NCERT – Class 9 – Clothing: A social history
Human race has evolved gradually — From the stone age to the space age.
From housing to farming to healthcare to travel to clothing; everything that the present human society uses with such ease and comfort has been improved through experiments, application of mind and enterprise.
Clothing the human use, from winter garments to Burqas to polo caps to sarees to Kimono to Dhotis to western suits, all have gone through a process of evolution and innovation. Today, in the globalized world, one sees myriad varieties of clothing people use. The variation is due to weather conditions, overhang of culture, economic status and religion. Just as all items—from medicines to safety razors to aeroplanes have a history behind them, clothing have a history of their own.
Apart from the purely functional needs, clothing represents our sense of fashion, aesthetic and beauty. The most eventful period in the history of clothing are the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is interesting to know why it is so.
Before the winds of democracy swept through Europe, and capitalist markets developed in eighteenth century Europe, people were rather too orthodox in their dresses. Mass-produced textiles and clothing had not entered the market. So, one could not experiment with clothes, even if one attempted to. Rigid feudal society was conformist giving little leeway for any sort of innovation in clothing.
So, people bought whatever was locally produced and sold. Weather, availability and cost determined people’s choice of clothes. This apart, every region had its dress codes. Men and women seldom violated these codes. Social hierarchy, economic status and political standing codified who would wear what.
In eighteenth century, such dress codes were decimated by three factors, such as
b. Spread of democratic ideas
c. Colonization of almost entire world by Europeans.
People became richer.
Textiles of far off lands begun to be available in markets. Impulses to look smarter and more beautiful became stronger. Democracy’s spread resulted in a churning of ideas and populations.
Medieval Europe had societies divided into different strata based on their political and economic clout. The affluent class, who wielded considerable power, were quite jealous mindful about retaining their elevated position in the social hierarchy. To do this, they had prescribed a ‘code of conduct’ regarding the way people of ‘lower’ classes should dress themselves. These were supported by actual laws. These set of laws were known as ‘Sumptuary laws’.
The lifestyles of the supposedly ‘inferior’ classes were regulated by these laws. Their dress, food and beverages, and recreation through hunting were rigidly controlled. Such oppressive and discriminatory practices remained in vogue from 1294 till the French Revolution in 1789.
The restrictions look farcical today, but the French society practiced it for a very very long time. The item of clothing a person could buy annually was restricted by certain numbers. Two factors – his income and his social rank — determined this. The material to be used for clothing was also regulated. The most expensive clothes made out of silk, fur, velvet and brocade were reserved for use by the royalty. It was considered a violation of law and an affront when a commoner dared to wear clothes meant for the aristocracy.
The French Revolution pulverized all these archaic barriers. To demonstrate their new-found freedom, members of the Jacobin clubs began to wear trousers that were loose and comfortable. It was in contrast to the traditional knee breeches’ worn by the aristocracy. These defiant groups called themselves sans culottes’ which translates to ‘without knee breeches’. From then on, men and women of France began to wear loose and comfortable dresses, casting aside the old regulated attires.
The colors –blue, white and red – became the flavor of the day as they represented nationalistic favour. Other symbols of the revolution such as the red cap of liberty, long trousers, and the revolutionary cockade pinned on to the hat became fashionable. Simplicity of clothing was adopted to express the idea of liberty.
It would be wrong to assume that the French Revolution put all citizens on the same flat ground. It ended the special tax breaks and other benefits of the privileged class. The royalty was gone for good.
However, the age-old stratification of the society did not vanish. Due to economic factors, a poor peasant could not afford the same food or clothing as his affluent neighbor. So, the entrenched practices with respect to food and clothing remained despite the fact that the archaic restrictive laws were abolished.
Life style changed bringing about some changes in clothing and food. However, different strata of society made use of the freedom differently. New trends in fashion and notions of practical utility evolved, but differently for different strata of society.
The changes manifested differently for the two sexes. Women in Victorian England were trained to be submissive, dutiful and loyal to their husbands. They were asked to weather pain, suffering and slights without any protest. On the other hand, men were conditioned to be aggressive, domineering, serious and chivalrous.
