She always dresses up as a behenji…

Hey gal, c’mon, be a sport! Dress up in brighter shades! You are young . . . if not now, when?

Here comes Babu moshai! He always comes dressed to college as if he is attending a job interview! Chill dude! Be cool!

Ever heard such remarks?

You guessed it right – attires define looks and looks define age. We may argue vehemently in opposition but cannot deny the stereotypic perceptions of society (which includes all of us too, by the way).

My mother’s generation wore saree when they transitioned from school to college. It was compulsory! This was the time between the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some schools had the girls wear sarees in Grade 9 and 10 as well. The percentage of female literacy was abysmally low, then. To be able to complete schooling and enrol in colleges was not a privilege all girls were blessed with (some still aren’t even now). No doubt, girls were married off as early as fourteen! And so, they were categorically reminded that they were big now – of marriageable age – hence they need to dress and behave like ‘women’, not as carefree ‘girls’ any more.

This, in my opinion, was essentially a social transition from teenage to adulthood minus adolescence – a taught and learnt consciousness that ‘you are no longer a girl now, but a woman and have to dress up accordingly’. Thinking of it today, I fail to imagine how the psychological transition would have been! How would it have felt to skip one stage of life (as delineated today), without even having any inkling to it!

In this day and age, with the market entering almost literally into our wardrobes, the dressing sense of boys and girls, men and women have drastically broadened and are no longer socially definitive as earlier (though there are exceptions). But, I must say the community that one lives, moves and operates in, plays a vital role in defining one’s attire and consequently one’s social age.

I am presently stationed in rural India – a place which is essentially a cake of conservatism topped with the frosting of modernism. I dress up in traditional Indian salwar-kurtas to work. And yes, not to miss the dupattas!! While within the comforts of my residential quarters, I laze around in T-shirts and trousers or other similar comfy casuals. Two seven-year-olds of neighbor families often visit me and address me as ‘Didi’. As lockdown ended in June last year, a neighbor guy got married and brought home his newly wedded wife who remained draped in beautiful sarees with her head covered all the time. These kids duly addressed her as ‘aunty’, much to my amusement (both the husband (who though in his late twenties has started balding) and wife are much younger to me in age and are promptly addressed as ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’ and I am called ‘Didi’). You can well understand why!!

Well, I don’t know what the couple feels, but I certainly am amused each time the kids call us out loud!!

A friend narrated this hilarious incident a couple of months back in which her five-year-old daughter declared before guests once, that she would organize her mother’s marriage in a grand way. After the round of laughter died down, her mother (my friend) tried explaining to her that she (my friend) is married to her (my friend’s daughter) father already. The kiddo refused to accept that her mother is married, citing the reason that married women wear sarees (just as her grannies do), but she has hardly seen her mom wear sarees!!

Our attire defines our age, much more than we can think of. But yes, this applies more to women than to men. Though we don’t have many dhoti-clad men in India now, we would not see as many aged men with designer denims as youngsters too! But if we do come across a few such men, it would do nothing to define ageing in men. Visible ageing in younger men is usually evident from receding foliage on the head or a paunch or by strands of grey hair.  

Women often shift to shades of pastels as they age or when they lose their husbands or if they are separated from their husbands (this has got to do more with a latent or even at times manifest societal compulsion than with one’s personal feelings). I had this schoolmate who had lost her father as a toddler. Her mother dropped her and picked her up from school every day. She used to be attired in bright coloured sarees with her usual make-up on. Once I overheard someone remark ‘Look how ABC’s mother dresses up even though she is a widow; it would unnecessarily draw the attention of men’. I was a 15-year old then and could very well understand what they meant. Somehow, I felt a supportive heart within me towards my friend’s mother that day!

Attire and marital status have the potential to lessen the social age of an ageing individual or age a relatively younger person. No matter how we see ourselves as the years pass by or how others see us, keeping the soul and spirit young and agile beats the fragility of the body. 

“Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like
curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.” 

Albert Einstein