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History of Clothing

All societies observe certain rules in wearing clothes. Some of them are quite strict with the way in which men, women and children should dress or how different they are from other groups and classes. Dress has become an identity of a particular culture. As times changed, societies transformed as a result of modification in clothing which came into being.

Before the age of Democratic Revolution and the development of capitalism, most people in Europe 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 was strictly regulated by class, gender or status in the social hierarchy.

The colonisation of most of the world by Europe brought changes in the ways of the people in thought and dress. People could use styles and materials that were drawn from other cultures and locations and western dress styles for men were adopted worldwide.

In Europe the sumptuary laws’ were strictly followed, especially in France. The laws tried to control the behavior of those considered social inferiors, preventing them from wearing certain clothes, consuming certain foods and beverages and hunting game in certain areas. In France, only royalty could wear expensive materials such as ‘ermine’ and fur, or silk, velvet and brocade while other classes were debarred.

After the French Revolution, the Jacobin clubs wore the fashionable ‘knee breeches’ or ‘sans culottes’ (which means knee breeches). The colours blue, white and red became popular as they were the signs of patriotism. Political symbols too became a part of dress: the red cap of liberty, long trousers and the revolutionary Cockade pinned on to a hat. Simplicity of clothing was meant to express the idea of equality.

The poor could not dress like the rich, nor eat the same food. Difference in earning defined the rich and poor class. The different classes developed their own culture of dress. The notion of what was beautiful or ugly, proper or improper, decent or vulgar differed.

Women in Victorian England were groomed from childhood to be docile and dutiful, submissive and obedient. 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. Girls were taught to wear tightly laced up and dressed in ‘stays’. Slightly older girls had to wear tight fitting ‘corsets’. Tightly-laced, small waist women were admired as attractive, elegant and graceful.

Some women accepted the Victorian clothing style but some of them agitated, demanding for democratic rights. As the suffrage movement developed, many women began agitation for dress reform. Magazines described the effects of tight dresses and corsets which caused deformities and illness among young girls.

In America, traditional feminine clothes were criticised on a variety of grounds. Long skirts, it was said, swept the ground and collected filth and dirt. This caused illness. The skirts were voluminous and difficult to handle, it also prevented women from working and earning. 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 simplifying dress, shorten skirts, and abandon corsets.

New Materials

During the seventeenth century, ordinary women in Britain possessed very few clothes made of flax, linen or wool, which were difficult to clean. Trade with India brought cheap, beautiful and easy to maintain Indian ‘Chintzes’. 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. In the early twentieth century, artificial fibers were introduced which were cheaper still and easier to wash and maintain.

The Effects of World War on Clothing

Many European upper-class women mixed with other classes, thus breaking the social barriers. They also stopped wearing jewelry and luxurious clothes just like others. Clothes got shorter during the First World War. They wore a working uniform of blouse and trousers with accessories such as scarves, which were later replaced by khaki overalls and caps. Bright colours faded and sober colors were worn. Trousers became a vital part of western women’s clothing; giving them greater freedom of movement along with this, hair was cut short for convenience.
By the twentieth century, a plain and austere style came to reflect seriousness and professionalism. New schools for children emphasised the importance of plain dressing, and discouraged ornamentation. As women took to sports, they wore clothes that did not hamper movement. In the work place, they wore comfortable and convenient clothes.

Clothing in Colonial India

Female clothing took an important change in India too. The western culture influenced the Indians to fashionable clothing styles that embodied an indigenous tradition an culture. Cloth and clothing became important symbols of the national movement.

Indian men incorporated some western style of clothing in their dress. The wealthy Parsis of western India were among the first to adapt western style of clothing. Baggy trousers and the ‘phenta’ (or hat) were added to long collarless coats, with boots and a walking stick to complete the look of the gentlemen. Some men took to western clothing to show their modernity and progress. The dalits who converted to Christianity adopted the western style. This was only limited to men and not women.

Some Indians opposed to western clothing, as they felt this would lead to a loss of traditional and cultural identity. The use of western style of clothes was taken as a sign of the world turning upside down. Some men in India wore western clothes without giving up Indian traditions.

The caste system clearly defined different dress codes for different castes. In May 1822, women of the Shanar (Nadars) 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. In subsequent decades, a violent conflict over dress codes ensued. The Shanars were also prohibited by the Nair landlords to use umbrellas and wear shoes or golden ornaments. Men and women were also prohibited the use of upper garments.

The Shanar women converts began to wear tailored blouses and clothes to cover themselves like the upper castes in 1820s. Complaints were filed in court against this dress change. But this did not prevent Shanar Christian women and even Shanar Hindus from adopting the blouse and upper cloth.

The abolition of slavery in Travancore in 1855 led to riots and attacks on the Shanar women by the upper castes. Their houses were looted and chapels burned. Finally, a proclamation was passed permitting the Shanar women to wear jackets, but not like the women of high caste.

Dress Code under the British Rule

There were cultural differences between the Indians and Britishers. The turban for an Indian was used to protect from the heat and was a sign of respectability, and could not be removed at all. In the Western tradtion, the hat had to be removed before social superiors as a sign of respect. This created misunderstanding.

Another conflict was wearing of shoes. As a custom, the British officials followed Indian etiquettes and removed their footwear in the courts of ruling kings or chiefs. They even wore Indian clothes. But in 1830, Europeans were forbidden from wearing Indian clothes at official functions; this was made to keep the cultural identity of the white masters.

Indians were expected to wear Indian clothes to office and follow Indian dress code. Governor General Amherst insisted that Indians take their shoes off as a sign of respect when they appeared before him. During the time of Lord Dalhousie, ‘Shoe respect’ was made stricter. In 1862, Manockjee Cowasjee Entee, an assessor in the Surat Fouzdaree Adawlut, refused to take off his shoes in the court of the sessions judge. He was barred entry into the courtroom and he sent a protest letter to the Governor of Bombay.

Designing the National Dress

Indians began to design cultural symbols that would express the unity of the nation due to the growth of nationalism. Self-conscious experiments with dress engaged men and women of the upper classes and castes in many parts of India. The Tagore family of Bengal experimented with designs for national dress for both men and women in the 1870s. Tagore suggested for combining the Hindus and Muslim dress as India’s National dress. Thus, the chapkan (a long buttoned coat) was considered suitable for men.

In 1870s, Jnanadanandini Devi, wife of Satyendranth Tagore, the first Indian member of the ICS, 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 adopted by the women of Brahmo Samaj and came to be known as theBrahmika sari. However, the attempts at devising a pan Indian style did not fully succeed. Women of Gujarat, Kodagu, Kerala and Assam continued to wear different types of sari.

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