Such contrasting mindset of the two sexes was reflected in the style of their dresses. Girls wore tightly laced dresses with stays. The intent was to restrict the natural growth of their bodies, so that they stay small and subdued. As they grew up, the adolescent girls had to wear corsets. Girls with slimmer waists and smaller busts were considered beautiful. This notion of beauty dictated the design of their dresses.
How did women react to these norms? …
Most women were conformists. Their idea of ideal womanhood was shaped by the grooming at home, the societal norms and the education at school. By the time they reached adolescence, these values were deeply ingrained in their psyche. They to were conditioned endure pain without a whimper, restrain the natural growth of the waist and the lower parts of their bodies by wearing corsets so that they looked slim. It was, no doubt, a very stifling ordeal, but all ‘nice’ girls willingly accepted it.
But, there were non-conformists too. With the advent of the nineteenth century, such subdued and submissive persona of women seemed to be on their way out.
By 1830, the women of England began to demand voting rights, at par with the men folks. The campaign for women’s suffrage gathered wind as many women and some men actively supported the cause.
Such assertiveness was evident in other areas too. Women wanted to do away with their traditional ‘restrictive’ clothing styles. Women magazines highlighted the debilitating effects of corsets and other restrictive devices on a woman’s long term health. Clamping down a woman’s body’s growth hampered blood circulation, cramped the muscles and weakened the spines. Medical opinion supported these assertions. Some women were so badly affected by the ‘conformist’ practices to restrict growth that they fainted frequently. The consequences of such pursuit of beauty were devastating.
The wind of change and change was blowing in all directions. It reached the eastern shores of America. Opinion against prevalent dress code became vociferous.
Women said their long skirts needlessly got sullied as they came in contact with the floor causing problems of hygiene. It was, thus, advisable to reduce its length. The skirts were too full of frills, looking farcically bulky and inconvenient.
Pruning such elaborate costumes of women would unshackle them, making them ready to move out of the confines of the home with ease. Then, they could take up gainful employment, earn wages and build an identity of their own.
Such demand for abandoning the traditional dress code and adopting a ‘functional’ clothing style found two very eminent supporters. They were Ms. Stanton of National Woman Suffrage Association and Ms. Lucy Stone of American Woman Suffrage Association. They demanded functional short dresses for women and a permanent burial of the dreaded corsets. The winds of change of women’s clothing blew strongly on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The protagonists of reform ran into resistance from men and some women. They ridiculed the idea and were ready to adopt questionable means to subdue the reformists. ‘Women who took to shorter dresses abandoning the voluminous ones, lost their beauty and charm,’ claimed the conservatives. Unable to stand up to the pressure of the men, some women lost their reformist zeal and reverted to the old style.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the reformist movement had gained enough pace to be reversed. Perception of feminine beauty and grace were recast in a different mould. The society began to accept the newer, more functional attire of women. The reformists were clearly winning the battle. Values of an ideal woman were recalibrated and reset. It is interesting to re-examine the many pressures that facilitated such a momentous change.
The two World Wars brought on new demands on women to step out of their homes and join the work force. Apart from this, new varieties of textiles and new technology came into vogue making it possible for ‘smarter’ dresses for women to be produced in mass scale.
What are those new materials for clothing…..
Women’s dresses used to be made out of flax, linen or wool. This practice had continued till the beginning of the seventeenth century. Such textiles were heavy and difficult to clean.
The import of completely new types of textiles from India drastically changed the scenario. Indian textiles, known as the chintzes, were attractive, cheap and easier to use. The British took to these Indian goods with great liking.
Then came the Industrial Revolution. Many types of high-productivity machines were invented in England. Producing large quantities of cotton textiles with cotton imported from India became a viable commercial idea.
British merchants started to sell their ‘Made-in-England’ textiles all over the world, including India. By early twentieth century, artificial fibers were invented. These made textiles cheaper, easier to clean and accessible to as many people as possible.
In the 1870s, the tight under garments that were once mandatory for western women became passé. A horrible saga in women’s clothing thus ended once and for all.
By 1914, women’s clothes hung till the ankles. However, it became shorter and shorter in the coming years to reach mid-calf.
Why this change?
The War …
The two world wars upended many of the social practices that existed in Europe. Women’s clothing was one of these.
