Clothing - A Social
is easy to forget that there is a history to the clothes we wear. All
societies observe certain rules, some of them quite strict, about the
way in which men, women and children should dress, or how different
social classes and groups should present themselves. These norms come to
define the identity of people, the way they see themselves, the way they
want others to see them. They shape our notions of grace and beauty,
ideas of modesty and shame. As times change and societies are
transformed, these notions also alter. Modifications in clothing come to
reflect these changes.
The emergence of
the modern world is marked by dramatic changes in clothing. In this
chapter, we will look at some of the histories of clothing in the modern
period, that is in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Why are these two
Before the age of
democratic revolutions and the development of capitalist markets in
eighteenth-century Europe, most people dressed according to their
regional codes, and were limited by the types of clothes and the cost of
materials that were available in their region. Clothing styles were also
strictly regulated by class, gender or status in the social hierarchy.
eighteenth century, the colonization of most of the world by Europe, the
spread of democratic ideals and the growth of an industrial society,
completely changed the ways in which people thought about dress and its
meanings. People could use styles and materials that were drawn from
other cultures and locations, and western dress styles for men were
Sumptuary Laws and
medieval Europe, dress codes were sometimes imposed upon members of
different layers of society through actual laws which were spelt out in
some detail. From about 1294 to the time of the French Revolution in 1789,
the people of France were expected to strictly follow what were known as
'sumptuary laws.' The laws tried to control the behavior of those
considered social inferiors, preventing them from wearing certain clothes,
consuming certain foods and beverages (usually this referred to alcohol)
and hunting game in certain areas. In medieval France, the items of
clothing a person could purchase per year was regulated, not only by
income but also by social rank. The material to be used for clothing was
also legally prescribed. Only royalty could wear expensive materials like
ermine and fur, or silk, velvet and brocade. Other classes were debarred
from clothing themselves with materials that were associated with the
Revolution ended these distinctions. As you know from Chapter I, members
of the J acobin clubs even called themselves the 'sans culottes' to
distinguish themselves from the aristocracy who wore the fashionable 'knee
breeches'. Sans culottes literally meant those 'without knee breeches'.
From now on, both men and women began wearing clothing that was loose and
comfortable. The colors of France - blue, white and red - became popular
as they were a sign of the patriotic citizen. Other political symbols too
became a part of dress: the red cap of liberty, long trousers and the
revolutionary cockade pinned on to a hat. The simplicity of clothing was
meant to express the idea of equality.
Clothing and Notions
The end of sumptuary
laws did not mean that everyone in European societies could now dress in
the same way. The French Revolution had raised the question of equality
and ended aristocratic privileges, as well as the laws that maintained
those privileges. However, differences between social strata remained.
Clearly, the poor could not dress like the rich, nor eat the same food.
But laws no longer barred people's right to dress in the way they wished.
Differences in earning, rather than sumptuary laws, now defined what the
rich and poor could wear. And different classes developed their own
culture of dress. The notion of what was beautiful or ugly, proper or
improper, decent or vulgar, differed.
Styles of clothing
also emphasized differences between men and women. Women in Victorian
England were groomed from childhood to be docile and dutiful, submissive
and obedient. The ideal woman was one who could bear pain and suffering.
While men were expected to be serious, strong, independent and aggressive,
women were seen as frivolous, delicate, passive and docile. Norms of
clothing reflected these ideals. From childhood, girls were tightly laced
up and dressed in stays. The effort was to restrict the growth of their
bodies, contain them within small moulds. When slightly older, girls had
to wear tight fitting corsets. Tightly laced, small-waisted women were
admired as attractive, elegant and graceful. Clothing thus played a part
in creating the image of frail, submissive Victorian women.
How Did Women React
to These Norms?
women believed in the ideals of womanhood. The ideals were in the air they
breathed, the literature they read, the education they had received at
SCh901 and at home. From childhood they grew up to believe that having a
small waist was a womanly duty. Suffering pain was essential to being a
woman. To be seen as attractive, to be womanly, they had to wear the
corset. The torture and pain this inflicted on the body was to be accepted
But not everyone
accepted these values. Over the nineteenth century, ideas changed. By the
1830s, women in England began agitating for democratic rights. As the
suffrage movement developed, many began campaigning for dress reform.
