The history and politics of clothes have always been a part of the bigger socio-political picture, albeit underrepresented in the pages of history and the walls of museums. Societal norms have governed styles of clothing and other ways of adornment for ages. These patterns and trends in clothing have continued to influence people’s perceptions of themselves and those around them. They have also been the basis for the construction of notions around beauty, grace and morality. With time, the notions have changed and so have the norms. Regional codes have played a significant role in determining the way people dressed, majorly depending on the materials available in those regions. Author and journalist Seema Goswami writes, 'In the days before India was divided in the name of religion, wearing a sari or salwar kameez wasn't a function of which God you worshipped. What you wore pretty much depended on where you lived. In Punjab, women wore the shalwar kameez irrespective of whether they were Hindu or Muslim. And in Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Bihar, they wore the sari, whatever their religious persuasion. Clothing styles were also an indicator of status in the social hierarchy. Dalit Christian women could be distinguished from their unconverted counterparts.1
History has seen clothes becoming the expression of ideologies and change. Women’s clothing, in particular, has been at the heart of various popular movements in Europe and America in the 19th century. Many European women stopped wearing opulent clothes and jewellery after the two world wars.
India, since the time of the Harappans, had a rich legacy of traditional garments, but with increasing western influence and colonisation, there was a shift in clothing trends in India, especially of the elite. Men who considered western clothes a sign of affluence and modernity switched to trousers and coats while others saw this as a threat to their traditional identities. Some adopted new styles while trying to keep the old ones alive, like many Bengali bureaucrats who wore western clothes to work and Indian clothes at home. French chiffons and laces were now imported for the elite women. That is when the practice of attaching a fall strip to these lightweight saris and wearing petticoats under them began. These were not required with traditional handwoven ones.2
In 1905, when Lord Curzon decided to partition Bengal to enfeeble the growing patriotism, the ‘Swadeshi Movement’ and ‘Boycott’ became a major part of the anti-Partition agitation. Thus, began the narrative of adorning in solidarity. ‘The Bengali youth addicted to wearing British coats and trousers started appearing in dhotis and shawls.’3 The movement gained popularity across India. This was a prelude to a much larger movement that would be launched by Gandhi in the coming decades.
British goods were cheaper as compared to their swadeshi counterparts; people had started returning to European dresses. For the rich, the British-like way of life had become a status symbol. The ‘memsahibs’ wore chiffons and georgette sarees from Paris with sleeveless blouses, high-heeled sandals, and European make-up. The real change began as Gandhi returned to India, entering the political scene with thriving nationalism and determination. He gave up his British suits and Swiss watches for Dhotis in 1921, setting an example for the many Indians who would soon follow suit. Khadi became the fabric of Indian Independence; ‘Clothing for Liberation’ as Peter Gonsalves called it. A symbol of Indian unity against British Rule, it was more than just a cloth now; it was a revolutionary idea propagating ‘simple living and high thinking’. Gandhi wanted the entire nation to wear Khadi to blur the lines between religions and classes of the society. It not only made a strong political statement but also aimed at empowering women by involving them in cloth weaving and in the freedom movement as a whole. Since the styles of draping sarees varied across India, an attempt to devise a common one was made, and the Nivi Style was born and adopted by ‘Satyagrahi’ women. But not everyone could wear Khadi. A woman from Maharashtra once wrote to Gandhi saying that wearing a nine-yards Khadi Saree was unaffordable, and the elders wouldn’t accept a reduction to six yards. For young college-going women drawn towards the freedom movement, fashion choices reflected nationalistic sentiments. In her book- The Lost Homestead- My Mother, Partition and Punjab- Marina Wheeler, a British lawyer with roots in West Punjab (Present-day Pakistan), describes the scene at Kinnaird College, Lahore in the pre-partition days. Kinnaird was undivided Punjab’s most prestigious women’s college and that is where Marina’s Aunt-Anup studied in the early 1940s. She would talk about many students having joined the congress movement and the agitation on the streets. “Anup wore Khadi to show solidarity with the freedom movement”. “Before the Quit India Movement, all well-to-do girls wore French Chiffon Sarees. Anup did too. She loved expensive fabrics! Plenty of her friends continued to wear Chiffon, but she didn’t.” Newspapers now carried advertisements of cosmetics produced by Indian women. A Gandhi cap, a khadi jhabba or kurta along with churidar or dhoti became the uniform of a freedom fighter. ‘The Nehru jacket and the Jodhpuri coat became the style barometers.’
In the days leading to independence, the Swadeshi attire played a major role in representing the unity of Indians and crippling the British textile Industry and their hopes for a future in India. But clothes bringing out the ‘Desi’ in one is not just a thing of the past. Wherever in the world, we are, as soon as we get into our traditional attires, we carry India within ourselves. And this way, despite the distance, we feel one in our belongingness. Quoting Marina Wheeler again, “Trips to India in childhood were rare, so my sense of being Indian emerged in other ways. Dip (her mother) didn’t dress like other mothers. She wore a Sari. In America, friend’s moms slouched in sweat pants while Dip glided in colourful silk.”
That’s the beauty of adornments. They don’t just beautify, they bring together.
1 Gupta, Charu. (2012). 'Fashioning' swadeshi: Clothing women in colonial north India. 47. 76-84.
2 Ranavaade, Vaibbhavi P. 2018. “'Decolonization of Indian Women's Fashion', by Vaibbhavi Pruthviraj Ranavaade.” Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion.
3 Choudhury, Dr. Ekramul H. 2016. “An Analysis on Women'S Participation In Swadeshi Movement: A Case Study of India'S Freedom Struggle.” Ignited Minds Journals.