The sarong is no longer in purdah in Sri Lanka.
For Anglicised Sri Lankan men, who comprise the majority of the country´s professional, business, social and political elite, the sarong has long been “home clothes”. Most of them sleep at night in sarongs and lounge around in the house in one. But it is simply not done to leave home for business or pleasure clad in anything but trousers and shirt.
For formal occasions like weddings, the favoured attire is a western-style suit with jacket and tie despite the heat and discomfort. Young executives and not-so-young public servants favour shirt and tie for work, with the St Michael´s brand from Marks and Spencer particularly favoured. The less affluent with no air conditioning at work by grace of either taxpayer or shareholder will sport open necks for reasons of comfort/convenience/economy. But out of home, it is still trousers for most English speakers.
In recent years things have been changing and a few, very few, are venturing out of their homes in sarongs. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa who was never seen in trousers after entering public life favoured a white sarong for regular wear. A sarong and shirt were his “smart casuals”. His predecessor J.R. Jayewardene, who relaxes at home in trousers and bush shirt, also opted for the national dress in public during his several decades of political life.
A few young men have been following the cue of these elders, discarding their trousers in favour of colourful handloomed sarongs from Barbara Sansoni´s chic Colombo boutique teamed with matching shirts for casual wear outside home. It has been catching on, albeit slowly, and a few of them have even been featured in the fashion pages of the local English language press.
The chances are that the trend towards this costume by those who once, consciously or sub-consciously, regarded the sarong outside bed or home as the garb of the lower orders, will acquire a new momentum. This is thanks to two exclusive Colombo clubs declining to serve two sarong-wearers within their precincts. The Capri was the first offender, and the Colombo Rowing Club followed suit the same evening.
The issue became something as a cause celebre with the state-owned Daily News, whose editor was once jailed for contempt for daring to rail at the Supreme Court for requiring witnesses in Western garb to-wear a jacket and tie, taking cudgels on behalf of the sarong-wearers.
The newspaper published an indignant letter from one of the party-goers who had to make do with a takeaway dinner after the Capri and the Rowing Club presented their edict on sarongs. She said that she had suggested that one of the victims, Manik Sandrasagara, ditch his nether garment to see whether that would pass muster. But Mr Sandrasagara, who has been playing model for the Daily News to illustrate the protest, had not taken her on. He and Chitrasena, one of Sri Lanka´s best known dancers, had come for the birthday party in their sarongs from a reception hosted by no less than Sunethra Bandaranaike, President Chandrika´s sister.
Recording that, the Daily News implied that what was good enough for the Oxford-educated, impeccably pedigreed Ms Bandaranaike was not good enough for either the Capri or the Rowing Club. Mr Sandrasagara had the last laugh, though, with a memorable quote. He left the Rowing Club adapting “Buddhang Saranang Gachchami” (1 take refuge in the Buddha) from the everyday Buddhist prayer to “Suddhang Saranang Gachchami” (I take refuge in the suddha, or white man).