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On Clothes And Modernity

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In a high school history book published in the United States and circulated to an extent in Bangladesh is a picture of the Japanese and Chinese negotiating terms of surrender after the first Sino-Japanese War. Part of the caption reads: "Notice the difference in clothing between the two parties: the Japanese are wearing suits while the Chinese are still wearing their traditional clothes".

As a young lad, I was all for 'modernity' of the Japanese sort, the kind of modernity that degrades a human being. The spirit of 'modernity' has been caught powerfully in film by Bernardo Bertolucci. In 'The Last Emperor", we hear the emperor's cousin, a young woman trained by the Japanese as a fighter pilot, say to the Empress: "I wish I could bomb Shanghai". The Empress flounces out of the room: an apt repartee.

Now, a tad wiser, I am bemused by the word. What could it possibly mean? Today, the Japanese still wear the kimono, according to the Britannica, and sociologists point out the absence of civil society and a culture of obedience in the third-richest country in the world: all this makes Japan unmodern (it can't be premodern with such superior technology, one presumes). Even the United States qualifies for nonmodernity because of the lingering belief in (God!) God. Modernity was supposed to have done with all that nonsense. What about Europe, then? Is it the sole lighthouse of modernity in a darkness of the nonmodern? Afraid not. Europe is run by unelected bureaucrats, so fails to qualify as a modern society. The word, then, has no meaning: like the unicorn or the Minotaur, we know whereof we speak, but not of what we speak.

Trousers, then, do not make for modernity. The Japanese referred to at the outset were trouser-wearing savages, as subsequent events were soon to tell. Even today, the memory of what the Japanese did to a 'backward', 'premodern' people is seared into the victims' collective memory. If modernity means anything today, surely it must be the loss of conscience.

I was talking to a 'modern' Turkish girl who felt it necessary to justify her trousers and shirt on the grounds that she was not a farm girl. Farm girls in Turkey, it seems, wear the shalwar (a loose, trouser-like garment). Curious argument, that. My mother, my wife and the farm girl in Bangladesh all wear the same garment: the saree. Yet the first two of them have never had to bend down over a single stalk of paddy with the mud between their toes. Apparently, one doesn't have to leave village gear behind when embarking upon urban life. At my wits' end, I asked my youngest sister-in-law, a highly qualified eye specialist, if wearing the shalwar or the saree did not make the doctors at her hospital inefficient. She was puzzled by my question and said, "We all either wear shalwar-kameez or the saree, and they have never made us inefficient!" I felt suitably stupid after that remonstrance.

"Because we share some necessities with European women. For example, I prefer to wear jeans and T-shirt too. Because I need easily to use my legs and arms." These were the words of my 'modern' Turkish interlocutor.

I see: unless you wear jeans and T-shirts, you cannot easily use your legs and arms (karate and judo teachers take note); therefore, only European women easily use their legs and arms, and those who wear jeans and T-shirt; women in Bangladesh do not easily use their legs and arms. Over two million female workers toil in our garments factories and they wear shalwar: so they can't use their legs and arms, even though they are competing with garments workers from all over the world, including Europe and America. I wonder if this somehow fits into the theory of comparative advantage.

Indeed, if one forced the millions of trishaw-pullers in Bangladesh to wear pants instead of lungis, they would be positively inefficient. If the pants didn't burst at the first push of the pedal when overcoming the inertia of rest, then it certainly would tear when controlling the inertia of motion. And one must remember that Bangladesh is poor, not because our farmers wear lungis (a sort of waist-high garment that's held together by a knot at the belly), but because we lack good governance: twenty years of 'modern' democracy has had no effect on poverty. And one must remember that the green revolution was made possible not by a change in the farmer's get-up, but by a breakthrough in rice variety.

But there's more to the story than efficiency. When a Bangladeshi friend of ours resident in Canada was here to spend a vacation, she never wore trousers, but always the shalwar-kameez. Her sisters-in-law, who preen themselves on being 'modern' girls, had a good laugh over her bucolic simplicity at which the poor girl took considerable offence. Now, inefficiency does not provoke laughter: inappropriateness does. A 'modern' girl living in Canada has no business wearing local dresses. Even 'modern' girls here don't wear them. Not because they are inefficient, but because they are not -- western.

The variety of women's clothing in Bangladesh renders this country a sort of sartorial museum. Take the lovely women in the south-eastern hills. There are many tribes there, and some of them still practice slash-and-burn cultivation, which, I am told by Chakma men and women, is undertaken mostly by women. The Chakma, Marma and other women wear the thabin and angi, and the thami and blouse. They tramp mile after mile of hill and jungle in these clothing. Would I want that they give up their traditional clothes and adopt the saree and shalwar-kameez, the dresses of the dominant majority? Would I want to impoverish myself by the loss of diversity that would entail? Emphatically, no.  


Mrong ladies in traditional garb by Iftekhar Sayeed

The westernization of clothes marks the progress to 'modernity'. The peer pressure among young people to don unisex clothing must be enormous. A paradigmatic shift is beginning to take place, albeit only in the realm of clothing and among the affluent. Mind you, the shalwar-kameez is just as unisex as the jeans-and-t-shirt: in Pakistan, men and women both wear the garb.

And the variety of the shalwar makes one giddy: today, the hottest shalwar in fashion is the 'dhoti cut': this is a shalwar with the leg bifurcated at the back a little to give the effect of an Indian 'dhoti' Equally popular is the 'chooridar': a shalwar with very tight legs that cling, and the garment gathers in folds at the ankles. The effect is one of subdued eroticism.

As for the saree, it can be worn in many ways. Modest women wrap it around themselves fairly closely. The more adventurous like to show a bit of flesh, and wear 'micro-blouses' that reward the male gazer with a generous view of their backs. Still more 'daring' women wear the saree below their navel, and, on a higher scale, wear sleeveless blouses and fold the garment only once about the chest with some diaphanous material that leaves little to the imagination. Indeed, the saree is an elegant outfit, and the wearer reminds one of the Greek maidens in their flowing, rippling attire.

"My usual uniform for a hot summer evening -- jeans, sandals and a comfortable cotton tunic -- is putting people out of business", observes TIME journalist, Jessica Puddusery, from New Delhi, with, she admits, a little guilt. In the last two decades, the popularity of the saree has declined in India's capital, and thousands of weavers are losing their livelihood. Imagine having to lose your livelihood because some body-covering makes a woman feel 'modern'. "Youngsters feel like it's more 'oldy' stuff," notes an obviously young girl. "I think it's just gradually dying out with time."

Now the final question remains: when do we date the beginning of modernity? For it cannot be claimed that Europe was always 'modern'. In fact, 'modernity' is deliberately contrasted with what came before in Western Europe: the Dark Ages.   Interestingly, the source of this 'modernity' was China, with its gunpowder, printing press, compass, and, above all, the horse collar. But then, as we have seen, China became unmodern!

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http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
 
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'Modernity' always makes me laugh. It is an ideolo... by Iftekhar Sayeed on Thursday, Mar 8, 2012 at 10:08:18 AM