We never thought it incongruous at that time that three of us; me and my two brothers, would march to the school dressed in the sartorial splendour of what was called a bush shirt, all made of a material called linen, bottle green in colour. This came about since my father was a great believer in the economy of scale through wholesale purchase and that particular summer, the local Seematti shop had got a huge stock of green linen. I remember Chakrapani, the tailor, rambling deliriously with admiration for the material, to the great happiness of my father.
Green and pink linen bush shirts were exceptions rather than rule, since the school frowned upon any colour stronger than grey. The fact that half trousers and later mundu with half shirt was the standard raiment also reined in possibilities. School and later college saw the continuation of this subdued expressions of different shades of whites and grey.
White remained the preference even when I got a teaching job in the Athanasius college in Kothamangalam, with the difference that I could afford better quality of clothes without feeling guilty. The pants that many of my colleagues wore was an allurement; but I was too much of a native at heart to be lured by western garments.
My first encounter with a suit saw me a loser, as it would happen in most of my future sartorial adventures. While I was teaching at Kothamangalam, I was called for an interview in distant Delhi; a CSIR interview for a research scholarship. This was to be in December, and the Delhi winters were known to my father to be severe. Ever a practical man, he decided to have a woolen suit stitched for me, in deference to the weather as well as to the occasion. Knowing that I would have objected because of the cost, he decided to get this done without consulting me. The tailor was shown a person of my approximate build and was told to dress him up. The shops in Trivandrum, not known for the winter collection, yielded a coarse gray wool. When I landed in Trivandrum, ready for the journey north, I was handed down the apparel, which, considering the circumstances of its birth, fitted me reasonably well.
When I reached Aligarh for starting my Ph. D work, I was sternly told by my friends that the pants I had got stitched in Trivandrum had a 1930’s look. They insisted on a complete change of outfit, despite the fact that this was going to be an expensive affair. Considering their appreciation of my selections, I decided not to tell them I was the proud possessor of a suit. This led to another splurging for the winter suit. The Trivandrum suit remained with me for a long time, never worn, until my wife decided to exchange it for an aluminum utensil, much to my grief.
The freedom from whites and greys made me go through a phase of rash experimentation, which ended only with my marriage. The shocked expression on the face of my would-be wife, when she met me for the first time at the airport when the flight from Delhi reached Cochin (I was wearing a creation in mustard yellow) made me realize that my experiments with primary colours were over. She continued to be in shock until we met again in the traditional custom of selecting the bridal sari- manthrakodi- at Seematti shop, with me in the customary white of the Syrian Christian bridegroom. Much against the desire expressed in various quarters that I should present myself in a suit at the wedding, I chose to wear the traditional white.
The liberalization of the late nineties brought new temptations to the market: the ready-made shirts and trousers. Raymond was one of the first to start organised apparel retail in India. Textile manufacturers pioneered retail chains which became very popular. Raymond, a leader, started selling pants and shirts over the counter as early as 1958, stepped it up from the eighties on. Raymond’s stores led to its ubiquitous brand recall to this day. The relationship started in Ahmedabad has followed me to Kottayam, which has an excellent Raymonds showroom.
With family and children, the focus shifted to children and how to dress them up in modern styles. With my moving to Ahmedabad and a job with the Physical Research Laboratory, occasional trips abroad became a great opportunity to buy smart dresses for the children, who admired appa’s selections.
In my sixties, I realized the virtues of what is called the polo shirt. This is despite the taint the polo shirt has acquired because of its association with delivery men or college boys.The polo gets further damned as the preferred raiment of the sartorially challenged — an event demands a shirt with a collar, but one can’t be bothered to button up.
Polo shirt has an identity crisis since it falls between a t-shirt and a dress shirt. It is an ideal wear for the many events in life that falls between formal and casual. I have found it particularly convenient to wear a polo shirt with a jacket on my many ITER trips. Google tells us that Polo got its name from the designer Ralph Lauren, who called his line of casual wear Polo. There was a time when outfitters Lacoste and Lauren battled it out for dominance.
Serious thinking on the wardrobe happened when I got an assignment at IAEA in 2001 as the head of the Physics Section. IAEA job is defined as International Civil Service and there are guidelines on what to wear to work and for formal occasions. Fortunately, by this time, Ahmedabad had a collection of stylish outfitters. I assembled my wardrobe, considering both the severe winter in Vienna and the sartorial demands of my job. We chose Jade Blue to execute the project.
Another occasion which demanded serious thinking on what to wear happened when I was invited to the Padma Ceremony in Delhi. Protocol was prescribed which covered what to wear. This time in Delhi, it was the blazing April and in deference to that, I chose to wear a light suit, stitched for the occasion.
As youngsters, we deferred to our parents’ views as far as dressing up went. We had no Facebook to set our fashion standards. Dress was not something to be fussed over. My grandchildren have strong views on what to wear, what colour and cut. I believe I saw its emergence in my children, but never with the vehemence of the third generation.