Gender-specific clothing norms and conditioning are omnipresent in modern Tamil Nadu. The schools and colleges across Tamil Nadu have gender-specific dress codes. While male students are often prescribed a uniform of shirt and trousers, female students are frequently prohibited from wearing similar western-origin silhouettes. A GO issued by Govt. of Tamil Nadu on May 2019 instructed the female staff to wear a saree, salwar kameez or churidar with dupatta and men to wear a shirt with pants or vetti* (dhoti). Gender-specific dress codes and conditioning are widespread in Tamizh cinema as well. It is pretty common for Tamizh heroines to dance in snow-clad landscapes wearing sheer chiffon sarees while the hero is well-covered for the weather. The disparities in the clothing of men and women are glaringly evident in item songs where women are dressed in scanty clothing, unlike men. However, it is also a recurrent theme in Tamizh films where the cis-male protagonist will lecture women on modesty and clothing. In the Tamizh film Aaru (2005), Aarumugam played by actor Suriya commands the woman to stitch lengthier clothes and not wear jeans and crop tops revealing the waist. In the film Sivakasi (2005) Muthappa played by actor Vijay shames the woman for wearing short skirts instead of a saree blouse.
Tamizh cultural conservatism is a common theme binding the various gender-specific dress codes and conditioning. In several instances, these dress codes are rooted in the notion that women wearing short clothing contradict Tamizh cultural ethos. The Tamizh song “Senthamizh Naattu Thamizhachiye ” (1994) conditions Tamizh women to wear selai (saree) and not body-revealing swimwear. In the 2012 hit song Club le Mubbu le, rapper Hiphop Tamizha’s lyrics state that women have left behind kanjivaram silk (sarees) and are draped in handkerchiefs instead. Although the two songs were released in different decades, they echo the same values of gender-specific modesty and clothing norms. Both songs take refuge in Tamizh cultural conservatism attitudes to declare that Tamizh women should not wear body-revealing clothes.
However, Tamizh cultural history has abundant evidence to imply that women dressed in body-revealing drapes for millenniums. The descriptions of pudavai (saree) in Silppathikaaram, Kalithokai, and other ancient Tamizh texts indicate that the pudavai was draped on the waist in lungi style and covered only the lower body. The norms of nudity itself didn’t vary between sexes in ancient Tamizh society. The primary attire of ancient Tamizh society consisting of meladai and keeladai was devoid of gender tags. Meladai (a shawl draped on the torso) and keeladai (a draped lower garment) are gender-fluid garments that trace their evolution to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Even up till the late medieval era, Tamizh people covered themselves in modest fabrics, animal skins, vegetation, and jewellery made of sea shells and clay – however, the ancient Tamizh clothing attire wasn’t reduced to “menswear” and “womenswear”.
Accessories and jewellery items like thodu (earring), valaya (bangles), makuta (crown), maalai (garland), silambu (anklets), nose ornaments, pearl necklaces, girdles, and stone-encrusted lockets transcended between genders in the ancient Tamizh society. Although jewellery was largely gender-fluid throughout the history of the Indian subcontinent, anklets were a gender-neutral trend unique to Tamizh kingdoms during the early medieval era. Only women are chiefly depicted wearing anklets in the Mauryan and Satavahana arts. However, ancient Tamizh arts depict many men wearing leg ornaments. Sandalwood paste was among the earliest cosmetics used by all genders in ancient Tamizh society. People also decorated their hair with flowers, garlands, and natural fragrances. Stretched ear-lobe is another key body modification depicted in male and female figurines dating to the medieval Chola era. Gender-bending was common in Tamizh performing arts like koothu and sadhir.
However, the reference to gender-fluid styles in Tamizh cultural history itself doesn’t imply that it was utterly devoid of gender norms. Some earliest documented examples of gender-specific conditioning date back to the Sangam age. The Sangam literature indicates that young men were educated on subjects like governance and warfare whereas women were trained in literature, music, drama, and home science. Many ancient Tamizh texts like Silappathikaaram attach notions of morality and purity to a woman’s karpu (chastity). Tholkappiyam states “achcham” – a woman’s innate fear of hurt to her modesty among the three great feminine virtues. Kural (57) states that “the chief guard of a woman is her chastity.” Thaali (mangalsutra) was specifically worn by married Tamizh women.
The gender-specific disparities in the clothing of Tamizh people were amplified during the colonial era. The male zamindars, aristocrats, and bureaucrats who worked under the British government wore tailored western silhouettes like shirts and coats with traditional vetti. Unlike men’s clothing which focused on functionality and comfort, Tamizh women’s clothing focused on vanity. Western silhouettes like shirts and trousers didn’t gain prominence in the wardrobe of Tamizh women until the modern era after representation in office spaces.
Access to education and representation in the workplace has remarkably changed the wardrobe of the modern Tamizh woman. Traditionally masculine silhouettes like shirts and trousers are common staples in the wardrobe of modern educated Tamizh women. Several viral reels on Instagram feature girls dancing in vetti and lungi. The cultural shift in the clothing of modern Tamizh women is reflected in recent Tamizh films like Kabali (2016) and Natchathiram Nagargiradhu (2022). In the Tamizh blockbuster Kabali directed by Pa Ranjith, Yogi (Sai Dhanisika) dons a short hairdo, jeans, biker jacket and combat boots. In the film Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, the character Rene played by Dushara Vijayan portrays a 21st-century Tamizh Ambedkarite woman who is open to sex before marriage, questions the necessity for marriage, and wears Western silhouettes with green-coloured hair. Unlike the gaining acceptance of conventional masculine silhouettes among women, men wearing conventional feminine silhouettes continues to be a subject of taboo and stigma. In many instances, male gender-bending is depicted in Tamizh cinema to either invoke comic relief or a sympathy-yielding tragedy. The Tamizh film Sivappu Manjal Pachai (2019) makes a reference to why men dressed in traditionally feminine clothing are ridiculed.
Gender fluidity and gender conditioning have existed in parallel throughout Tamizh history. However, the definition and conditioning of “what’s feminine” and “what’s masculine” have constantly changed and evolved with time and society – because gender is fluid.
[Author’s note: Vetti* – The word vetti is the Tamizh derivative of the sanskritized veshti. Many ancient Tamizh-origin clothes were named after how they were cut – like vetti derived from (vettu meaning cut), thundu derived from (thundu meaning chop), or kizhi (handkerchief in which coins were kept which translates to tear).]