The grim situation in the war front and the heavy sacrifices people, in general, made wearing jewelry and ostentatious apparel incongruous with the mood of the society.
There was shortage of workers as a great many able-bodied men were dispatched to the battlefront. Women had to step out of their homes to do the jobs that supported essential services and met battlefront demands like — telephone operators, tailors, clerks, medical staff, drivers, teachers and factory workers. For these roles, the dress had to smart, short and devoid of grills.
By 1917, at the height of the First World War (1914-18), Britain’s ordnance factories employed 70, 000 women in their rolls. They were asked to wear uniforms consisting of trouser and blouse and a scarf. Later, this outfit was replaced by khaki overalls and caps. Glamorous dresses, flashy styles fell out of fashion, in tune with the somber mood of the nation. Women found having shorter hair was more convenient as the time available for make-up became shorter and shorter. Trousers for women gave them the required mobility and freedom to shuffle their legs in the work place.
By twentieth century, working women professionals felt wearing simple and staid costumes befitting to the dignity and seriousness of their jobs. Children in schools were taught the value of frugality and austerity in clothing. Ornamental costumes were disapproved of. Girl children were encouraged to take to games and athletics at par with the boys. So, as a matter of necessity, they gave them the privacy and allowed them free movement of limbs. The demands of the work place were also similar.
So we can conclude that dresses kept pace with the mood and state of the society. When life was lazy and indulgent, women’s beauty and grace were paramount. When the mood became dire, practical utility of the fairer sex came to the fore. The transition was punctuated by bitter fights between the reformists and the conservatives. The role of technology and the expanding economy in hastening such transition makes interesting reading.
Transformations in Colonial India
In colonial India, attitudes to clothing were influenced by the domineering presence of the British. The British men and women wore clothes that were radically different from that of their subjects.
Many Indians, particularly men, adopted western dresses quite enthusiastically thinking that dressing like the masters elevated their status. There were other nationalistic minded leaders who thought such make-over amounted to capitulation and smacked of slave mentality. They found renewed pride in wearing the traditional dress of India. The effect of such conflicting pressures on India’s clothing habits makes interesting reading.
When the British became the masters of Indian destiny, their dress influenced Indians in three different ways.
a. Some wealth Indians, particularly the wealthy Parsees of western India were the first to add elements of British ways. They began to wear baggy trousers and phenta (hats) were added to long collarless coats with a stick in hand gave them the persona of a dignified affluent individual.
The western evangelists found the Dalits a good target for their conversion agenda. Scores of Dalits cast off their Hindu identity to become Christians. The men among these converted Dalits adopted western dress style to assert their liberation from age-old repression and caste-rooted humiliation.
b. There were many who felt wearing western dresses would rob the Indians of their national identity. They argued forcefully in favour of wearing traditional dresses. The desi enthusiasts of western clothing were criticized, mocked and derided as being rootless individuals.
c. There were others who struck a balance between above two conflicting trends. Some Bengali bureaucrats wore the colonial British attire for office. At home, they changed to traditional Indian clothing that was more comfortable to India’s hot and humid climate. The western anthropologist Vernier Elwin mentions interesting anecdotes about policemen in Ponna who took off their western style duty uniform at the end of their work right on the road in full view of the public.
Nevertheless, the attempt to please the colonial masters by wearing British dress was always countered by nationalistic urges. So, in different parts of India, people experimented with varying combinations of western and Indian clothing.
Caste Conflict and Dress Change ….
India was more rigid than the Europeans in segregating the lower sections of the society from the higher and affluent sections. Laws were put in place to enforce strict dress and food code for the lower and higher castes. Any infringement by the lower castes was severely dealt with. Quite naturally, it gave rise to painful backlashes and social strife.
In May 1822, women of Shanar caste in the Travancore state dared to cover their busts. This act was perceived to be a rebellion by the upper caste people. They meted out punishment to the people of the Shanar community. The Shanar folks resisted sparking a long and violent reprisal.
The Snars belonged to the Nadar community, considered a ‘subordinate caste’. Toddy tapping was their profession. They worked under the Nair landlords who subjected them to utter humiliation. The Nadars were prohibited from wearing shoes and gold jewelry. They could not use the umbrella too. Most demeaning was the diktat that neither the men nor the women could cover the upper part of their bodies before their Nair masters.
