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Clothes Maketh the Chief Minister: But no dark glasses please

BY Glenn C. Kharkongor

Dashing around the state and on frequent trips to the capital, Meghalaya’s current man about town, Conrad Sangma, is also making a sartorialimpression. If you have noticed,recent pictures of him in the print media and television offer a peek into his wardrobe. He has a wide range of attire, suitable for each occasion, formal and informal.

The proverb “Clothes maketh the man” is often attributed to Shakespeare, and indeed the line finds its place in Hamlet as “The apparel oft proclaims the man”. Not a man to be upstaged, the Bard seems to have stolen the line from earlier classical writers.Even Mark Twain used it often. But it was Erasmus who apparently coined the phrase in stultifying Latin as “vestisvirumfacit”. But no problem, plagiarism was widely practiced in those days and no one seemed to mind.

But to come back to Conrad, what snagged my attention was the picture of him published in this newspaper last Sunday. He is standing with the Union Health Minister, JP Nadda, in the Ministry of Health office in Delhi, their palms locked in a handshake, posing for the press. The Union Minister with a well-trimmed moustache, is dressed in a long black kurta. Draped around his neck is a ryndia, perhaps presented by our chief minister. Thehonorable minister looks quite formally dressed and on his left side is the Manipur health minister dressed in a long white kurta and looking, well, ministerial, but maybe a bit over-jeweled with a heavy watch and gold rings.

The setting is also formal, plush sofas in the background, a vase of fresh flowers on the coffee table and potted money plants on the window sills. A framed picture of Vivekananda adorns the wall behind. The venerable Swami is wearing an achkan and orange turban. Arms folded at the waist, he looks with an erudite gaze at some faraway point on the horizon.

So the other note-worthies in the room are all primly dressed. But our chief minister has a plain shirt, top button open, cuffs folded to his elbow and, gosh, shirt tails hanging out. Wow! Hmm! Err! So what is this all about? The clock on the wall says it’s a quarter past twelve, so maybe he’s rushed in from the mid-day sun, having just arrived from hot, humid Guwahati. Just trying to beat the heat, maybe?

Or is it more than that?A careless, untidy lack of dress sense? Maybe something from the grunge culture: edgy young millennial attitude? Or could it be a deliberate statement designed to convey a crafted message?

The American press seemed obsessed with the way President Obama dressed, falling over themselves to praise his dress sense, always appropriate for the occasion. Whether he showed up in a tuxedo to meet the Queen, or in shorts and sandals on the beach, he was uber cool. On the campaign trail, in the Oval Office, and even at the G8 summit, he sometimes appeared in an open collar shirt and rolled up sleeves, conveying the impression of a working man, not a stuffy politician.

It’s well-established in the scientific literature, and in real life, that what we wear influences other’s perceptions of us. A study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found some interesting phenomena. This research adds to a new field called “embodied cognition”: the concept that we think with not only our brains, but with our physical experiences, including the clothes we wear. If you dress formally at work, you tend to be more formal and professional. According to the authors, the way we see and feel the clothes on our body, influences our psyche, way of thinking and our decision-making. Clothes alter our self-perception and behavior.

In their experiments on randomly selected subjects, the wearing of a doctor’s white coat seemed to make people more careful and attentive. People may feel braver wearing a police uniform. But an important question remains. Just because we deliberately choose our clothes in a particular way, do the psychological and behavioral changes last for long periods, or do they eventually wear off?

Conrad has given us the impression of a man in a hurry. He’s already here, there and everywhere, in a rush to fix things, make improvements and build constructively. He’s a blue collar politician, seeming to get into the nitty-gritty of work. He seems eager to deliver the unfulfilled promises of previous eras, not just holding the steering wheel but also but also pulling his weight as member of the work team.

He seems comfortable in any attire, formal Nehru jacket, informal waist coat and short sleeves, or traditional Garo cap and scarf. Whatever be the occasion, being appropriately dressed adds to peak performance. He apparently feels composed regardless of how he is dressed. This conveys confidence, assertiveness, approachability.

Politicians do make mistakes with their clothes. Narendra Modi’s Rs 10 lakh suit with his name in the pin stripes was a monumental gaffe. Fortunately, it was auctioned for a good cause.  Trudeau was mocked during his recent visit to India, because his family appeared in formal traditional Indian clothing, seemingly just for photo ops.

As politicians gain in self-importance, some tend to overdress, especially with the accessories. A favorite is dark glasses. But many don’t observe sunglass etiquette. It’s rude to talk to someone with them on and crazy to wear them indoors. Unless you’re a movie actor or rock star, there are dos and don’ts. Unless a politician is in the bright sun, dark glasses are a no-no. They need to maintain direct eye contact with the people.

Let’s go back to the picture of Conrad in the ministerial chamber in Delhi. He stands erect, shoulders straight, focus and seriousness in his eye. There is confidence in his stance, he knows what he is doing. Never mind the clothes, the business of his people seems uppermost.He’s dressed for work.

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