I was in Sri Lanka last week on a short holiday and a museum in Galle had an interesting account about Sri Lankan costumes. Ancient records (including the Sigiriya frescos) show that women on the island did not originally cover their breasts. They wore a piece of cloth that covered their limbs below the navel, very similar to how women in Kerala dressed some centuries ago, as possibly did women in most tropical lands. 

Given the hot and humid climate, this attire makes complete sense. As does the brief loin cloth that the men wore. There was no social taboo around exposing the body, whether male or female. In his 1762 book Voyage to the East Indies, John Henry Grose describes the women in Kerala with bare breasts and says “to the naked display of which they annex no idea of immodesty which, in fact, ceases by familiarity…” The Sri Lankan Dhammapadatha Katha relates an incident in the 10th century when Rohini, a devotee, wore a blouse only to cover marks left by a skin infection.

Prudery and puritanism were not part of the original Hindu or Buddhist traditions. The idea of associating sin with the naked body is a Judeo-Christian construct — lust is seen as the original sin, the body as the temptation that leads to the fall. In Victorian novelist George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, a paragraph that sizzles with sexuality describes nothing but the glimpse of a dimpled elbow exposed by a sleeve falling away from a raised arm. On the other hand are our temple sculptures, where the naked body and the act of sex are emblazoned in celebration.

With the arrival of Islamic and Christian traditions, we started covering up for modesty, but we also started exposing for titillation. And, simultaneously, the act of covering up became a political and gendered statement — it became the means to keep the ‘evil, temptress woman’ under wraps. By associating sin with the female human body, we instantly adopted a means of restraint and a hierarchy of power where men need feel no shame in their bodies but women must. On social media you will find hundreds of men expressing opinions on the ‘right’ way for women to dress, but not one man will comment on why it is disgusting for men to urinate in full public view.

And in India in the 21st century, one of the most common ways to politically punish and humiliate women is for them to be stripped and paraded naked. What a sad trajectory we have followed. We have made the woman’s body and its degree of covering the banner that must proclaim her dignity, status or worth.

In the Sri Lankan museum, alongside the plaque that describes the original dress of the islanders, are two larger-than-life figures of a couple dressed in what soon became the attire for prestigious citizens. Two beautiful bronze-skinned people in a country where the average temperature is 30 degrees centigrade, dressed from head to toe in long skirts and trousers, ruffled lace blouses and full-sleeved shirts, jackets, socks, shoes and hats. A telling little tableau of how usefully our regions decided to learn about ‘dignity’ and ‘dress codes’ from the West.