our ladies who wear the saree for weddings and other occasions seem to be more prudent than men in their dress. Although there is a tendency among some women to wear frocks and jeans at times projecting the sensitive parts of their anatomy - still the standard dress for the womenfolk in Sri Lanka is the Oriental saree.

It is believed that the saree is the most beautiful dress for Oriental women. It is said than among the beauties who serve as air hostesses, Sri Lankan beauties are outstanding because of the saree they wear.

Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike has been admired all over the world not only for her achievements in the political field as the first premier in the world, but also for the impression she had created as a Sinhala Kula Kanthava (noble lady), with her simple and serene outlook. There is no doubt that the Kandyan Osariya she wore has helped to give her that unique and modest appearance.

The dress that suits the Sri Lankan ladies is the Oriental saree. It suits our climate and culture. There is no more pleasant sight than a simple and serene Sinhala Kula Kanthava, clad in white Osariya carrying a tray of flowers to the temple.

It is true that there are variations in the national costume of men. Some wear long nationals and others make it short. Some wear a shawl and others do without it. Some have a collar for the national and others wear it without a collar. You get such variations in any costume.

In the European suit some wear single-breast coats. Others go for double-breast coats. Some wear a waist-coat. Others do not. Even in the Oriental saree you get variations like low-country saree, Kandyan Osariya and the Indian saree.

The variations in the national costume could be made use of to enhance the personality of each individual with the style that suits him.It is true that we have to move forward with the fast developing world.

From left to right: Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, King Wangchuk of Bhutan, Bangladeshi PM Sheik Hasina, Bolivian President Evo Morales

For this purpose we have to make use of scientific and technological advancement found in the West. This does not mean that we should just ape the West in every aspect.

In this respect we should take a lesson from our big brother and neighbour India. Although India has made use of modern science and technology for progress, the people in India jealously sustain their cultural values with a sense of pride. They always wear the national costume for occasions.

In Sri Lanka the trouser and shirt would be convenient for daily work. Nevertheless we should wear the national costume for occasions to maintain our national identity.

It is an anomaly that when our womenfolk wear the Oriental saree for the occasions, the men appear in the European attire.

(The writer is a former High Court Judge)


Western or national dress: Which is best ?

The origin of clothes could be traced back to the very beginnings of mankind. According to historians, human beings started covering themselves with leaves and animal skin after the caveman. The primary purpose of clothes at that age, it is said, was to protect oneself from extreme climates and weather.

Millions of years after the caveman, clothes are today worn by the large majority of the world's population for different purposes and in different forms, sizes and designs. In addition to their original function, clothes are now associated with multiple purposes including decency, fashion and identity, and from this stems the current debate as to what is suitable for various cultures and climates.

The traditional Sri Lankan dress is considered to be the 'national' (sarong and a loose long sleeved shirt) for men, and the Kandyan saree for women.

However, this Sri Lankan attire gave way to Western clothing when Sri Lanka was colonised by Western powers like the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English.

As a result, only a handful of Sri Lankan men are seen in 'nationals' today, although a large number of local women still prefer to be clad in the saree, either the Sri Lankan or the Indian way.

Like in many countries which came under colonial rule, people shed their traditional attire for Western clothing, often to express their allegiance to the Western rulers and thus obtain powerful positions and various other benefits under the new regime.

Ironically however, the new dress code totally disregarded the primary function of clothes. The Western full suit with the coat and the tie caused enormous discomfort when worn in the heat of the tropical sun while the flowing Victorian dresses with layers of fabric were also a total mismatch to the local climate.

The case is the same in the present Sri Lankan society where most of the people in the echelons of power and at the top of the business world prefer to dress up in the Western full suit despite the difficulties associated with it.

And what about most Sri Lankan bridegrooms who sweat in their full suits on their wedding day alongside their brides dressed in the traditional saree? Ironically, while the couple endure the agony, many visitors are increasingly opting for ethnic wear to attend weddings.

However, it would be far from the truth to claim that all Western clothes are unsuitable for countries like Sri Lanka. In fact, most Western attire designed nowadays afford much comfort and ease equally to the Westerners living in other parts of the world.

This, coupled with the eye-catching designs, would explain why our younger generation is increasingly attracted to trousers, t-shirts, shorts etc coming from the West.

They are also cheaper in most instances than the Eastern counterparts, which is a blessing for those on a tight budget. They are also easily available almost everywhere and one can just pick them up readymade, whereas the national dress has to be tailored in most cases.

One should also consider the suitability of the Western dress in a working environment.

For example, a shirt/blouse and trouser would be more practical than a national dress/saree if you are required to work with machinery, for safety reasons. Moreover, the full Western dress, tie and all, could actually be a blessing in the chilly airconditioned environments of most corporate offices.

While the locals embrace the Western attire, foreigners living here and coming here on holidays are often seen frequenting ethnic wear shops in Colombo and elsewhere.

Eastern attire is all the rage in the West, especially after high-profile figures in the West were seen wearing sarongs and sarees. Moreover, the global appeal of Indian beauty queens cum film stars have resulted in Westerners yearning for similar attire.

In the end, dress is a personal choice. But one cannot ignore cultural realities altogether in selecting a dress for a particular occasion. For example, a party dress would not be appropriate for a religious function. A casual outfit does not fit a formal event.

Let us ponder this whole question in the weeks to come.

Do write in with your views on the topic 'Western or national dress: what is best ?'. Send your contributions (in 750-1,000 words) to 'Daily News Debate', Daily News, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, PO Box 1217, Colombo, or via e-mail to [email protected] before January 31, 2007.


Zimbabwe furore over loincloths

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Twin Zimbabwean brothers arrested for wearing loincloths have agreed to end their shocking campaign for traditional dress and wear shirts and shorts.

Tafadzwanashe and Tapiwanashe Fichani were charged with indecent exposure after walking around in goatskin kilts, which left their buttocks exposed.

They spent two weeks in prison, where their mental states were evaluated. The much-publicised case has reignited the debate over traditional versus western dress in Zimbabwe.

The brothers were arrested while wearing the nhembe loincloths on their daily walk to a shopping centre near their home in an upmarket suburb of the capital, Harare.

Since their release, their father has been shielding them from the media. But prior to their arrest, the 22-year-olds said that they had received a calling from God to give up their western clothing when they were living in the UK.

They had spent two years studying there, but left after Tafadzwanashe was arrested on fraud allegations and deported. The brothers said that those who look down on them for their decision were "mentally colonised", as they were just going back to how things were before Europeans arrived in Africa.

The twins also shunned chairs and beds and sat and slept only on the floor. They have reignited a debate about the place of traditional dress, but not many people in the capital are on their side.

BBC News



Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Sri Lanka
Kapruka - www.lanka.info

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