|☛ There is a history of the clothes we wear.
☛ All societies observe certain rules. Some of these are quite strict about the way in which men, women and children should dress or how different social classes and groups should present themselves.
☛ The emergence of the modern world is marked by dramatic changes in clothing in the 19th and 20th centuries.
☛ Before the age of democratic revolutions and the development of capitalist markets in the 18th century Europe, most people dressed according to their regional codes and were limited by the type 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.
☛ After the 18th century, colonisation, industrialisation and spread of democratic ideals completely changed the ways in which people thought about dress and its meaning.
☛ People could use styles and materials that were drawn from other cultures and locations.
☛ Western dress styles for men were adopted worldwide.
- 1 Sumptuary Laws and Social Hierarchy
- 2 Clothing and Notions of Beauty
- 3 How did Women React to These Norms
- 4 The Two World Wars and Clothing
- 5 Caste Conflict and Dress Change
- 6 British Rule and Dress Codes
- 7 Designing of the National Dress
- 8 The Swedeshi Movement
- 9 Mahatma Gandhi’s Experiments with Clothing
Sumptuary Laws and Social Hierarchy
(i) From 1294 to the time of the French Revolution in 1789 the people of France were expected to striclty follow what were known as ‘sumptuary laws’.
(ii) The laws tried to control the behaviour of those considered social inferiors, preventing them from wearing certain clothes, consuming certain foods and beverages and hunting game in certain areas.
(iii) The lower classes were debarred from clothing themselves with materials that were associated with the aristocracy like fur, or silk, velvet and brocade.
(iv) The French Revolution ended the dress distinctions between the rich and the poor, as it swept away the sumptuary laws.
(v) With the end of Sumptuary laws, the people could wear dress in the way they wished.
(vi) But the poor could not dress like the rich nor eat the same food; differences in earning rather than sumptuary laws now defined what the rich and poor would wear.
Clothing and Notions of Beauty
(i) Styles of clothing also emphasised differences between men and women.
(ii) Women in Victorian England were groomed from childhood to be docile and dutiful, submissive and obedient, and also bear pain and suffering.
(iii) From childhood, girls were tightly laced up and dressed in “stays’.
(iv) The effort of stays was to restrict the growth of their bodies and contain them within small moulds.
(v) When slightly older, girls had to wear tight fitting corsets.Tightly laced small waisted women were admired as attractive, elegant and graceful.
(vi) Clothing thus played a part in creating the image of frail, submissive Victorian women.
How did Women React to These Norms
(i) Many women believed in the ideals of womanhood.
(ii) From childhood they grew up to believe that having a small waist was a womanly duty.
(iii) To appear attractive, to be seen womanly, they had to wear corsets. The torture and pain this inflicted on the body was to be accepted as normal.
(iv) But not everyone accepted these values.
(v) By the 1830s, women in England began agitating for democratic rights and many began to campaign for dress reform.
(vi) 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 spines got bent.
(vii) In America, a similar movement developed amongst the white settlers on the East coast.
(viii) In America, traditional feminine clothes were criticised on a variety of grounds.
(ix) Long skirts, it was said, swept the grounds and collected filth and dirt. This caused illness.
(x) The skirts were voluminous and difficult to handle.
(xi) Skirts hampered movement and prevented women from working and earning.
(xii) In the 1870s, both the National Woman Suffrage Association headed by Mrs Stanton and the American Woman Suffrage Association headed by Lucy Stone campaigned for dress reform.
(xiii) The argument was
(a) Simplify dress
(b) Shorten skirts
(c) Abandon corsets
(xiv) The conservatives everywhere opposed change.
(xv) They lamented that woman who gave up traditional norms of dressing no longer looked beautiful and lost their feminity and grace.
(xvi) By the 19th century, change was in the air. People began accepting the ideas of reformers, they had earlier ridiculed. With new times came new values.
(i) Many changes were made possible in Britain due to the introduction of new materials and technologies.
(ii) Other changes came about because of the two world wars and new working conditions of women.
(i) Before the 17th century, most ordinary women in Britain possessed very few clothes, which were made of flax, linen or wool, which were difficult to clean.
(ii) After 1600, trade with India brought cheap, beautiful and easy to maintain ‘Indian chintzes’ within the reach of many Europeans.
(iii) In the 19th century, cotton clothes became more accessible to a wider section of people in Europe.
(iv) By early 20th century, artificial fibres made clothes cheaper still and easier to wash and maintain.
(v) In the 1870s, heavy restrictive underclothes were discarded. Clothes got lighter, shorter and simpler.
The Two World Wars and Clothing
(i) Changes in clothing came about as a result of the two world wars.
(ii) Many Europeans stopped wearing jewellery and luxurious clothes.
(iii) As upper class women mixed with other classes, social barriers were eroded and women began to dress in similar ways.
(iv) Clothes got shorter during the First World War (1914-18).By 1917, over 700,000 women in Britain were employed in ammunition factories. They wore a working uniform of blouse and trousers and accessories such as scarves later replaced by khaki overalls and cap.
(v) Bright colours were given up and only sober colours were worn. clothes became plainer and simpler.
(vi) Skirts became shorter, and trousers became a vital part of Western women’s clothing, giving them greater freedom of movement at the place of work.
(vii) Women started having their hair cut for convenience.
Transformations in Colonial India
(i) During the colonial period, there were significant changes in male and female clothing in India.
(ii) This change was a consequence of the influence of Western dress forms and missionary activity.
(iii) Another reason for the change was due to the efforts by Indians to fashion clothing styles that embodied an indigenous tradition and culture.
(iv) Cloth and clothing became very important symbols of the National Movement.
