All hail the nightie: The new Indian national dress

A school in Bangalore has laid down the law. No more dropping off the kids in your nightie. But they are just fighting against the inevitable. Like it or not, the nightie is our national dress. And deservedly so.

Sandip Roy July 05, 2012 12:30:22 IST
All hail the nightie: The new Indian national dress

The wiktionary defines the nightie thus:


Nightie (plural nighties)

(informal) A woman’s nightgown or nightdress; a dress-like garment worn to bed.

I was too embarrassed to answer the door in my nightie.

Obviously, the entry was not written by an Indian.

Indians are not embarrassed to do ANYTHING in a nightie. They wear them while leaning on the front gate and chatting with the neighour. They show up at the grocery store in them.  They think they are perfectly fine as temple wear. They drop their children off to school in them.

All hail the nightie The new Indian national dress

The nightie is a great social leveller. Reuters.

One  brave school in Bangalore is now trying to hem the tide. The Blossoms school has issued a dress diktat for parents. No more dropping off your children in your nightwear. Apparently people have started hanging around the school gates every day to get their morning jollies from seeing mommies in their nighties.

“It became an embarrassment for everyone around,” principal D. Shashi Kumar told the Telegraph.

As expected, there has been some pushback. “This is too much, to say the least. Setting norms for students is all right in order to maintain decorum, decency and discipline but enforcing such conditions on parents is illogical,” fumes H P Murali in the Bangalore Mirror. “We should be concentrating on issues like getting the child to school on time and not what his mum or dad wore while dropping him off,” concurs Dr. Anitha Roseline.

Blossoms obviously does not realise what is at stake here.

In the West, a nightie is a nightgown. When Michael Fagan broke into Buckingham Palace in 1982 by climbing a drainpipe and wandered into the Queen’s bedroom, the real scandal was that he saw the Queen in her nightie. “Her nightie was one of those Liberty prints and it was down to her knees,” he recalled on her 60th anniversary.

In India, the nightie has a new post-colonial reincarnation. When I was growing up my mother changed from her night-sari to her morning sari everyday. That was the way we marked the beginning of the day. Now it feels like the world has entered some kind of twilight zone where all those aunties run around all day with their nighties a-flapping. As samosapedia explains it’s  “the most loued article of clothing any aunty owns… From Patiala to Mysore, Indian aunties are louing their nighties.”

I have seen the formidable Mahasweta Devi, one of our foremost intellectuals, now a feisty octogenarian, give television interviews in a sleeveless printed nightie. She was giving vent to her frustrations with the Mamata Banerjee government’s high-handed ways. I could hardly focus on what she was saying. I was too busy trying to figure the pattern on her nightie. Was it flowers? Or was it dots?

Koel Puri asked Sushma Swaraj what she liked to wear when she went for a dip in the Ganga. “I always prefer nightie,” said Sushma-behn.

Can a dress get a better character certificate than that? If it’s good enough for a holy dip in the Ganga, it’s good enough for any occasion. I have no idea why the Dharmasthala Manjunatha temple in Karnataka is banning the nightie in its code of conduct.

Blossoms and the Manjunatha temple have it completely wrong. The sari, which shows off acres of midriff, can provoke impure thoughts in the morning. The salwar kameez can show off too many curves. But the nightie is a class apart. Age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite monotony.

It is chaste, the sati savitri of women’s wear.

As Santosh Desai explains in The Wonderful World of the Indian Nightie “While belonging to the larger family of the negligee, the nightie is an adherent of a different school of thought altogether, being careful to steer clear of anything frilly, lacy, racy or sheer. It is resolute in its modesty and is feminine enough without looking fetching.”

Of course, our fashionistas rail against the nightie as some western import gone horribly wrong, like a noxious weed that’s just taken over our cultural traditions.  On a blog entry entitled Nightie Menace in India, Arjunpuri in Qatar complains:

I had not even dreamt that one day I would get married into a family, where my own mother-in-law would be wearing a nightie! In spite of knowing that I don’t wear a nightie, my in-laws had purchased a nightie for me and my mother-in-law insisted that I wear it on the very first day after the wedding. When I refused to wear it, she made me to wear it on my churidhar and made my hubby to click my pic in the nightie. Thank god, the picture was completely blurred!

What the nightie-haters don’t realise is that the nightie is actually a triumph of Indian ingenuity. It is now as Indian as khadi. The Indian woman has taken a piece of clothing and made it completely her own. She has repurposed it and made it fit her own needs and comfort. “Its current popularity has been generated not by any clever marketing but entirely by the user, who has seen in it value not originally intended,” writes Desai. It is women’s liberation - in a bag.

A close relative, a college professor, cannot wait for the moment when she can get home from work and take a shower and change into her nightie. Once she would scurry off to change if an unexpected visitor dropped in. Now she just has various grades of nighties – from good-enough-to-receive-the-courier-in to good-enough-to-meet-her-son’s-classmates.

The nightie has evolved without the help of anyone except for its loyal aam aurat clientele. It’s completely self-made. Sabyasachi would not be caught dead designing it yet there are entire shops in Kolkata’s Gariahat and Bangalore’s Commercial Street that sell nothing but nighties. Kareena Kapoor does not advertise it on television but women still flock to buy it. No other article of clothing, not even the sari, enjoys such pan-Indian appeal. We truly all live in maxi city now.

Sneer all you want but the humble nightie is the great leveller of classes. The daily help wears one. Her mistress wears one. And there’s not often that much difference between the two nighties. Surely, that’s something to cheer about in a country where the gap between the rich and the poor keeps getting more and more obscene. Sonia’s NAC, take note.

The only thing wrong with a nightie in India is its name. It is not just a nightie. It’s a morningie. It’s an afternoonie. It’s an all-dayie.

Let’s just make it our national dress. It’s earned it.

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