Women's magazines described how tight dresses and corsets caused
deformities and illness among young girls. Such clothing restricted body
growth and hampered blood circulation. Muscles remained underdeveloped and
the spines got bent. Doctors reported that many women were regularly
complaining of acute weakness, felt languid, and fainted frequently.
Corsets then became necessary to hold up the weakened spine.
In America, a
similar movement developed amongst the white settlers on the east coast.
Traditional feminine clothes were criticized on a variety of grounds. Long
skirts, it was said, swept the grounds and collected filth and dirt. This
caused illness. The skirts were voluminous and difficult to handle. They
hampered movement and prevented women from working and earning. Reform of
the dress, it was said, would change the position of women. If clothes
were comfortable and convenient, then women could work, earn their living,
and become independent. In the 1870s, the National Woman Suffrage
Association headed by Mrs Stanton, and the American Woman Suffrage
Association dominated by Lucy Stone both campaigned for dress reform. The
argument was: simplify dress, shorten skirts, and abandon corsets. On both
sides of the Atlantic, there was now a movement for rational dress
The reformers did
not immediately succeed in changing social values. They had to face
ridicule and hostility. Conservatives everywhere opposed change. They
lamented that women who gave up traditional norms of dressing no longer
looked beautiful, and lost their femininity and grace. Faced with
persistent attacks, many women reformers changed back into traditional
clothes to conform to conventions.
By the end of the
nineteenth century, however, change was clearly in the air. Ideals of
beauty and styles of clothing were both transformed under a variety of
pressures. People began accepting the ideas of reformers they had earlier
ridiculed. With new times came new values.
What were these new
values? What created the pressure for change? Many changes were made
possible in Britain due to the introduction of new materials and
technologies. Other changes came about because of the two world wars and
the new working conditions for women. Let us retrace our steps a few
centuries to see what these changes were.
seventeenth century, most ordinary women in Britain possessed very few
clothes made of flax, linen or wool, which were difficult to clean. After
1600, trade with India brought cheap, beautiful and easy-to-maintain
Indian chintzes within the reach of many Europeans who could now increase
the size of their wardrobes.
Then, during the
Industrial Revolution, in the nineteenth century, Britain began the mass
manufacture of cotton textiles which it exported to many parts of the
world, including India. Cotton clothes became more accessible to a wider
section of people in Europe. By the early twentieth century, artificial
fibers made clothes cheaper still and easier to wash and maintain.
In the late 1870s,
heavy, restrictive underclothes, which had created such a storm in the
pages of women's magazines, were gradually discarded. Clothes got lighter,
shorter and simpler.
Yet until 1914,
clothes were ankle length, as they had been since the thirteenth century.
By 1915, however, the hemline of the skirt rose dramatically to mid-calf.
Why this sudden
in women's clothing came about as a result of the two World wars.
Many European women
stopped wearing jewelry and luxurious clothes. As upper-class women mixed
with other classes, social barriers were eroded and women began to dress
in similar ways.
Clothes got shorter
during the First World War (1914-1918) out of practical necessity. By
1917, over 700,000 women in Britain were employed in ammunition factories.
They wore a working uniform of blouse and trousers with accessories such
as scarves, which was later replaced by khaki overalls and caps. Bright
colors faded from sight and only sober colors were worn as the war dragged
on. Thus clothes became plainer and simpler. Skirts became shorter. Soon
trousers became a vital part of Western women's clothing, giving them
greater freedom of movement. Most important, women took to cutting their
hair short for convenience.
By the twentieth
century, a plain and austere style came to reflect seriousness and
professionalism. New schools for children emphasized the importance of
plain dressing, and discouraged ornamentation. Gymnastics and games
entered the school curriculum for women. As women took to sports, they had
to wear clothes that did not hamper movement. When they went out to work
they needed clothes that were comfortable and convenient.
So we see that the
history of clothing is linked to the larger history of society. We saw how
clothing was defined by dominant cultural attitudes and ideals of beauty,
and how these notions changed over time. We saw how reformers and
conservatives struggled to shape these ideals, and how changes within
technology and economy, and the pressures of new times made people feel
the need for change.
