By Raffique Shah
September 22, 2013
Republic Day in 1976—Friday, September 24th—remains etched in my memory, a vignette in my colourful life during which I often collided with history. On that day, age 30, I entered Parliament as a frontline member of the ULF, having been elected to represent the Siparia constituency. I had never been in that chamber before. In fact, I do not recall ever entering the Red House before, but when I did, I made as bold an anti-colonial statement as anyone could.
I wore a khaki shirt-jac suit, short sleeves complete with epaulettes, and on my feet I wore my old army combat boots, highly polished, I should add. I was not the only MP dressed in this unconventional way. All eight of my male ULF colleagues, among them Basdeo Panday, Errol McLeod and Nizam Mohammed, as well as Senators George Weekes, Joe Young, George Sammy, Allan Alexander and Lennox Pierre, were similarly attired (except for the boots).
You see, since many of us had been architects of or participants in the 1970 revolution, we had decided to do something to de-colonise Parliament by not conforming with the norms that saw a be-wigged and be-robed Speaker preside over be-suited members. We had gone to break down the walls of Westminster, from the garments to its substance.
I, more than the others, could not accept that 14 years after independence, six years after the events of 1970, and in a supposedly new era of republicanism, we who represented the masses would continue, slavishly, to copy what Massa left us.
When you are young and brash, you could be very foolish, eh.
Although inside the Parliament and most state institutions whites still wore woollen suits (tropical suiting textiles were available by the 1960s), outside, in the hot and often humid environment, they had long worn short pants and short-sleeve shirts on the plantations and oilfields. For me, growing up as a child on the Brechin Castle sugar estate, my recollection of the white man remains what I described here, except with tall socks and a cork hat, sitting astride a horse.
For many descendants of slaves and indentured immigrants, the cork hat came to symbolise colonialism. So how then could Sir Solomon Hochoy, post-independence Governor-General, sit astride a horse dressed in full colonial regalia, topped off by a colourful cork hat, plumes et al?
He did, too, and he seemed to revel in those garments. He wore them on every ceremonial occasion, including the Independence Day parade. It was only when Sir Ellis Clarke assumed that office, and maybe because he confessed that he “did not ride a horse” that we saw an end to that relic of colonialism.
I could not make sense of how and why Trinidadians (and other colonised people) willingly, even eagerly, accepted and adopted a mode of dress that was designed for temperate and colder climes. I bought my first tie and long-sleeved shirt in early 1963 when, after passing exams, I went job-hunting. And from the first day I found those garments unbearably hot and uncomfortable. Fortunately for me, the principal of the school where I eventually taught for just over a year, did not demand that I wear a tie, a common practice at the time.
When I attended Sandhurst, I lived in uniforms and suits, understandably and necessarily so, what with the cold conditions and the pedigree of that institution. But upon returning home, I reverted to what I thought were comfortable garments.
At Teteron, an early clash between the junior officers and our seniors was over the dress code. They demanded that we wear ties in the dining room. We resisted, refused, and that was that: we had our way.
Let me quote from a book (Lengthening Shadows, 1982) written by the only white English officer who remained in the Regiment after 1964. Major Stewart Hylton Edwards wrote, “…It was quite incredible to me how little intelligent thought was given in those days by the Afro-Saxons (he forgot the Indo-Saxons and French Creoles) to inherited habits and practices.
“…Suits being worn for cocktail parties and dinners (in a temperature of 90 degrees F!) and ties and long-sleeved shirts essential for most office jobs….”
Major Edwards was British to the bone. But he was also a very practical man (off-duty, he wore short-sleeved shirts and slacks), and saw the folly of natives of this country adopting garments and practices that were completely out of synch with our climate and culture. Wearing a suit in the sun is like being in a mobile sauna!
It was in that context that I thought I would rock the status quo on Republic Day. How wrong I was. And how very stupid. Not only did PNM members stay with suits through the decades, but shortly after we broke ranks, Panday and others reverted to jacket-and-tie. Many of my one-time comrades from the revolutionary 1970s have followed suit.
Eminence in the society, 50 years after independence, is defined by suit, not substance.