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The T-Shirt Wars

By Ajit Balakrishnan
Last updated on: May 17, 2022 10:08 IST
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Ajit Balakrishnan on the evolution of a cultural symbol.

IMAGE: Mark Zuckerberg, Marlon Brando and Peter Thiel. Photographs: Getty Images
 

I stood gazing admiringly at the perfect green grass of the football field from the entrance to a famous gymkhana club in South Bombay. How lucky are the people who have the privilege of playing football here every day, I thought.

I was dressed in my usual T-shirt, jeans, and athletic shoes, and felt like jumping on to the football field and kicking a few balls around, except that there was no one playing anything there.

"Why are you in a T-shirt! Why haven't you worn a tie and a jacket?!" I heard the angst-driven voice of an acquaintance standing at the club entrance where I was.

"I am wearing what I always wear: T-shirt and jeans," I said to him.

"But you can't wear a T-shirt and jeans to the club bar, where you are going to be interviewed for membership!" he said, his voice on the edge of panic.

I merely smiled and nudged him into the bar, where he guided me to a group of three men, in suits standing in the middle of the room, and introduced me to the three of them. I could see them surveying me up and down with formal smiles, and finally they said, "Hello."

"Here is our first question," one of them said. "You have been working in Bombay for five years after graduating from IIM-Calcutta, how come you haven't applied for membership to this club earlier?"

"I have been occupied with more important things, founding an ad agency, Rediffusion, with two friends... I thought I would deal with things like club membership a little later," I said.

I could see their faces darken with frowns. A few minutes of further chat and they shuffled to another part of the bar, saying that they had a committee meeting to attend.

As soon as they slid out of hearing, my acquaintance looked me straight in the eye and said: "You have shot any chances of being admitted as a member in this club!"

"What did I do wrong?" I asked.

"First, you come for a membership interview meeting dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, then you tell them that spending your time on making your new business successful is more important than becoming a member of this prestigious 100-odd-year-old gymkhana!"

He was right. I did not hear from the gymkhana after that.

That event was in 1976 and I was in my 20s. And since then, I have been refused entry into the famous Calcutta Club because even though I wore a formal suit, the T-shirt I had on was collarless. I was told: "We are a businessman's club, and you need to wear a businessman's attire."

I had a similar experience in an ex-colonial hill station Gymkhana Club in the Nilgiris.

Since then, while I have kept a foot in the world of marketing, I have largely and passionately embraced the world of technology and computer programming, where exactly the converse of this happens: The T-shirt is the only acceptable form of dress and those who dress with suits and ties are seen to be mere salesmen.

In 2012, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, on his IPO roadshow on Wall Street, appeared in the winter-weather version of a T-shirt, a hoodie, a senior commentator on Bloomberg TV said: 'He's actually showing investors he doesn't care that much... I think that's a mark of immaturity... he's got to show them the respect that they deserve because he’s asking them for their money.'

Where did the tech industry, starting with Silicon Valley, get this passion for T-shirts? There is a view that the T-shirt symbolises freedom, and that you value merit over appearance.

Historically, the T-shirt started out in America as the dress that labourers like farmers and miners wore. It appears to have achieved its symbolic status when Marlon Brando, in 1950, wore one in his role of Stanley Kowalski first in the Broadway play and then the hit film A Streetcar Named Desire. This was the first time a T-shirt appears as outerwear in an American film.

It was felt that the T-shirt gave the performer nowhere to hide, it gave the audience a new way of looking at the male body on screen, not hidden under elaborate costumes, signalling his stature in society ... a sense of genuineness.

'The tech companies that came up in the '70s were founded by children of the '60s and prided themselves on a relaxed and informal workplace where individual creativity could have free rein. As tech has come to influence the American and global economy, its sartorial norms have inspired change in even such old and hidebound professions as finance and legal services,' says Richard Ford in his recent book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History.

He also notes in his book that in 18th century Europe, elite working men began abandoning 'opulent, aristocratic clothing such as velvet, fur, brocade, and jewellery and adopted a simple suit and tie in uniform colours such as grey and this suit came to represent the Enlightenment ideals of social equality and reason' and the moral values of sobriety, thrift, and modesty; and the civic virtues of industriousness and practicality.'

But soon, the suit came to symbolise a superior class of elite men, more so in India under British Raj.

But as the techies and their culture start dominating the corporate world, things are moving to such an extent towards jeans and T-shirts that tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and revered as a perceptive early spotter of talented start-ups (he was an early investor in Facebook), says this in his 2014 book Zero to One: 'Never invest in a tech CEO who wears a suit.'

As digital technologies like machine learning spread deep into these professions, will cutting-edge lawyers and doctors start switching to T-shirts?

Ajit Balakrishnan (ajitb@rediffmail.com), founder and CEO, Rediff.com, is an Internet entrepreneur.

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