I have just returned from a very long business meeting. Having extricated my feet from a pair of painfully fashionable shoes, I’ve put them up on a sofa. My watch and belt are on a coffee table, my suit jacket is on the sofa, and my shirt sleeves are rolled up. Wherever I travel for business, there is a part of Bengal that is very close to my heart. And by close, I mean, literally. I am talking about the undershirt separating my skin from outerwear.
I have lived in many cities in many parts of the world, but I purposely buy all my undershirts back in West Bengal. And I am not alone. According to the website of the West Bengal Hosiery Association, Anand Mohan Mukherjee established the first hosiery factory in India in Khidderpore in 1893 with his patriotic vision for providing indigenous cotton knitwear to the masses. India has been well-served with swadeshi alternatives from the “Hosiery Capital” ever since.
But I do not prefer undershirts from Bengal for emotional or financial reasons; I prefer them because there is one particular style not popular in any other country that I have visited, but widely available in Bengal, which is brilliant in design. I am not referring to the standard, cotton round-necked t-shirt or the sleeveless vest (referred to as the Japanese-sounding sendo-genji in Bangla), which are pretty much available anywhere in the world. I am referring to a quintessentially Bengali undershirt that has a dipping neckline, very short-sleeves, and that tightly hugs the body.
Here are the reasons why I think it is pure genius:
1) The primary function of an undershirt is to serve as a barrier between the skin and outerwear. This may be to keep the skin away from irritating, yet fashionable fabric present in outerwear. It may also be to keep outerwear free from the stains and odors of perspiration. You can bathe as frequently as you want, add copious amounts of deodorant, and keep a spare shirt in your office, but if you’re being grilled in a board meeting you will perspire. The t-shirt fulfills this requirement very well. However, in this aspect, the cotton vest fails miserably compared to other types of upper-body undergarments because, horror of horrors, it doesn’t cover the armpits!
2) In business wear, a successful undershirt should be as discrete as possible. If I am wearing a tie, it doesn’t matter what I wear beneath my shirt, because it will not be visible, but many businesses have dispensed with ties in favor of more casual business-wear. If I button up my collar without a tie, I’ll look like a moron. If I keep my collar open, but wear a rounded-necked t-shirt then my undershirt is visible. Why would I want someone to see my undershirt? Also, loose t-shirts make wearing close-fitting half-sleeve shirts a problem too since they peep out. This is where the modified Bengali undershirt with dipping neckline is brilliant because no one needs to know what I’m wearing underneath my shirt. In addition, the sleeves are short and so I can wear it with half-sleeves too.
3) Finally, the modified undershirt has design enhancements that suit the Bengali male physique. It is made of “breathable” cotton and is thin so we don’t oversweat. It contours the body perfectly and sits tightly on the middle-aged Bengali paunch, so that at least we can be somewhat presentable without having to go to the gym regularly or forego our second helping of rice and khashi mangsho.
I have not seen any advertisements featuring film stars wearing this brilliant undershirt, which is really a shame. It has the best design for everyday male business wear conceivable, nay it is a practical work-of-art. If Michelangelo’s David wore a tight cotton vest, and the moai of Easter Island wore loose-fitting t-shirts, then The Thinker by Rodin would most certainly wear the Bengali undershirt.