Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 17 June 2012





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Government Gazette

How fashionable were our males then?

The field of fashions, both male and female, is suffused so much with scintillating glitz and glamour that its historical aspect has been much overshadowed. Hence it is heartening to note that up-and- coming young academics have begun to take interest in this rather unexplored arena with regard to our own island's "male fashions".

Nilames in their customary dress

Of course, it has to be mentioned that due to the pervading influence of Theravada Buddhism with its emphasis on simplicity of living, in our country that the enormous interest shown in fashions especially in Western countries is markedly absent here. Though of course the eternal female penchant for fashions (in dress and jewellery) beginning even from pre-historic times could never be suppressed.

The males found it a good reason to be simply clad. In fact too much interest in dress by a male was taken as tantamount to foppery and never condoned.

Male fashion

After the movements of Anagarika Dharmapala and Piyadasa Sirisena the male fashion or more correctly the mode of dress of the average Sri Lankan male simply plummeted to the white cloth and banian. And no complaints. And then this species in the war-besotted island soon had enough on hand rather than think of fashions.

But Dr. Gayathri Ranatunga, has not written her paper on male fashions in general but has limited it to the fashions of the Sinhala elite class that had more breathing time in life than the near-naked farmer clad in his Saruwale yet providing the country's sustenance.

The worthy paper saw the light of day at the recently concluded Research Conference held by the Royal Society of Sri Lanka. Immersed in my own book launch I skimmed through the program and the topic caught my eye. I told Dr. Hema Goonetilake of the committee that I wish to participate in the session. "By all means" she said with her usual gushing enthusiasm "Better chair it".

That was how I got the chance of gaping first-hand at all the varied diagrams that came on the screen providing a panoramic view of fashions of the elite male in the Kandyan era.

Luxurious costume

The Kandyan elite, she deals with synchronises with the Kandyan high ranking officers in the king's service.

"Their extensive luxurious costume signifies their dignity, power and high social standard."

By the 18th century the Kandyan kingdom was getting much exposed to external civilisations.

And along with the contacts trickled in the fashions, sometimes imitating the visitors, via gifts design elements too were introduced. As the century dragged on, going by temple drawings and early travel sketches a standard dress had come into being for this class. The dress earned varied names as Mul Anduma, mulu anduma, nilame anduma and tuppoti anduma."

It must be said to the credit of the Kandyan elite and even the royalty that unlike the Sinhala bourgeoise class that rose later that they never discarded the indigenous dress wholesale and adopt the foreign dress of the Westerners, coat, tie and trouser. And some of them, the latter class even went on to degrade imitation of the Western dress while themselves clad in them! John de Silva was an outstanding example. Even now they seem to do it. Women have been much less wayward.


Back to the Mul Anduma. It was hybrid of Western, Siamese and South Indian influences and veered more towards Western influence after King Wimaladharmasurya's reign. Queen Dona Catherina's influence on her husband's dress (Portuguese style) that percolated down to the elite, could be attributed to this.

Again the writer cannot help but observe that it is rather ironical that while fighting tooth and nail with the Westerners, that their styles of dress were creeping into society, even at the level of king and queen.

Spilbergen's diary mentions that the king, queen, princes and princesses were all dressed in Portuguese fashion.

No wonder the percolation to the elite class. Terms such as Juan Hatte and Jagalath Toppi too testify to the influence.

The Siamese influence in male fashions could be attributed to the constant Upasampada missions that would have included many Siamese laymen.

There were foreigners who had joined the king's service such as Emmanuel Diaz, a Portuguese and chief Modeliyar of Vimaladharmasurya I, Marecelles Boschower, a Dutch commander during Senarath's time and Gascoin, the French adventurer, during Rajasinghe II's time whose fashions would have been copied in toto by the elite of the fashion-hungry land locked kingdom.


Dr. Ranatunga notes that supplementing the dress these comprised the full attire - hats or thoppi, jackets, tuppoti or body cloth, patiya or belt, knife, necklace and ring.

Brief accounts of each area given here.

Hat or thoppiya (Dr. Ranatunga quotes Cosmo de Silva saying that this is originally a Portuguese word, toppiya from chapaeo. (rather far-fetched) as the assumption that the name Hatton is derived from the European planters with their Hats on. Six types of hats have been popular in Kandyan times including the Jagalath thoppiya.

Jacket or hatte

Introduced by the Portuguese as shown by the name Juwan Hatte.

The elite hatte comprised collar cuffs, silver button chains and used expensive material as brocade, satin and velvet imported from India and Indonesia.

These had to be sewn by expert Indian tailors. So the hatte or jacket then worn by males is far different from what we call the hatte now, worn by all of us, women.

Introduced by the Siamese,. A new royal dress had been introduced to the island by the Siamese and the elite copied it along with white trousers and seven necklaces that also show Javanese royal court influences. Fabrics were mostly imported from Dutch held land in Asia, fabric also known as Kavani or Somana.

Ornate item

The belt or patiya was again an ornate item sewn with gold thread and embellished gems. The knife was similar to the Javanese dagger. Necklaces and pendants, according to Coomaraswamy, were of South Indian design. The Berunda bird on the pendant is very popular. Oh! Let the entrancing Berunda bird be ours!


These were called Peres Mudu and were again a luxury item.

Old Sinhala newspapers give elaborate accounts of how Mudaliyars aping the Kandyan elite arrived at the Galle waterfront to receive Prince Alfred sporting a good part of these items that made some onlookers mistake their own elite for the visitor, himself clad in simple trouser and shirt. Shimmering purple robes left behind.

These early newspapers betray the fact that the prince for whom Kollupitiya just gushed and still commemorates the visit by Alfred Gardens had come mostly to hunt and kill unsuspecting animals in the wild, in addition to carrying the queen's good wishes to a rice-starved island of the 1870s.

Reminiscent of the visit of the king of Spain a few days back to Botswana to hunt and kill elephants while the country was undergoing severe economic recession.

As for Dr. Ranatunga, while congratulating her, I wonder whether she has overdone the foreign influences on our Kandyan elite dress for our craftsmen and designers and even some of the elite did indeed have an amazing creativity of their own.

But her attempt does herald a new path of study and investigation into rather unexplored territory. Also the attempt of the then high Lanakans to synthesise different fashions from different climes and mould them all into what came to hold an almost native ethos too has to be appreciated. Even now the process continues.

This corpus of topics presented at the very well organised conference has been mainly categorised into Aesthetic Studies, philosophy, Sinhala and literature studies, archaeology, education, gender, science technology, ayurveda, library science and sociology.

The multiple topics themselves reflect the amazingly widening spectrum of knowledge.


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