Get with it: What it Means to be Fashionable in Sri Lanka
By Marissa Jansz
Sri Lankans are now trendier than ever. Gone are the days when people would wear anything that was convenient. The present is an era of fashion. Everyone wants to look good. So Sri Lankans are paying much closer attention to how they dress. As far as global trends go, Sri Lankans are most definitely with it.
So who determines what people in Colombo wear? Well, the sources are many. Kumudika Lecamwasam, a very fashionable undergraduate at the University of Colombo says,
"Most often what happens is I see someone wearing something on TV or in a magazine and I try to reproduce it."
TV soaps like Bold and the Beautiful, Ally McBeal, etc. are very popular among the city folk. Viewers of such programmes strive to look like (or achieve a close resemblance to) their favourite actors or actresses. Sri Lanka is not short of fashion magazines either. Once a luxury, fashion magazines are now in abundance. And unlike earlier, these magazines, especially those published in India or by Sri Lankan companies are not as demanding on the purse. Sri Lanka receives many magazines from places like India. Local magazines are also gaining momentum. The advantage these have over the western magazines is the segments on ethnic clothes - salwar kameez, saris, sarong and so on. Many people reproduce these patterns, especially for eveningwear.
Colombo and other major cities can also boast of their own mini fashion icons. These people can be models, professionals, or even just men and women with very active social lives. The way these people dress is followed by many others. In purely technical terms they can be regarded as secondary trendsetters, as they too keep abreast of global trends, referring magazines and watching television.
Another very important trendsetter is the clothes store. After all, people generally wear what is made available to them. Now more than ever, clothes boutiques offer a greater variety of clothing. And yes, they are also strongly influenced by trends around the world. As much as they are trendsetters, these stores also make fashion more accessible to people. The variety of clothes available in stores across the country makes, Nigel de Zilva, a Graphics Designer by profession gush,
"It's wonderful to shop for clothes in Sri Lanka."
He says the very latest in fashion is always on the shelf. Complementing the range is the affordability of these clothes. There are many what could be called "budget" stores around, opening the doors to customers of a not-so-high income range.
A milestone in the fashion industry in Sri Lanka is the establishing of garment factories. While the country benefits financially, for the ordinary citizen the garment factories mean a more up-to-date wardrobe. As these garment factories are suppliers to many big stores and designer labels in the west, it is assured that what they produce is the latest in the fashion world. In most cases these very garment factories also supply a number of stores, especially in the city. Simple rules of economics pertaining to mass production would suffice to explain how the latest designs are not too dear. So in the words of Nigel,
"You don't need to be filthy rich to be fashionable".
Clothes are but one aspect of being fashionable, especially for women. Accessories - shoes, jewellery, handbags- are also important. There was a time when women's shoes comprised four basic colours - black, brown, gold and silver. Now, there are a whole range of colours and designs. The trend right now for women in shoes, no matter what the occasion, is to wear open shoes or sandals. It is also far more practical, given the sweltering heat and very high humidity levels. Shoes, handbags and jewellery are always carefully selected to match the outfit. And in comparison to a couple of decades back, you do not need to be going for a wedding to be well groomed. A simple trip to the cinema requires careful planning.
The same level of attention paid to clothes and accessories is also given to hair. As is the case with clothes, trends in hairstyles are also determined by the west, the TV and magazines once again playing lead roles. Celebrities and the hairstyles they sport are also are determining factor. Many hairdressers complain of having to devote a lot of time to watching soap operas, because their clients sit in front of the mirror and say I want character X's hair style.
A noticeable change in the clients frequenting salons, as observed by Shobhi Koch, a hairdresser and beautician, is the willingness for people to try out different things. Clients are also more specific about what they want. As Shobhi says,
"Clients bring a picture they have cut out from a magazine and tell us they want the identical hairstyle. Or else they describe in great detail how they want their hair to look."
Either way, it is a marked change from when people would walk in and passively request a trim of sorts, and agree to anything and everything the hairdresser recommends. According to Shobhi hairdressers follow the requests of their clients, especially because
"...they know their face best."
As they get to know their clients better, they recommend styles to suit not just the texture of the clients' hair, but their personalities as well.
Hair colour is quite the rage these days. Young, old, male, female - there are no barriers to colouring one's hair. The preferred colours seem to be burgundy, copper, and browns. The younger folk are sometimes far more daring, bleaching their hair completely. As much as people are inclined to colour their hair, Shobhi feels Sri Lankans are restricted in the colours they could use because of their complexion. T he bright pinks that are trendy in the west may not be hot on darker Sri Lankan skin.
Fashion conscious people caution against blindly following trends. It is necessary to focus on what clothes complement the physical appearance and personality of an individual. Clothes and everything else that accompany it need to enhance the strengths of a person, while minimizing weaknesses. Choice of colour, especially of clothes, is paramount, as not all colours suit everyone.
Although fashion in Sri Lanka is heavily influenced by the west, Sri Lankans have not abandoned their traditional dress. In fact, as Sri Lankans become more aware of fashion, the more daring and adventurous they get when wearing sari. Kumudika Lecamwasam says,
"The sari looks nicer and more elegant (than a dress)."
She expresses satisfaction with the variety of designs available in stores, especially since there is now an abundance of Indian products. Kumudika admits that she feels pressurized into wearing sari for formal functions, especially weddings, adding,
"My parents would never hear of me wearing a dress."
There seems to be an unwritten rule requiring women to wear sari for formal functions. Yet, rather than feel constrained by it, women have taken advantage of it. Shobhi Koch, who has dressed many women in sari is amazed by the number of possible ways to drape it. Among the many options is to carry the fall on the hand like a shawl, rather than drape in on the shoulder. Or if the blouse is intricately worked, then it is not covered. The pattern of the blouse itself provides numerous opportunities to be trendy.
Tattoos and body piercing is also very popular, especially among the younger crowd. Girls and boys can be seen with pierced ears, noses, belly buttons, eyebrows, and any other part of the body that can be pierced. There are no limits to the figures tattooed on a person - abstract shapes, batman, handcuffs, anything goes (and anywhere). People have lost the inhibitions and fears of what others will have to say and now go out and do what they feel like doing. Once again, price is not a barrier.
It is commonly accepted that first impressions are paramount. Physical appearance counts for a large part of the judgments of character a person makes of another. As Nigel de Zilwa says,
"People appreciate someone who's dressed well. People who dress well are taken with authority."
The underlying implication is that if a person is careful about the way he dresses, then he is careful in anything else he does. The outward appearance is supposed to reflect the inner state, and so a well-dressed person is seen as the physical manifestation of a well organized, meticulous, and prudent personality. And with easy access to trendy and smart clothes, it is not too difficult to look presentable, if not downright stunning.