Class 9 History

Clothing in India

British Rule and Dress Codes

Specific clothing items often convey different meanings in different cultures. This can lead to misunderstanding and conflict.

Let us take the example of turban and hat. For an Indian, pagri was a sign of self respect and the pagri should always remain on the head to maintain that self respect. For a British, taking off his hat to show respect for someone was part of his culture. When an Indian did not remove his pagri in front of a British official, it was considered as a sign of rude behavior.

Let us take the example of shoes. Indians take off their shoes when they enter a place of worship. Many Indians also take off their shoes when they enter their homes. Same decorum was also maintained when someone visited a person of high authority. The British followed this practice when they visited a raja or a chieftain. But they also wanted the Indians to follow the same practice while entering a high office. But many Indians did not obey this rule because they felt that an office is quite different from a home or a place of worship.

Designing the National Dress

During the freedom struggle, many intellectuals began to design a national dress which could portray a pan-Indian identity. Rabindranath Tagore suggested a combination of Hindu and Muslim elements to design such a dress. The long buttoned coat (chapkan) was the result of such thought process.

Jnanadanandini Devi, wife of Satyendranath Tagore returned from Bombay to Calcutta in the late 1870s. She adopted the Parsi style of wearing the sari. She pinned the sari on the left shoulder with a brooch and wore it with a blouse and shoes. Her style was quickly adopted by the women of the Barhmo Samaj. This came to be known as the Brahmika sari.

The Swadeshi Movement

The Swadeshi Movement began as a mark of protest to partition of Bengal in 1905. During the Swadeshi Movement, people were urged to boycott British goods. The use of khadi was promoted with much vigour. Women were asked to throw their silks and glass bangles. The changes to such calls were limited to upper class women because the poor could not afford khadi. After about one and a half decade, even the upper class women resumed wearing the dresses they previously wore.

Mahatma Gandhi's Experiments with Clothing

Mahatma Gandhi probably used the symbol of clothing more powerfully than anyone else. All of us are familiar with the image of Mahatma Gandhi wearing a short dhoti and nothing else. Initially, Mahatma Gandhi thought of wearing such a dress for a short duration. But later he was convinced of the appeal of such a powerful symbol.

Mahatma Gandhi also promoted the use of handspun khadi in order to promote the idea of Swadeshi. He even went on to attend the Second Round Table Conference in his trademark dress.

But since khadi was costly and difficult to maintain, it could not gain in popularity. Machine-made clothes from Manchester were cheaper and affordable to the masses. Most of the nationalist leaders preferred to wear traditional dhoti kurta or pyjama kurta but those dresses were seldom made of khadi. Some of the nationalist leaders like Jinnah and B R Ambedkar preferred western suits. For Ambedkar, wearing a suit was a sign of liberation from the age-old repression of the dalits. The women leaders wore saris.