Clothing a Social History

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01 Clothing: a Social History

Sumptuary Laws and Social Hierarchy

  • In medieval Europe, the people were expected to strictly follow the ‘sumptuary laws’.
  • After the French Revolution members of the Jacobin clubs called themselves the ‘sans culottes’ to distinguish themselves from the aristocracy.
  • Some sumptuary laws were passed to protect home production against imports.

Clothing and the Notions of Beauty

  • Even after the end of sumptuary laws, the Europeans could not dress in the same way.
  • Styles of clothing also highlighted differences between men and women.

How Did Women React to These Norms?

  • English women started agitating for democratic rights by the 1830s.
  • With the development of suffrage movement, many women started campaigning for dress reform.
  • Eventually, at the end of the 19th century people started accepting the ideas of reformers they had earlier ridiculed. New values were introduced as times changed.

New Times

  • During the Industrial Revolution, in the nineteenth century, Britain began the mass manufacture of cotton textiles which it exported to India and many other parts of the world.
  • By the early 20th century, artificial fibres made clothes cheaper and easier to wash and maintain.

The War

  • The two World Wars resulted in changes in women’s clothing.
  • Clothes got shorter during the First World War due to practical necessity.
  • The most significant step women took was to cut their hair short for convenience.

Transformations in Colonial India

  • Changes in male and female clothing in India during the colonial period was partly a result of the influence of Western dress forms and missionary activity; and partly due to the effort by Indians to fashion clothing styles that embodied an indigenous tradition and culture.

Caste Conflict and Dress Change

  • Men and women were expected to follow the local custom of never covering their upper bodies before the dominant castes.
  • Finally, the government issued another proclamation permitting Shanar women, irrespective of their religion, to wear a jacket, or cover their upper bodies.

British Rule and Dress Codes

  • The turban in India was used for protection from the heat and was also a sign of respectability.
  • In the Western tradition, the hat had to be removed before social superiors as a sign of respect.
  • It was customary for British officials to follow Indian etiquette and remove their footwear in the courts of ruling kings or chiefs in the early 19th century.

Designing the National Dress

  • Swept by nationalist feelings in the late nineteenth century, Indians started to devise cultural symbols that would indicate unity among Indians.

The Swadeshi Movement

  • India’s status in the world economy changed when the Industrial Revolution in Britain mechanised spinning and weaving.
  • Large numbers of people started boycotting British or mill-made cloth in the mid-20th century.
  • People reacted through the Swadeshi movement, when Lord Curzon decided to partition Bengal.

Mahatma Gandhi’s Experiments with Clothing

  • Mahatma Gandhi made spinning on the charkha and the daily use of khadi, very powerful symbols of self-reliance and resistance.
  • When he returned to India in 1915, he dressed like a Kathiawadi peasant.
  • In 1921, he adopted the short dhoti and wore it until his death.

The Gandhi cap

  • After his return to India from South Africa in 1915, Mahatma Gandhi transformed the Kashmiri cap into a cheap white cotton khadi cap.
  • With the rise of the Khilafat movement in the post-First World War years, the fez became a sign of anti-colonialism in India.

Not All could Wear Khadi

  • Motilal Nehru gave up his expensive Western-style suits and adopted the Indian dhoti and kurta, but it was not made of coarse cloth.
  • Nationalists such as Babasaheb Ambedkar wore the Western-style suit.
  • Women like Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Nehru, did not wear coarse, white homespun sari and resorted to coloured saris with designs.

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