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Decoding India's Dress Code

By Ajit Balakrishnan
January 09, 2024 08:55 IST
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...Is a cultural swaraj under way, wonders Ajit Balakrishnan.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The man looked at me with a puzzled face when I greeted him. He and I have known each other since we started working but have not been in touch the past dozen years or so.

I could guess the reason for his puzzled look: I have been encountering that look from many of my acquaintances since I started occasionally wearing khadi kurta pyjamas instead of my usual jeans and T-shirt, which is the dress code for those of us in the tech world.

I stepped closer to him, and his face lit up with recognition.

"I wondered who that politician waving at me is, but now that I see your face up close and recognise it, I wonder even more: Has my friend who passionately espoused tech causes and innovations become a politician and started espousing communal and caste-based causes?"

I assured him I hadn't. We hugged and ended up chatting and catching up.

I told him what had nudged me to wear khadi kurtas was my trip with a group of friends down the Rann of Kutch and on to Porbandar, where we went to see the house where Mohandas Gandhi was born and spent his early years.

When I sat in that house, my mind was flooded with thoughts.

How could a boy born in this remote small town progress to become not only the Father of the Nation but also create a world-changing philosophy of non-violent political action against overwhelmingly powerful oppressors?

When I had finished my period of astonishment and wonder and stepped out of the Gandhi home, I spotted a Khadi Bhandar next door.

I then found myself unwittingly buying half a dozen kurta pyjamas with the kurtas in multiple colours.

That's how I slid into the kurta pyjama world.

Encountering the puzzled look on my friends' faces each time I stepped out in a kurta pyjama outfit made me wonder about 'dress code': The intricate set of rules human society has established about who ought to wear what.

For instance, why is it that the premier of China and prime minister of Japan (to name just two countries) always appear in Western-style coats, ties, trousers, and shoes whereas every Indian prime minister from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi always wears kurta pyjama?

China and Japan have cultures, histories, and dress codes as ancient as India's, but why have they abandoned that in favour of Western formal wear?

When I checked with a Chinese friend, this is what he told me: What Mao made famous as the 'Mao suit' was originally conceived by Sun Yat Sen, who saw the new design as a rejection of Western imperialism but many years later Jiang Zemin started wearing only Western suits because he felt this was a rejection of the former Communist economic system as well as a symbol of progress.

Chinese leaders since then have worn only Western suits.

In the Indian corporate world, chairmen, chief executive officers, and other senior male folk across all industries are expected to be attired in Western suits whereas women in similar senior roles are expected to wear the classic sari.

Practically all the professions the Indian middle class aspires to -- doctors, accountants, engineers, architects, bankers, and lawyers (to name a few) -- in their professional roles are expected to wear Western clothes.

Is this a way of signalling to the Indian public that people dressed in Western clothes are the knowledgeable and competent ones and all others are mere pretenders?

When we come to professions in India, lawyers and judges can never be seen in court in any dress other than the classic British robe and cap.

I have heard and read instances, some as recent as last week, of disallowing lawyers not in their formal Western outfit from arguing their case in court.

A lawyer's dress code in India is governed by the Bar Council of India Rules, under the Advocates Act, 1961, making it mandatory for every lawyer to wear a black robe or coat.

'Black' is seen as a symbol of authority.

Then we have the system where Union ministers in the central government are always seen in Indian kurta/pyjama/sari whereas senior IAS and IFS officers who work closely with them are always seen in coats and ties.

And historically, school children in India are supposed to wear uniforms.

For boys, the typical school uniform consists of a white or light-coloured shirt with a collar, with either black or navy blue pants or shorts.

For girls, the uniform usually consists of a white or light-coloured blouse paired with either a skirt or pants in a specific colour.

We have all grown up accepting this as the correct thing to do.

My confoundedness about India's dress code reached a new height when I recently heard the Indian Institutes of Technology had made it a requirement that all their graduates at their annual convocation where degrees certificates were given to them must be dressed in kurta/pyjama/dhoti/sari!

What is afoot, dear reader? Our drift towards kurta/pyjama/dhoti/sari for official roles is a sign that we Indians are sliding out of our colonial legacy, a cultural swaraj, or is it a sign of sliding out of modernism?

Ajit Balakrishnan (, founder and CEO,, is an Internet entrepreneur.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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