Reaction of Indians to Western Clothing
(i) Men began incorporating some elements of Western style clothing in their dress.
(ii) The wealthy Parsis were among the first to adopt Western style clothing.
(iii) Baggy trousers and the phenta (or hat) were added to long collarless coats, with boots and a walking stick to complete the look of a gentleman.
(iv) To some, the Western clothes were a sign of modernity and progress.
(v) Western style clothing was also especially attractive to groups of dalit converts to Christianity, who now found it liberating.
(i) There were others who were convinced that Western culture would lead to a loss of traditional cultural identity.
(ii) The use of Western style clothes was taken as a sign of the world turning upside down.
(i) Some men resolved this dilemma by wearing Western clothes without giving up their Indian ones.
(ii) Many Bengali bureaucrats began wearing Western style clothes for work outside the home and traditional clothes at home.
Caste Conflict and Dress Change
(i) India had its own strict social codes of food and dress.
(ii) The caste system clearly defined what subordinate and dominant caste Hindus should wear, eat etc. and these codes had the force of law.
The Shanar Issue
(i) 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
(ii) 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 as 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 casters.
(iii) Under the influence of Christian missions. Shanar women converts began in the 1820s, to wear tailored blouses and clothes to cover themselves like the upper castes.
(iv) Soon the Nairs, one of the upper castes of the region, attacked these women in public places and tore off the upper clothes.
(v) In October 1859, riots broke out as Shanar women were attacked in the marketplace and stripped of their upper clothes. Houses were looted and chapels burn’t.
(vi) 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 castes.
British Rule and Dress Codes
(i) In different cultures, specific items of clothing often conveyed contrary meanings and led to misunderstandings and conflicts.
(ii) Styles of clothing in British India changed through conflict.
(i) 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.
(ii) In the Western tradition, the hat had to be removed before social superiors as a sign of respect.
(iii) This cultural difference created misunderstanding between the British and the Indians.
(iv) British officials were offended if Indians did not take off their turban when they met colonial officials.
(i) Another such conflict related to the wearing of shoes. It was customary for British officials to follow Indian etiquette and remove their footwear in the courts of ruling kings or chiefs.
(ii) Some British officials also wore Indian clothes.
(iii) In 1830, Europeans were forbidden from wearing Indian clothes at official functions so that the cultural identity of the white masters was not undermined.
(iv) In 1824-1828, Governor General Amherst insisted that Indians take their shoes off as sign of respect when they appeared before him but this was not followed strictly.
(v) When Lord Dalhousie was Governor General in India ‘shoe respect’ was made stricter and Indians were made to take off their shoes when entering any government institution.
Those who wore European clothes were exempted from this rule.
(vi) Many Indian Government servants were uncomfortable with these rules.
(vii) In 1862, Manockjee Cowasjee Entee, an assessor in the Surat Fouzadaree Adalat, refused to take his shoes off in the court of the Sessions Judge. They insisted he take off the shoes as a sign of respect, but he remained adamant.
(viii) He was barred entry into the courtroom and he sent a letter of protest to the Governor of Bombay.
(ix) The British insisted that since Indians took off their shoes when they entered a sacred place or home they should do the same when they entered the court room.
(x) To this Indians urged that taking off shoes in sacred places and at home was linked to two different reasons.
(xi) At home they took off shoes to avoid dirt and filth from entering the house and sacred places.
(xii) Secondly, leather shoes and filth that stuck under the shoes were seen as polluting. But public buildings and courtrooms were different from homes.
Designing of the National Dress
(i) As nationalists feeling sweept across India by the late 19th century.
(ii) Indians began devising cultural symbols that would express the unity of the nation.
(iii) Artists looked for national style of art.
(iv) Poets wrote national songs. Then a debate began over the design of the national flag.
(v) The search for a national dress was part of this move to define the cultural identity of the nation in symbolic ways.
(vi) The Tagore family of Bengal experimented in 1870’s with designs for a national dress for both men and women in India.
(vii) 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.
(viii) There were also attempts to develop a dress style that would draw on the traditions of different regions.
(ix) Jhandanandini Devi wife of Satyendranath Tagore adopted the Parsi style of wearing the sari pinned to the left shoulder with a brooch and worn with a blouse and shoe.
(x) This was adopted by the Brahmo Samaj women and came to be known as the Brahmika Sari.
The Swedeshi Movement
(i) In 1905, Lord Curzon decided to partition Bengal to control the growing opposition to British rule.
(ii) 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 manufacture of
(iii) The use of khadi was made a patriot duty. Women were urged to throw away their silks and glass bangles and wear simple bangles. Rough homespun was glorified in songs
and poems to popularise it.
(iv) The change of dress appealed largely to the upper castes.
Mahatma Gandhi’s Experiments with Clothing
(i) When Gandhiji went to London to study law as a boy of 19 in 1888, he cut off the left on his head and dressed in a Western suit.
(ii) On his return, he continued to wear Western suits topped with a turban.
(iii) As a lawyer in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1890’s he still were Western clothes.
(iv) In Durban in 1913, Gandhi first appeared in a lungi and kurta with his head shaved as a sign of mourning and protest against the shooting of Indian coal miners.
(v) On his return to India in 1915, he decided to dress like a Kathiawadi peasant.
(vi) In 1921, he adopted the short dhoti, the form which he wore until his death.
(vii) He adopted the dress of the poorest Indian to identify himself with the common man.
(viii) Khadi, white and coarse was to him a sign of purity, of simplicity and of poverty.
(ix) Wearing khadi also became a symbol of nationalism, rejection of Western mill made cloth.
(x) He wore a dhoti without a shirt when he went to England for the Round Table Conference in 1931. He refused to compromise and even wore it before king George V at Buckingham palace.