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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.