In the 80s, a revolution swept through Southern India. It turned the life of women completely around, and changed the landscape everywhere. No, it was not the inflow of labor-saving devices in the kitchen, and no, it was not the availability of packaged spices, ready-mix powders or pickles. It was not even the advent of “gold-covering” jewelry. It was the launch of the one-piece nightgown or the nightie.
At the time, I was entering my teens, and heartily sick of wearing full-length skirts (lehengas) and blouses. Since I am the youngest of a very large extended family, most of the aforementioned clothes were hand-me-downs from every female in the family. The material was Bombay Dyeing, where they made cloth that felt like canvas tent material, and never wore out, ever. If I didn’t grow out of them, I could never get rid of them. Luckily, I did grow taller than most females in the family, and I had to shop for clothes.
I bought a couple of nighties or nightgowns, and was hooked. Forced to wear half-saris and then full-saris, nighties were a joy to slip into. They were quite inexpensive and came in a variety of colors, materials and styles, so they were perfect. I wore them from dawn to dusk and beyond, luxuriating in the freedom that the loose fit gave me. It became a uniform for me.
However, as years went by and I left South India, I began to hear comments on how a nightgown should be a gown for the night and not the day. Soon after, I stopped wearing nighties all day long, and used them only at night. Moreover, I became somewhat of a purist, who could be made uncomfortable by the sight of nighties being flaunted in the daytime. And when I say nightie, I don’t mean a duster or a housecoat which can be worn during the day. Neither do I mean a seductive gown that is sleeveless or short or of silky material. It is the traditional nightwear, the floor-length loose-fitting, flowing cotton gown.
At the same time as I became particular about my nightwear staying nightware, I moved back to South India … and was blown away by the “Nightie Culture” prevalent here. A lot of women wear nighties pretty much all the time. Oh, you don’t see nighties on main thoroughfares, but they are a common sight in residential areas. Housewives wear them. Housemaids and women who are engaged in manual labor love them. Where there is a tradition of giving saris to maids for festivals, they sometimes ask for a “nice” nightie instead.
It is not just the lower economic strata that loves wearing nighties all day long. The middle-class absolutely adore it. I once saw a woman freshly bathed, with well-brushed and braided hair with strands of jasmine in it, taking her child to school on her scooter wearing a nightie. A banker friend regularly complains that some customers came to the bank to transact business in their nighties. Some mothers attend Parent-Teacher meetings in nighties. Some do their shopping in them and some go to temples and others visit their doctors in them.
Then there’s the accessorizing. In order for these gowns to look “more decent,” some women wear towels around their shoulders. The more sophisticated wear dupattas, and on cold days, shawls. Some wear their husbands’ shirts over their nighties. More trendy women wear jackets over them. But the strangest thing I ever saw was a nightie worn over a salwar-the woman could have just put on a kameez, even a mismatching one, and got away with it. But maybe she didn’t want to “get away” with anything.
One day, while ruminating about this, I had a brain wave. (I am prone to these attacks. At such times, my doctor looks worried and recommends total bed-rest, lest I end up injuring man and beast.) Why not accept the nightie as the national costume of India? Women everywhere would rejoice-just one article of clothing to wear and wash every day, instead of two, three and even four sometimes. And don’t even get me started on the comfort level. Wearing saris, especially starched cotton saris, or even salwar-kameezes, in hot weather can be a killer. So why not go the Nightie way?
Nighties could be designed to befit every occasion. There could be those exclusively for daywear-the Day-ties-in bright colors and patterns. Eveningwear and party-wear nighties could be called the Par-ties, and come with tasteful high-end accessories such as evening bags and purses, costume jewelry, stoles and scarves, even sexy shoes and pumps. Sober work-clothes for women could be launched under the label Execu-ties. They would come with matching lap-top cases, large tote bags and lunch boxes. Teachers could wear Teach-ties to school, and doctors Doc-ties, complete with a white coat and stethoscope. Students could look smart and orderly in Uniformi-ties.
Hate having to wear a messy silk sari to a wedding? No problem! Just slip on your Marri-ties, nighties made of Kanjeevaram, Benaras, Art, Pure, Tassar, Garwal or printed silk material, and embellished with Swarowski crystals or Baroque beads. Are you cold? Wear a Hot-tie, a padded and insulated nighty. For sports, get into the Sport-tie, which is made of spandex or lycra and has a divided skirt. Religious events will have you stepping out in Ri-ties, available in religion-appropriate colors, with pockets for religious books, beads, and prasad.
By now, I can actually feel the jealousy of men who feel lost in the positive orgy of women’s comfort clothing. But not to worry, we can also launch Man-ties-for the man who likes comfort on his own terms. It would have plaids, stripes and masculine patterns while executive clothing would be made of superior blends of materials with full sleeves for very formal and half-sleeves for semi-formal occasions, accessorized with everything a man of the finest taste needs. Levi-ties would be fun wear, being made of the best denim. Cargo-ties would be stylish wear for the slick dudes, with many pockets and accessories. Casual wear would be Casual-ties, and traditional wear would of course be vesh-ties or dho-ties.
Mark my words, folks! This revolution is coming. And when it does, it will sweep every other kind of fashion right off the shelves, with repercussions heard around the world. Imagine, actors and actresses walking up the red carpet at the Oscars, dressed in their best Par-ties!
I sure hope to be around when the day does arrive. Then will I get some commission from the fashion industry for my ideas, I wonder?
Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana to Mysore and is still adjusting. She can be reached at [email protected]