For over a fortnight now, the world has been wrought by an issue of enormous significance, one that affects the lives of all men. In size, it is bigger than Donald Trump’s thumb and in scale its footprint could well cover half of humanity.
In India we have largely chosen to dig our head in the sand and pretend that by ignoring it we will escape its wrath. But mark my words, it will singe Indian companies too. So before the epidemic, for that’s what it is if you look at its ferocity and its possible impact, hits us all, let me raise the alarm.
The venerable Wall Street Journal first placed the subject squarely before American eyes when it carried a story about it on Page 1 last week. Cargo shorts, it noted with some alarm, were leading to fissures in relationships with most women and design gurus declaring they were an abomination that ought to be banished from the wardrobes of any man over the age of 21. The criticism of something so beloved wasn’t taken too lightly as men reacted with justifiable outrage. Many declared their loyalty to cargoes and in fact declared they could even pass muster as work clothes. Aaron Back, Heard on the Street columnist for the Journal, tweeted a picture of himself at work in a pair of cargo shorts with the “take this” caption: “WSJ office today. Real talk. #CargoFriday”.
Indian men, who aren’t known to be too adventurous on the work floor, preferring sober suits or just plain trousers and shirts, have ducked the debate by simply not getting into it. The cargo never really stooped to conquer the Indian male’s bottom half. At work too, only the odd brave soul, setting off to settle some odd unfinished business on a Sunday afternoon, dares to sport cargo shorts. Indian men take their work much too seriously to let themselves go like their Western counterparts have been doing.
Their leaders set the trend, and are seen mostly in austere formals. The younger executives follow their lead, sporting ill-fitting dark suits. Plainly a sartorial revolution is called for, starting from the board room and extending all the way down to the youngest interns.
Indian women by contrast have been much more adventurous with colourful skirts of varying length outpacing the more sedate trousers. And even though the wonderfully colourful sari has become all but extinct at work, there is still the odd Chanda Kochhar and Arundhati Bhattacharya who bravely keep the six yards flying.
Sadly for Indian men, Bollywood, that cues most major trends in the country, has failed them in this matter. Mostly, Bollywood heroes don’t go to work, or if they do it is in scarcely believable contexts, their clothes remain steadfastly filmy (read that as ridiculous). In Hollywood, of course Michael Douglas’s slicked back hair in the 1987 movie Wall Street defined the gelled look of a generation of high-flying traders of stocks and currencies. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a similar movie in Bollywood which could set the pace for would-be corporate fashionistas.
Time was when in companies like ITC Ltd, and even Hindustan Unilever Ltd, men wore comfortable bush shirts, (a loose-fitting half-sleeved, cotton shirt with patch pockets), pants and sandals. It was an eminently sensible outfit given the muggy weather at most times in Kolkata and Mumbai and what’s more it marked their freedom from the boxwallah era of their parents’ generation.
But with the return of the multinationals after 1991, the dress code is unabashedly Western and downright boring. How one longs for the era of the bade babu in a starched dhoti and kurta with a sola topi on top and an umbrella on the side!