Shorts in Sri Lanka: Status Sambolism

First some disclaimers and mental health warnings.

Will try to avoid any intentional puns such as a promise to keep this short (nearly titled this “Short symbolism”). However inadvertent punning may occur. The reader (you reading this) absolves the writer (me) and any comment writers including me of any negative outcomes resulting from encountering puns (irrespective of quality) in this post. This post may place strenuous demands on your biological short term memory. You absolve the writer of of any negative outcomes this may cause.


Warned, you have been.

Onward to the topic (finally):

Shorts – who gets to wear them (the standard measure being the adult male) and when – says a lot about who you are in Sri Lanka. It is after all a pragmatic attire in our climate. Yet we in the third world seem to consider non athletic shorts either a child’s garment or leisure wear for those who can afford leisure. Shorts are worn as non formal work cloths for physical labour mainly by the poverty line underclass. As work wear, they are most commonly associated (anecdotally of course) with building sites (aka the “baas”), “tinkering” garages, and begging (some would claim it is a profession).

Generally the leisure wearer is the upper middle to upper class chap on his day off. Accessories may include sunglasses and car keys dangling if he is about town. Shoes and socks perhaps worn for a weekend romp about the estate but I doubt that trend is current. There was a time (perhaps even now) when older men wore unfortunately short shorts. Usually to the sports club (to maintain alcoholism and smoking). They looked silly but that’s their business.

As non leisure wear, the shorts are a no no in non poverty line classes – the middle and the upper (I’ll leave you to work out the repeating negatives. You got a brain – use it or lend it to me). Trousers mean rank and authority. By the Kandian days it was part of the kings costume. The colonial period consolidate the shorts as a symbol of lower status and subjugation. I think the Sri Lankan prison uniform still involves shorts. The old Ceylon Police uniform is the embodiment of shorts as a indicator of rank and authority. Constables wore (knee length?) shorts as opposed to long trousers for the officer ranks. Which I think lasted till some time in the 1970s – possibly 1974.

The respectable types had to deal with the insanity of wearing tweeds and ties in the humidity. The papers referred to a person as “mister” or mahattayā only if they wore trousers. The practice is supposed to have started to end with the Lankadeepa paper in 1956 (a relative’s unverified claim). Admit it – we have all seen the same ancestral photo. A sepia tone of handle bar moustached great grand fathers staring bravely at the camera, waist coats and pocket watches proudly displayed under the heavy jacket. For me, this is a poignant symbol of colonial insanity inflicted on the tropics.

Now thanks to a dose of American casualism (I’m not using the doctrinal definition) the last two generations have been spared. Yet the pragmatism of the shorts is still exiled from the office into the back garden of free time (of which there is very little). I’ll make the sauntering-into-the-drawing-room-in-muddy-slippers assumption that Sri Lankan blogosphere would like to see shorts in the work place. Discussion about shorts in the workplace and women is another post. Comments about it to will be ruthlessly censored by the CTHB.

Till that distant dawn, (you have reached the shameful use of hackneyed blurry operatic imagery part of this post) we have to sweat it out in stuffy trousers and ties. Most of us of the Sri Lankan blogosphere are a cooled minority(yes this is not exactly a kosher use of the abbr tag but vut tu du kno?) (YARA). The rest of the uncooled in the city are cooked in their heavy dark trousers and synthetic shirts. Particularly when sardined inside public transport or waiting for it in the heat.

In the grand tradition of whinny letters to the editor, I suggest we emulate more enlightened humans who have sensible attitude about this issue. Instead we slaughtered them on the cricket pitch and strutted away ignorant.

Congratulations you’ve nearly made it to the end of the post. Impressive endurance (or you have too much time to waste). Faux post moderny self/cross referencing is highly suited to blogging no? Also pads up an otherwise trivial fluffy post like a prize piggy (I tried, really really tried, to avoid adding “oink oink” but failed). You just passed another smouldering wreckage of my credibility. The sentences are worse than a spring-less jeep ride through Yala’s worst tracks (or Colombo’s most pitted lane). Naturally I refuse to repent.

No, this ramble wasn’t inspired by the sight of the Bermudan national dress on TV. I don’t watch television in an odd numbered month in the 1st quarter of the year – particularly when I’m so close to the equator. The distinction about the “cooled” and “uncooled” parts of society I picked up from a book called Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid. Read it nearly 7 years ago and it still sticks. Haven’t read his new one. I should. Though don’t be optimistic about it having any beneficial effect on my writing.


3 thoughts on “Shorts in Sri Lanka: Status Sambolism

  1. I really wanted to comment on this but at the time comments weren’t enabled…I reckon shorts should be the standard work attire when the temp goes up to a certain level. I used to work for a non-profit in SF in shorts in the summer and I was very productive!

    Personally in SL I’m always in shorts and Bata’s…too bad one can’t get into Onyx dressed like that.


  2. Shorts and Batas! (though DSI is eating into that market) YES!!! 😀

    I have a horror about locking my paws in shoes in this climate..

    As for Onyx (never been there since they don’t play the raga I like) you ought to go in shorts and blazer and claim to be a Burmudan and that you cann’t be kicked out for wearing your national dress 🙂


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