Later conversion to Christianity broke this shackle of caste. Being a Christian brought them deliverance from the humiliation of being half-naked before the masters. The women began wearing blouses. The men folk also refused to work under the Nairs as bonded labours. In one ugly incident, Nair men attacked Nadar women in public and tore off their blouses. Avery violent reprisal of the Nadars followed. The matter went to the court.
The government of Travancore gave its verdict continuing the age-old inhibition on the Shanar women not to cover the upper part of their bodies.
But, it also started a forceful trend of defiance. Both the Christian and Hindu Shanars broke the Nair hegemony daringly.
The slavery of the Shanars officially ended in 1855. The scourge was finally gone. But, it made the Nairs embittered and angry. The discontent among the Nairs simmered till it erupted in 1859. Nairs attacked Nadar women in public and tore of their upper clothing. It triggered a chain of violent incidents. Arson and loot followed.
Finally the government issued a compromise order.
The Shanar women could wear some sort of jackets to cover their upper body, but the design of this garment had to be different from that worn by the Nair women.
British Rule and Dress Code …
The subject of clothing under colonial rule often caused arguments and misunderstanding mainly because the two cultures were so widely divergent.
The headgear ‘turban’ was an integral p-art of most Indians’ historic clothing style. In the same way, the colonial rulers wore their hats. Thus, the people of the two races were often identified as ‘turban wearers’ and ‘hat’ wearers.
The turban, besides protecting the head from sun’s heat, bestowed social respectability on the wearer. The hat on the other hand was a part of any commoner’s dress and was to be removed as a show of respect. The turban was not to be ever removed in public as it meant humiliation. This contrast in headgear often caused some disquiet among the colonial masters.
The wearing of shoes was also another area where the two cultures clashed. The cunning British did well to remove their shoes while entering the courts of the kings. Entering a court with shoes is considered offensive and disrespectful.
Some British officials had begun to wear Indian dresses initially. But this was frowned upon and in 1830, a law was passed asking the British officials not to wear Indian dresses at all.
The Indians were asked not to imitate their masters in dress, and stick to their ethnic dresses while at work in the office. This was meant to mark the division between the ruler and the ruled.
Governor General Amherst passed an order asking Indians to take off their shoes while entering his office. It was British adoption of Indian value system that suited the colonial masters. But, it was not rigidly enforced.
By the mid-nineteenth century, with the coming of Lord Dalhousie, the shoe taking off rule was made stricter. Those wearing European clothes were, however, allowed to walk in with their shoes on. It caused unease among some government servants.
There was a case in the Surat Sessions Court where an Indian assessor by the name Manockjee Cowasjee Entee refused to take off his shoes while entering the court. The British judge was adamant. Finally, he did not relent making the Indian party to send a petition to the governor of Bombay.
The British position was clear. If the Indians took off their shoes while entering their homes and temples, they should do the same while entering courts. The Indians countered by saying that Indians kept their shoes out of their homes and offices because of considerations of hygiene. Courts, being public places, need not have this restriction.
But it took many years for shoes to be allowed into courts.
Designing the National Dress ….
By late nineteenth century, there was a surge of nationalist sentiments all over the country. The country was eager to discover symbols that could be rallying point for the unity of the country that could bolster the fight against the British.
Writers, painters and performing artists all waged their voice through their mediums. There was the need for a national flag and a national dress.
Some eminent persons began experimenting with different styles of dresses that could exude nationalistic fervor. The affluent Tagore family experimented with dresses for men and women in the early 1870s. Tagore wanted the national dress to be a hybrid of the Hindu and Muslim styles instead of being a mixture of the Indian and western styles. The long buttoned coat Chapkan was thus conceived.
There were also attempts to arrive at a design of a national dress which could synthesize the designs of various regional dresses of India. In the late 1870s, Jnanadanandini Devi, wife of Satyendranath Bose, the first Indian ICS, began wearing the Parsee style of saree pinned to the left shoulder with broaches accompanied by blouse and shoes. The Brahmo Samaj adopted this style calling it Brahmika Saree. Soon this style spread to Maharastra and Uttar Pradesh and was worn by those not belonging to Brahmo Samaj too.
