National Dress suits our country, climate and culture
Sri Lankan President
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
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
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
Many Sinhalese who wore the coat and cloth now changed over to the
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
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
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
Former Indian Premier
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
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
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
However, this Sri Lankan attire gave way to Western clothing when Sri
Lanka was colonised by Western powers like the Portuguese, the Dutch and
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
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
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
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
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
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.