Dress codes don't belong in this century

Last Updated: Fri, Oct 30, 2015 10:18 hrs

As the internet fumes over the now-infamous Indigo incident – where a woman passenger was stopped from boarding her flight, and eventually missed it, because her dress was “too short” – the company itself has shown little remorse.

All that an official who spoke to the media would allow was that the “issue” had not been “handled appropriately” – with three Indigo staffers accosting the woman, in the presence of other passengers. The excuse the airline provided was that she was an ex-employee, and the sister of a current employee, and travelling for free on the airline, which apparently requires her to adhere to a particular dress code. To fulfil this requirement, the passenger had to change into other clothes, and board a later flight.



There was no unconditional apology to her, no acknowledgment that the policy itself was a regressive one.

Worse, it puts the company’s double standards on display.

Take this advertisement from 2010, where Indigo refers to its female flight attendants as “hostesses”, and highly sexualises them, as winking, smooching women who only need to “do their makeup on time” and “look oh-so-pretty on time”, and – oh – wear skirts with hemlines way above the knee.

Or, take this advertisement from the following year, when the airline went international, and had the models wear even shorter skirts, and also do high kicks in them.


If this is how Indigo would like us to visualise their flight attendants – who, for the record, are supposed to not just look pretty and serve food, but also be aware of air safety precautions, and ensure that all the passengers get out alive before they do in case of an emergency – why do they claim to have fine print about the clothes their employees and kin should wear?

The only other time I heard of a passenger having to change clothes to board a flight was when a male friend travelled on Saudia, Saudi Arabia’s airline. He was made to change out of his shorts before boarding, because his hairy legs had the potential to tempt fellow passengers into unholy thoughts.

Is this the message Indigo wants to send out?

It hasn’t been long since Sairam College of Engineering’s circular with “special instructions for girls” broke the internet. Along with leggings, short kurtas, transparent dupattas, high heels, anarkalis, Patiala salwars, the college also forbade the mysterious sounding “knot type (backside) tops”.

On being questioned, the college’s CEO claimed the circular was fake, and said students of different genders were indeed allowed to interact, unless they were from different academic streams, because in that case “the talk cannot pertain to academics.” He was rather more reticent about the dress code itself.

Dress codes in colleges are not new, though they are rarely as draconian as the one in the circular.

I went to a college for some time, where even while we studied feminism and our lecturers spoke about how a woman should have the right to walk the streets naked without being raped, we were forced to follow a dress code that got steadily stricter. If you wore a sleeveless kurta, or a top that did not hang way below your waistline, a nun was bound to tick you off, and suggest you dress “decently, as God made us.” I’ve heard that dupattas are now compulsory.

Last year, an American school on the outskirts of Chicago got into some trouble over rules that banned leggings and yoga pants for female students, on the grounds that they could prove “too distracting” for the boys.

The wording that explains the “necessity” for these dress codes, leave alone the codes themselves, reinforce the idea that women are responsible for the effect what they wear may have on those around them. In other words, they are “asking for it”.

Some weeks back, a Tamil sleaze rag, which usually contains details of the private lives of second-rung actors, hit the headlines for stalking women in leggings, taking their pictures without permission, and splashing them across its pages, as evidence of the moral decay in Tamil society.

We should perhaps be grateful that most people on the internet slam these attempts at slut-shaming. But it is troubling that anyone should feel he or she has the right to legislate against what someone should wear. Last year, singer K J Yesudas felt no compunction for deploring the idea of women wearing jeans.

Of course, it is not just women against whom discrimination on the basis of clothes is practised. Most pubs and clubs insist that men wear trousers and dress shoes. The colonial clubs to which our desis are so keen to claim membership have refused entry to members in traditional Indian attire, clearly immune to the racism inherent in their rules, confusing xenophobia for tradition.

Most temples refuse entry to women who are not wearing dupattas, and anyone – man or woman – who is wearing shorts. If I’m not wrong, most temples insist that women should wear saris or salwar kameez.

Dress codes do not belong in this century. They do not belong in any country that claims to be modernising.

In imposing them, we are creating an unnatural way of being, where people are defined by what they wear, where character is somehow dependent on sartorial choice. And that is just plain wrong.

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 Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched:
 The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book  
 on www.nandinikrishnan.com