What about India in
this same period?
the colonial period there were significant changes in male and female
clothing in India. On the one hand this was a consequence of me influence
of Western dress forms and missionary activity; on the other it was due to
the effort by Indians to fashion clothing styles that, embodied an
indigenous tradition and culture. Cloth and clothing in fact became very
important symbols of the national movement. A brief look at the nineteenth
century changes will tell us a great deal about the transformations of the
clothing came into India in the nineteenth century, Indians reacted in
three different ways:
One Many, especially
men, began incorporating some elements of western-style clothing in their
dress. The wealthy Parsis of western India were among the first to adapt
Western-style clothing. Baggy Trousers and the phenta (or hat) were
added to long collarless coats, boots and a walking stick to complete the
look of the gentleman. To some, Western clothes were a sign of modernity
clothing was also especially attractive to groups of dalit converts to
Christianity who now found it liberating. Here too, it as men rather than
women who affected the new dress styles.
Two There were
others who were convinced that western culture would lead to a loss of
traditional cultural identity. The use of Western-style clothes was taken
as a sign of the world turning upside down. The cartoon of the Bengali
Babu shown here, mocks him for wearing Western-style boots and hat and
coat along with his dhoti.
Three. Some men
resolved this dilemma by wearing Western clothes without giving up their
Indian ones. Many Bengali bureaucrats the late nineteenth century began
stocking tern-style clothes for work outside the me and changed into more
comfortable Indian clothes at home. Early- twentieth-century
anthropologist Verrier Elwin remembered that policemen in Poona who going
off duty would take their trousers off in the street and walk home in
'just tunic and undergarments'. This difference between outer and inner
worlds is still observed by some men today.
Still others tried a
slightly different solution to the same dilemma. They attempted to combine
Western and Indian forms of dressing.
These changes in
clothing, however, had a turbulent history.
Caste Conflict and
Though there were no
formal sumptuary laws as in Europe, India had its own strict social codes
of food and dress. The caste system clearly defined what subordinate and
dominant caste Hindus should wear, eat, etc., and these codes had the
force of law. Changes in clothing styles that threatened these norms
therefore often created violent social reactions.
In May 1822, women
of the Shanar caste were attacked by upper-caste Nairs in public places
in the southern princely state of Travancore, for wearing a cloth across
their upper bodies. Over subsequent decades, a violent conflict over dress
The Shanars (also
called Nadars) were a community of toddy tappers who migrated to southern
Travancore to work under Nair landlords. As they were considered a
'subordinate caste', they were prohibited from using umbrellas and wearing
shoes or golden ornaments. Men and women were also expected to follow the
local custom of never covering their upper bodies before the upper castes.
Under the influence
of Christian missions, Shanar women converts began in the 1820s to wear
tailored blouses and cloths to cover themselves like the upper castes.
Soon Nairs, one of the upper castes of the region, attacked these women in
public places and tore off their upper cloths. Complaints were also filed
in court against this dress change, especially since Shanars were also
refusing to render free labour for the upper castes.
At first, the
Government of Travancore issued a proclamation in 1829 ordering Shanar
women 'to abstain in future from covering the upper parts of the body.'
But this did not prevent Shanar Christian women, and even Shanar Hindus,
from adopting the blouse and upper cloth.
The abolition of
slavery in Tracancore in 1855 led to even more frustration among the upper
castes who felt they were losing control. In October 1859, riots broke out
as Shanar women were attacked in the marketplace and stripped of their
upper cloths. Houses were looted and chapels burned. Finally, the
government issued another proclamation permitting Shanar women, whether
Christian or Hindu, to wear a jacket, or cover their upper bodies 'in any
manner whatever, but not like the women of high caste'.
British Rule and
did the British react to Indian ways of dressing? How did Indians react to
cultures, specific items of clothing often convey contrary meanings. This
frequently leads to misunderstanding and conflict. Styles of clothing in
British India changed through such conflicts.
Consider the case of
the turban and the hat. When European traders first began frequenting
India, they were distinguished from the Indian 'turban wearers' as the
'hat wearers.' These two headgears not only looked different, they also
signified different things. The turban in India was not just for
protection from the heat but was a sign of respectability, and could not
be removed at will. In the Western tradition, the hat had to be removed
before social superiors as a sign of respect. This cultural difference
created misunderstanding. The British were often offended if Indians did
not take off their turban when they met colonial officials. Many Indians
on the other hand wore the turban to consciously assert their regional or
conflict related to the wearing of shoes. At the beginning of the
nineteenth century, it was customary for British officials to follow
Indian etiquette and remove their footwear in the courts of ruling kings
or chiefs. Some British officials also wore Indian clothes. But in 1830,
Europeans were forbidden from wearing Indian clothes It official
functions, so that the cultural identity of the white masters was not
At the same time,
Indians were expected to wear Indian clothes to office and follow Indian
dress codes. In 1824 - 1828, Governor-General Amherst insisted that
Indians take their shoes off as a sign of respect when they appeared
before him, but this was not strictly followed. By the mid-nineteenth
century, when Lord Dalhousie was Governor- General, 'shoe respect' was
made stricter, and Indians were made to take off their shoes when entering
any government institution; only those who wore European clothes were
exempted from this rule. Many Indian government servants were increasingly
uncomfortable with these rules.
