After several months of keeping this fashion policing under wraps, news leaked that the village of Thokalapalle in West Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, had proudly and privately instated a dress code. According to this village sanghama-ordained decision, women are banned from wearing nighties during the daytime. Only the ill are exempt, and those who violate the ban face a Rs2000 penalty. Tattlers benefit, with a reward of Rs1000. Since the ban came into effect, village elders claim that women have indeed stopped wearing nighties outdoors between 6am and 7pm, as no ban violations have been reported. Sarees and dupattas have made a comeback on their streets.
Consider the average nightie – ankle-length, sleeved, with a modest collar. Often in less than attractive patterns, sometimes with frilled panels on the bustline that have an additional concealing effect. In fact, the nightie is the definition of dowdiness. It signals a woman who would prefer to be at rest, but is also simply too busy to get changed. To many, the nightie is also the definition of comfort. Wearing one is a subtle declaration of disinterest in dressing up, and of putting one’s ease first. It’s interesting how piqued Thokalapalle citizens reportedly said that the sight of women in nighties in public “inconvenienced” others or made them “uncomfortable”. The women’s convenience is the inconvenience, and their comfort causes discomfort.
It’s not difficult to imagine women going about their daily business wearing nighties. The clothing brand Pommy’s even developed an entire advertisement series around this motif. In it, the actor Devayani defused a variety of conflicts by appearing on the scene donning the utterly domestic nightie. But seeded within the hilarity of these commercials was a powerful statement. In each clip, Devayani asserted with a sweet smile that she was the “kudumba thalaivi” (the head of the household). The nighties conferred that confidence in her. The clincher? The final tagline: “engum engengum” (everywhere, anywhere).
No women from Thokalapalle have spoken up yet to say that the ban is oppressive. Honestly, they probably have better things to do and more pressing battles to fight. But those from the village who have talked to the press paint a uniformly eerie picture. They say that it was younger women from self-help groups who made a decision to “honour their traditions”. They say that everyone is happy. They also say that wearing nighties to go about public quotidian activities, like shopping for groceries, visiting temples, doing laundry or picking kids up from school, is “not good”. Why? They do not say.
All patriarchal societies have restrictions, overt or subtle, on what women can wear. In Thokalapalle, it’s nighties. In Chennai, it’s shorts. Thinking over how this plays out in different places is interesting. To my mind, a nightie is probably the furthest thing from lingerie. But to someone else, who remembers a time when anything other than a saree was shocking, a nightie may be loaded with other signifiers. It’s absolutely wrong to tell women they can’t choose their wardrobes. But there’s something worth observing here, about how desire and style have complementary semiotics, and how sometimes these break taboos, and sometimes reinforce them.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.