Boarding schools in the 1950-60 era had a strict dress code and a mandatory list of clothes that had to be furnished when entering the school. Such boarding schools were limited to a few in the hill country with Trinity College and the two S Thomas’ Colleges in Bandarawela and Gurutalawa. Students opting boarding in the city schools were less and was outnumbered by the day-scholars who went back home after school. Thus the lifestyle of the boarding school student were to be of a special experience being away from home.
The standard list of clothes in a boarding school was a half a dozen navy blue short trousers and white cotton shirts of which five were to be short sleeves and one long-sleeved to be worn during special occasions. Six pairs of socks and one pair of grey stockings also to be worn during special school functions complete with a blue blazer keeping to the traditions of the British schools. The list continued with the handkerchiefs, bed sheets, pillowslips etc. But strangely there was no mention of any under garments excepting for the vest that was worn under the shirt. Almost all occasions however special it saw to be, saw us clad in the navy blue Chinese cotton-drill short trouser and white shirt worn complete with polished black leather shoes and socks. The short trouser was also special from what it is today. Readymade garments had not arrived yet and one had to visit the local tailor for all your garment needs. The shape of the short trouser was more like a mini skirt but generously flared. The frontal opening called the golpy was secured not by buttons or fly zippers as today but by metal stud buttons that went into two button holes positioned facing each other holding the opening together. It was held on the waist by two metal buckles positioned on either side of the waste band fixed on to straps sewn on the outside of the band. Today it is so curious to think that we did wear such a garment then.
Out of all these garments the socks played a special part in our daily lives. Socks then were imported into the country and were all turned out either from knitted wool or woven cotton. What we generally wore were of the woven cotton type and they generally came in white colour and the open end did have a rubber threading that was to hold the sock in place tight to your lower leg just above the ankle. These rubbers generally did not last the first wash and the open end did open out as a flower from its first visit to the dhoby and trouble started from there on. Keeping the sock in position tight in your leg was a problem and various innovations and improvises were tried out with rubber bands and garters. The solution in not having to be pulled up for not being smart was to fold down the flared end up to the ankle and you passed the morning inspection before going to school. But trouble did start after a few hours when the sock would slide down into the shoe and you were almost wearing your shoes without socks. This meant a qualification for punishment and one had to keep doing your shoes and socks every hour or two in school. In contrast to this situation, today we wear the fashionable ankle sock. When I posted the above picture in social media sometime back my schoolmate Dr. Hemasiri Kotagama did comment thus;……. “A frustration that I had at this age was that my sock always got sucked into the shoe. I tried rubber bands / garters to hold the sock in place!!! Toe jam was not a problem for me!!!” Probably having seeing the state of the socks of our friend Siri Silva, falling on to his shoes in the picture.
By the mid-sixties the problem of sinking socks came to an end with the introduction of Nylon and Terylene in the garment industry. Nylon socks production had by now commenced in the country. Then came the next problem with socks; the issue of Toe Jam that ‘Kota’ refers to say he was not a sufferer of.
What is toe jam? As derived in the Urban-Dictionary it is the “substance that accumulates between your toes after a long day of having sweaty feet. Mixture of toe sweat and sock fuzz.” Our tender feet then were soft and the skin was not hard and it did sweat unlike in adulthood when your soles are harder and drier and do not sweat. Wearing shoes for long hours in our younger days found our feet perspiring and the sweat did absorb in the socks in case it being cotton or the mess in case it was of nylon. This sweat with the dust and the dead skin under the toes invited bacteria and accumulated as a sticky substance that gave off a nauseating odour when exposed to the atmosphere. Luckily though you had no problem as far as your feet were in the shoes; the moment one took his feet out of the shoe all the heads would go up with the offensive odour and the culprit would quietly slip his foot back in the shoe and the problem solved. This was not that much a problem to the day boy as the parents saw to it that the socks were either washed daily or foot powder applied as a remedy to keep the home a better breathable place. We in the boarding were a carefree lot and did continue wearing soiled socks until the dhoby brought in our quota of washed linen.
Toe jam did at times interfere with school norms. While in our senior forms in Gurutalawa we had two sessions of school one before lunch and one after lunch ending just before evening tea. We had the habit of visiting the dormitory and go in for tea in our flip flops relieving our weary feet off the shoes. But on the other hand the whole dining room was now smelling of a few hundred dead rats. This situation was so grave and the then Headmaster Mr. E L Perera decreed that evening tea is to be had in full school uniform inclusive of shoes and socks. My nephew Nishantha Abeysinghe now a senior manager and planter a Trinity College boarder reminisces once when they were trekking to college from the Nittawala grounds after rugger practices a good Samaritan offered them a lift in his car to the school. They were in the car with their boots and stockings out and wearing flip-flops, having traveled a few yards the car came to a screeching stop with a stern order commanded “bloody toe jam everybody out immediately”…..they had to walk back the rest of the way to the school.
Going back to the list of clothes and its lacking for any underwear; it could be because there was no such decent piece of garment imported into the country then to be listed in it. Today we see our grandchildren going to the kindergarten wearing underpants but we in our times was quite free underneath until our testosterone levels where high enough to show that occasional frontal bulge when excited. The synthetic fiber industry catching up in the mid-sixties gave a solution to this problem as well. The first ever under garment in the country if I remember right was the ‘DIS’ brand jockstrap garment; a design copy of the cricketers box guard. It had a frontal box turned out of softer material sewn on to a thick elastic waist band with two narrower bands coming off the lower end of the box to the posterior and fixed firm to the waist band at the back. This held your vital outer organ intact but your bum was still bare of any undergarment. However it being readymade and until the smallest waist size of this unusual garment fitted your waist one did not wear anything underneath. The slang term to call this style then was to say that one was to be freewheeling. And if your trousers were found to be too tight you were ruled "Offside".
But then it is equally interesting to note of what our adults wore as an undergarment in that era. Again the savior was the local tailor who invented a garment to be worn by menfolk that also was a good business. The local tailor turned out a ‘V’ shaped attire called a 'lunket" resembling a swimming trunk but it was opened totally in one end. The open side had four strings sewn on the waist helm and the thigh helm, to be tied firm to hold the garment in position on your lower waist supporting your hang down. This way it became one size fits all and they came in an array of colours, some in multi colours and some in flowery patterns for they were turned out by the tailor with whatever saved material. It had its own funny name in the colloquial tongue…. the “Wawula” [meaning Fruit Bat], resembling the leathery wing membrane of the Fruit-bat when left to dry on the line and fluttering in the breeze.
Me as a kid was highly curious to see how adults wore them covered in their sarongs for modesty with only their head and feet showing out. One needed to have both his hands free to get it fastened on your lower body. It was funny to see them get only one leg into it with both hands inside the sarong and the sarong held firm by your central incisors and the rest of it resting on your shoulders. The funny part being that it had no formal front side or rear side and could be worn front side back as one pleased depending you being left-handed or right-handed.
I doubt if any of us wore the 'Wawula' in school but we had teachers called by this name by our seniors which we did continue to call them when we went into the senior classes as well.
Such was the simple lifestyles then in the mid-20th century compared to the complexities that we have to think of what to wear to so many functions that come up during a busy day. Back then you were welcome with what you left home with in the morning……. as it was always a dress that was thought to be formal for all occasions.