In 1862, there was a
famous case of defiance of the 'shoe respect' rule in a Surat courtroom.
Manockjee Cowasjee Entee, an assessor in the Surat Fouzdaree Adawlut,
refused to take off his shoes in the court of the sessions judge. The
judge insisted that he take off his shoes as that was the Indian way of
showing respect to superiors. But Manockjee remained adamant. He was
barred entry into the courtroom and he sent a letter of protest to the
governor of Bombay.
The British insisted
that since Indians took off their shoes when they entered a sacred place
or home, they should do so when they entered the courtroom. In the
controversy that followed, Indians urged that taking off shoes in sacred
places and at home was linked to two different questions. One: there was
the problem of dirt and filth. Shoes collected the dirt on the road. This
dirt could not be allowed into spaces that were clean, particularly when
people in Indian homes sat on the ground. Second, leather shoes and the
filth that stuck under it were seen as polluting. But public buildings
like the courtroom were different from home.
But it took many
years before shoes were permitted into the courtroom.
feelings swept across India by the late nineteenth century, Indians began
devising cultural symbols that would express the unity of the nation.
Artists looked for a national style of art. Poets wrote national songs.
Then a debate began over the design of the national flag. The search for a
national dress was part of this move to define the cultural identity of
the nation in symbolic ways.
experiments with dress engaged men and women of the upper classes and
castes in many parts of India. The Tagore family of Bengal experimented,
beginning in the 1870s, with designs for a national dress for both men and
women in India. Rabindranath Tagore suggested that instead of combining
Indian and European dress, India's national dress should combine elements
of Hindu and Muslim dress. Thus the chapkan (a long buttoned coat)
was considered the most suitable dress for men.
There were also
attempts to develop a dress style that would draw on the tradition of
different regions. In the late 1870s, Jnanadanandini Devi, wife of
Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian member of the lCS, returned from
Bombay to Calcutta. She adopted the Parsi style of wearing the sari pinned
to the left shoulder with a brooch, and worn with a blouse and shoes. This
was quickly adopted by Brahmo Samaji women and came to be known as the
Brahmika sari. This style gained acceptance before long among
Maharashtrian and Uttar Pradesh Brahmos, as well as non-Brahmos.
attempts at devising a pan-Indian style did not fully succeed. Women of
Gujarat, Kodagu, Kerala and Assam continue to wear different types of
have read about the Swadeshi movement in Bengal in the first decade of the
twentieth century. H you reflect back: on the movement you will realize
that it was centrally linked to the politics of clothing.
What was this
You know that the
British first came to trade in Indian textiles that were in great demand
all over the world. India accounted for one-fourth of the world's
manufactured goods in the seventeenth century. There were a million
weavers in Bengal alone in the middle of the eighteenth century. However,
the Industrial Revolution in Britain, which mechanized spinning and
weaving and greatly increased the demand for raw materials such as cotton
and indigo, changed India's status in the world economy.
Political control of
India helped the British in two ways: Indian peasants could be forced to
grow crops such as indigo, and cheap British manufacture easily replaced
coarser Indian one. Large numbers of Indian weavers and spinners were left
without work, and important textile weaving centers such as Murshidabad,
Machilipatnam and Surat declined as demand fell.
Yet by the middle of
the twentieth century, large numbers of people began boycotting British or
mill-made cloth and adopting khadi, even though it was coarser, more
expensive and difficult to obtain. How did this change come about?
In 1905, Lord Curzon
decided to partition Bengal to control the growing opposition to British
rule. The Swadeshi movement developed in reaction to this measure. People
were .urged to boycott British goods of all kinds and start their own
industries for the manufacture of goods such as matchboxes and cigarettes.
