A restaurant in Delhi was recently in a centre of a nine-yard controversy. It turned away a customer at the door for not complying with its 'smart casual’ dress code. The lady turned away was wearing a saree.
A dress code at a private restaurant is not unusual. All or most restaurants have one. And the history of clubs from Lutyens' Delhi to Mayfair London is littered with many offended people turning back for wearing grubby trainers or clothes that didn’t adhere to the dress code. Singer Jess Glynne had to apologise to a restaurant in London for alleging discrimination she was wearing a hoodie when the dress code clearly stated no hoodie.
Unfortunately, saree does not, however, seem to pass the test when it comes to fashion. But before the debate even progresses, the question that has worried many critics is ‘why does a nightclub or a high-end resto-bar need to have a dress code’?
Club owners of upscale nightclubs have long used dress codes to signal status. They set a standard, usually more formal dress, and let potential clientele know who’s welcome and who’s not. The use of dress codes can create an air of exclusivity and make one club seem more desirable than another, an important distinction in a highly competitive, 19.8 billion dollars industry.
Unlike clothing, which is timeless, fashions are current. While the saree remains very much alive as a piece of clothing, what is the evidence that it symbolises a 'smart casual' urban lifestyle fashion, the audience that the restaurant is targeting and wants to attract as a clientele.
“It’s absolutely a very good time to evolve the dress code in nightclubs. We are absolutely okay with women walking at our lounges in nine yards. Saree is our country’s national outfit and yes it’s banned in many nightclubs in and around India. I think we should give more emphasis to this outfit. True - what’s in a dress code?” Sandeep Katiyar, Director, Plutusone Hospitality commented who operates the club brand, Finch.
The Indian attire, while it is very much still a part of the 'business casual' workforce, is restricted to the conservative workforce. Politicians and bureaucrats wear it to work as a norm. It represents the people. In many conservative heartlands, it remains the choice of wear for working women in fields and in the labour force and at home, but this is not the audience the restaurant is trying to reach.
In the more liberal sectors of the workforce, though, the trendy lot that leads fashions, it has shown a steady decline over the decades with western pants-shirt or functional salwar-kameez as the preferred option and has today become an exception rather than the norm as a daily dress code.
It is trendy as 'cocktail wear' and ladies in glittering chiffon sarees holding champagne glasses are often seen in the glamour sections of newspapers attending book launches at five-star hotels. So where is the saree in the 'smart casual' everyday sector in the trendy fashions of today that the restaurant is trying to embody as a brand?
Many critics of the restaurant have linked the non-inclusion of saree or ethenic dresses in its dress code as a 'colonial hangover' and a sign of hatred of one’s own culture.
“Honestly, we as an owner don't have a problem with a dress code. Any attire is and should be welcomed. But before raising a question to the owners and operators, one should also think that what society is promoting as a whole. If I started allowing men with slippers, half pants, or ladies wearing salwar kameez and sarees in my nightclub, will I be able to generate business? Probably no, because the so-called ‘elite class’ will think now the place has become downmarket. This is a harsh reality that the society also needs to rethink,” an owner of Delhi’s popular nightclub said on a request of anonymity.
Club owners, citing safety concerns, point out that banning particular clothes can limit trouble. One owner commented, “We had to institute dress codes because we started having trouble with drugs and stuff.” Others claim they limit what people wear in order to create what they vaguely refer to ‘as a certain atmosphere’.
However, as far as a strict dress code is concerned, maybe it's time to evolve. But, for many, it's a long road ahead. So how do the nightclubs think of dealing with the issues of not rejecting people with certain attire, predominantly the ethnic?
“It is very important in situations like these to work as a team and handle them smartly, rather than panicking and getting stuck,” the partners of newly launched nightclub White commented.
Kabir Talwar (Harpreet Talwar), Suhail Ahmed, Vikas Chauhan and Raj Bhati are confident that the operating management is ‘more than qualified to handle such issues.