I am no expert about women’s preferences in clothes. I don’t really get the whole ‘men’s clothes’ thing. But I know that whilst men in Bangladeshi pretty much dress the same as men in the West, women here wear very different kinds of clothes. Men wear western-style clothes for everyday, usual work but don’t for day labouring or special events where lungis and dhotas and other traditional clothes come in to play. Still, the average Bangladeshi man you meet in Dhaka or any other major town is likely to be wearing a shirt and trousers and maybe a tie and jacket too. Youths will probably wear jeans and T-shirt.
But women wear very different clothes that give, in some ways, a very different message.
Saris and shalwar kameezes are the usual clothes for a Bangladeshi woman. Heavily influenced by Islamic thinking, both of these tend to cover up the body with the shoulders given particular attention. Traditionally, the shalwar kaneeze is for working women and indicates they are subservient or unmarried to some degree. The sense is that they are somebody’s daughter whereas a sari usually indicates they are important and somebody’s wife.
The reason is largely a practical one. Shalwar kameezes are very practical clothes to wear – light and relatively figure-hugging whilst not clinging to the body (which is not good in hot, sticky weather). Saris, by contrast, are huge, flowing drapes that make it impossible to work and are very hot to wear.
The result is that you see young girls working in shalwar kameezes and important women in the saris. These saris are generally given attention by fashion magazines and adverts but I personally think the shalwar kameezes are more beautiful. Maybe that’s because the socialist in me sees a working woman as honest and therefore more beautiful inside, whereas the woman in a sari is giving the message that she is authoritative and commands people but does not need to work herself. This I find less attractive.
With the shalwar kameeze comes the orna or long scarf which has to be worn either draped around the shoulders and bosom area or worn around the neck like we would in the West with a scarf in winter. This orna is vital to cover the nakedness of the arms and shoulders as well as blocking the view of the chest area – something very important and protected in most of Bangla society.
As a man I can tell you that when you get used to seeing women covered up, even a little glimpse of cleavage sends an inadvertent thrill of pleasure (of course, I only notice my wife’s…) and I can understand just why Victorian English Gentlemen used to get so sexually excited by the glimpse of their fiancée’s bare ankle in times gone by!
Take a look at the pictures and see what I mean. Next week I will discuss some of the issues surrounding these types of clothes and the Fashion industry in general.
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