Mass protests followed, with people vowing to cleanse themselves of
colonial rule. The use of khadi was made a patriotic duty. Women were
urged to throwaway their silks and glass bangles and wear simple shell
bangles. Rough homespun was glorified in songs and poems to popularize
The change of dress
appealed largely to the upper castes and classes rather than to those who
had to make do with less and could not afford the new products. After 15
years, many among the upper classes also returned to wearing European
Though many people
rallied to the cause of nationalism at this time, it was almost impossible
to compete with cheap British goods that had flooded the market.
limitations, the experiment with Swadeshi gave Mahatma Gandhi important
ideas about using cloth as a symbolic weapon against British rule.
Experiments with Clothing
most familiar image of Mahatma Gandhi is of him seated, bare chested and
in a short dhoti, at the spinning wheel. He made spinning on the charkha
and the daily use of khadi, or coarse cloth made from homespun yarn, very
powerful symbols. These were not only symbols of self-reliance but also of
resistance to the use of British mill-made cloth.
experiments with clothing sum up the changing attitude to dress in the
Indian subcontinent. As a boy from a Gujarati Bania family, he usually
wore a shirt with a dhoti or pyjama, and sometimes a coat. When he went to
London to study law as a boy of 19 in 1888, he cut off the tuft on his
head and dressed in a Western suit so that he would not be laughed at. On
his return, he continued to wear Western suits, topped with a turban. As a
lawyer in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1890s, he still wore Western
Soon he decided that
dressing 'unsuitably' was a more powerful political statement. In Durban
in 1913, Gandhi first appeared in a lungi and kurta with his head shaved
as a sign of mourning to protest against the shooting of Indian coal
On his return to
India in 1915, he decided to dress like a Kathiawadi peasant. Only in 1921
did he adopt the short dhoti, the form of dress he wore until his death.
On 22 September 1921, a year after launching the non-cooperation movement,
which sought swaraj in one year, he announced:
I propose to
discard at least up to 31st of October my topi and vest and to content
myself with a loincloth, and a chaddar whenever necessary for protection
of my body. I adopt the change because I have always hesitated to advise
anything I may not be prepared to follow ... '
At this time, he did
not want to use this dress all his life and only wanted to 'experiment for
a month or two'. But soon he saw this as his duty to the poor, and he
never wore any other dress. He consciously rejected the well-known clothes
of the Indian ascetic and adopted the dress of the poorest Indian. Khadi,
white and coarse, was to him a sign of purity, of simplicity, and of
poverty. Wearing it became also a symbol of nationalism, a rejection of
Western mill- made cloth.
He wore the short
dhoti without a shirt when he went to England for the Round Table
Conference in 1931. He refused to compromise and wore it even before King
George V at Buckingham Palace. When he was asked by journalists whether he
was wearing enough clothes to go before the King, he joked that that 'the
King had enough on for both of us'!
Not All could Wear
Gandhi's dream was to clothe the whole nation in khadi. He felt khadi
would be a means of erasing difference between religions, classes, etc.
But was it easy for others to follow in his footsteps? Was such a unity
possible? Not many could take to the single peasant loincloth as he had.
Nor did all want to. Here are some examples of other responses to Mahatma
as Motilal Nehru, a successful barrister from Allahabad, gave up his
expensive Western-style suits and adopted the Indian dhoti and kurta. But
these were not made of coarse cloth.
Those who had been
deprived by caste norms for centuries were attracted to Western dress
styles. Therefore, unlike Mahatma Gandhi, other nationalists such as
Babasaheb Ambedkar never gave up the Western-style suit. Many Dalits began
in the early 1910s to wear three-piece suits, and shoes and socks on all
public occasions, as a political statement of self-respect.
A woman who wrote
to Mahatma Gandhi from Maharashtra in 1928 said, 'A year ago, I heard you
speaking on the extreme necessity of every one of us wearing khadi and
thereupon decided to adopt it. But we are poor people, My husband says
khadi is costly. Belonging as I do to Maharashtra, I wear a sari nine
yards long ... (and) the elders will not hear of a reduction (to six
Other women, like
Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Nehru, wore coloured saris with designs, instead
of coarse, white homespun.
Changes in styles of
clothing are thus linked up with shifts in cultural tastes and notions of
beauty, with changes within the economy and society, and with issues of
social and political conflict. So when we see clothing styles alter we
need to ask: why do these changes take place? What do they tell us about
society and its history? What can they tell us about changes in tastes and
technologies, markets and industries?