My paternal grandfather was a betel-chewing Kandyan villager. He wore no trousers; his feet never saw a pair of shoes. From my grandfather’s days to mine, the story of the trouser mirrors the social transformation, and the hypocrisy, of the country. Hypocrisy? I’ll come to that later. To put a timeline to this history of [...]


A short history of the long trouser in Sri Lanka


My paternal grandfather was a betel-chewing Kandyan villager. He wore no trousers; his feet never saw a pair of shoes. From my grandfather’s days to mine, the story of the trouser mirrors the social transformation, and the hypocrisy, of the country. Hypocrisy? I’ll come to that later.

To put a timeline to this history of the trouser, my grandfather was born in 1845, three years before the Matale insurrection of 1848. I was born 100 years later, in 1945.

In the late 50s or early 60s, a man’s worth, his social class, was measured by what he was wearing; a trouser or the national dress or a sarong. What a man wore clearly defined one’s status in society.

Before the turn of the last century, in the late 1800s, very few, if at all, wore trousers in the Kandyan region. Many of those who went to Christian missionary schools, like Trinity College, and who may have worn ‘three quarter pants’ at school, came back to the village after their school career (which often didn’t extend more than three or four years, if that) and reverted to their traditional attire. My maternal grandfather was one such individual. The peek into English, Western culture and the European ways didn’t change him. He continued to be what his forefathers were before him. This grandfather was one of the earliest students of Trinity (1880s), before it became an elite school under A.G. Fraser in the 1920s.

The gentry, in my grandparents’ day, wore the cloth and the coat when they went out of the village, the quality of which depended on one’s worth and occasion – tweed cloth imported from England or cheaper cotton cloth that came from India. A few wore trousers underneath the cloth, probably an adaptation from their Low Country cousins.

This form of attire, the cloth, changed with the Kandyan gentry getting into employment in the colonial administration or in the British dominated mercantile sector. But with one proviso. The trouser was almost the exclusive right of those who were fluent in English, not just those who were able to speak or write, but those who had their school education in the English medium. It was almost as if one earned the privilege to wear a trouser only if he had his education in English. Others wore the cloth and jacket or what was later known as the ‘national dress’. The ordinary, and poorer, folk wore the sarong.

This was very much the case even in the early 1950s. Except that, there were more people at that time wearing the trouser with the expansion of English education. English education was a definite class divider. Those educated in the English medium drew a higher salary than those who had equivalent education in the vernacular. The class distinction was determined by the language medium in which one had one’s education.

Understandably, there was a simmering discontentment among those who felt disadvantaged because of language. Added to this was the fact that English and the trouser were associated with Western culture, elitism and privilege. Then came 1956.

Bandaranaike saw the political potential of tapping into this seething, unarticulated anger among the Sinhala educated middle-class who did not wear trousers. This subcategory of the middle-class was influential in the villages, among the Buddhist clergy and those at the bottom of the social order, the farmers and those engaged in village level traditional trades. To make his rallying cry appear all the more genuine, he donned the national dress himself and skilled in Sinhala oratory,  whipped up the festering discontent into a political frenzy. It took only four years, from his election defeat of 1952 to the resounding victory in 1956.

The 1956 General Election was the turning point in the island’s modern history. Some who up to then wore trousers got carried away with politics and got themselves the national dress. The national dress became a symbol of being with the new way of thinking, culturally nationalistic, and being aligned with the ‘ape aanduwa’ (our government).

However, the reverse of this was also happening. Some of those who hitherto wore the national dress quietly switched to trousers. The inhibition that was there about wearing trousers due to lack of English slowly eased. The trouser, which Bandaranaike implied as a decadent ‘Western’ attire, instead of losing ground, actually gained ground. The rise of the trouser was very fast. By the mid-1960s, even those who wore the sarong before, mainly those of the labouring class (and referred to as ‘sarong johnnies’), also eased into trousers, when they could find a pair to wear. This was more the case with the younger generation -the cost of a cheap new cotton trouser being about four times the price of a new sarong.

A discerning reader would have noticed a peculiar trend here. When the public and expressed sentiment was to do away with the trouser and don the national dress, the inner and unexpressed desire of those who were not trouser wearers was to wear the trouser and discard the national dress. Publicly it was ‘down with the trouser and up with the national dress’; but what was really happening was ‘down with the national dress and up with the trouser’!

It was the same with English. While publicly clamoring to elevate Sinhala and downgrade English, privately, the most vociferous of the clamorers were encouraging their own offspring to study English with even greater vigour. After more than half a century of ‘Sinhala Only’ and when the government allowed parents to decide the medium of instruction in schools for their children, the clamour to get into the few available English medium classes became an intense brawl among the parents. And ‘international schools’, a euphemism for English medium education, spread across the island, even to remote areas.

The current Sri Lankan diaspora settled in Western countries, mostly the children and grandchildren of the ’56 social change, displays one of the greatest reversals of that sham. The gleam in the eyes of parents and grandparents when their children speak with strong English, Australian or American accents, when they bring home a white boyfriend or a girlfriend, when the parents themselves organize this or that ‘dinner dance’ of the OBA of the strong Buddhist nationalist school they attended, where the dress code is specified as suit and tie, where the band is ‘Western’, and when they struggle with their dance steps, the two-facedness of the so-called social revolution of ’56 glares at critics such as yours truly.

To be sure, there are some who truly loved Sri Lankan culture, who promoted the language and the arts, and who remained in the island to do what they can to lift the lot of the needy, to continue with the ’56 cultural renaissance. But they are a rare breed. To them one doffs one’s cap.

Jowitt, in his essay, “Communism, Democracy, and Golf” (referred to in Krastev & Holms’ book, “The Light That Failed”) amusingly mentions “playing golf”, though in a different context, and in reference to political and social transformation in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having pretended to be one thing in the past, having extolled others to do what one pretended to be and then doing something completely the opposite when the opportunity arises, is a common trait not only of those in our island home, but also in the rest of the world.

The trouser and English, and for a good measure Western culture, followed similar trajectories during my lifetime. The short history of the long trousers in Sri Lanka mirrors the true decadence of that bogus society we all come from.

And the hypocrisy? I’ll leave it to the reader to mull over.

 Chitranjan Pethiyagoda


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