But a national dress for all Indian women still remained elusive as the women of Gujrat, Kerala, Kogudu etc. continued to wear their old traditional sarees.
The Swadeshi movement …
Bengal was the nerve center of nationalistic politics in the first decade of the twentieth century. Quite curiously, clothing was the pivot of this politics.
The British began their relations with India as traders. Textiles produced by Indian artisans were the main commodity of such trade as European consumers loved their quality and designs. In the seventeenth century, India was the hub of textile manufacturing accounting for one fourth of global output. Almost a million weavers in Bengal earned their living through making textiles.
The world dominance of Indian textiles was grievously challenged during the Industrial Revolution. High- productivity textile machineries that did the jobs of spinning and weaving were invented in England. It gave the diminutive British textile industry a huge boost. Taking cotton and indigo from India, British textile industry churned out high quality, and low cost textiles in huge quantities. The goods were exported back to India and many other markets around the world.
The traditional textile hubs in Murshidabad, Machlipatanam and Surat shrank gradually as the British goods took over.
By the middle of twentieth century, Indian consumers started boycotting textiles imported from England. It disrupted British exports and forced un-utilized capacity on textile industries in England. The place of the imported British textile was taken by the Indian khaki clothes although it could not match the imported textiles in price and quality.
Bengal, by then, had come to the forefront of Indian nationalism. The British were clearly worried. Lord Curzon decided to bifurcate Bengal along religious lines to break the nationalistic zeal of the Bengalis.
The Indian leaders decided resist the British move of partitioning Bengal by stepping up the Swadeshi movement. From textiles, boycotting of British goods spread to other items like march boxes and cigarettes. The nationalistic sentiments became strident with people using the khadi to symbolize their disconet. The rough, hand-spun khadi was glorified in songs and writings.
Due to the khadi being costlier, only the middle and upper classes bought and used it. For the low-income lower caste people, the cheaper imported clothes remained the preferred option. The charm of the Indian dress made out of khadi could last only for 15 years. The upper class reverted to European clothing after one and half decades. The India khadi lost out to cheap imported clothes.
However, this experiment with Khadi was an eye-opener for Mahatma Gandhi in shaping his anti-Britisg agitations.
Mahatama Gandhi’s experiments with Khadi ….
The most endearing image of Mahatma Gandhi is that of a small-framed, bare-chested man squatting on the floor with his Charkha.
He elevated the innocuous activity of spinning on the Charkha to the status of being a powerful symbol of India’s search for a national identity and the national struggle for freedom.
Mahatma Gandhi wore Gujrati dress in his student days in India. When in England, and later as a lawyer in South Africa, he wore British dress. In Durban in 1913, he dawned upon him that dress can be a symbol of defiance. By not wearing the accepted dress, one could assert one’s non-conformist outlook. To this end, in the first few days of his social leadership, he wore a lungi and kurta and shaved off his head. He wanted to assert his rebellious mind.
On landing in India in 1915, he decided to dress like a Kathiawadi farmer. He adopted the knee-length Dhoti only in 1921. He made a declaration to this effect in September, 1921.
He had taken to the knee-length Dhoti as a mark of his solidarity with the impoverished farmers. But as he went deeper and deeper into social transformation movements, the short dhoti stuck to him as his companion in his crusade.
While attending the Round Table Conference in London, he wore his frugal dhoti much to the amusement of the die-hard British aristocracy. While on an audience with the King George V at the Buckingham Palace, he did not give up hiss dhoti. On being asked about it, he had remarked that the king had enough for both of them.
Mahatma Gandhi felt the khadi could be a great equalizer in this land riven by religion, language and ethnic barriers. So he had become an ardent supporter of Khadi. There were many among his core group of supporters who felt such austerity in clothing to be inconvenient and impractical.
Some example of people who did not exactly fall in line with the Mahatma were
a. Motilal Nehru who wore dhoti and kurta, but not of the coarse cloth
b. Dalit leaders like Babasaheb Ambedkar continued to wear western suits.
c. Poor women found the nine-yard khadi a luxury.
d. Eminent women like Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Nehru wore colourful sarees.