Clothing: Social History

Clothing in India

During the colonial period, the influence of westernization could be seed on clothing among Indians; especially among the men.

The Indians responded to the western-style clothing in three different ways:

Western Dress: Many people; especially men began to incorporate some elements of western clothing. The Parsis were among the first to adapt to western dresses. They began wearing baggy trousers, phenta (hat); alongwith long collarless coats. Boots and walking stick completed the look of the gentleman.


Western clothes were seen as sign of modernity and progress by some people. For some of the dalit converts to Christianity, western dress was a sign of liberation. In this case also, it was men who adapted to the new dresses.

Traditional Dress:Some people thought that the western culture would lead to a loss of traditional cultural identity. Such people preferred the traditional Indian dresses.

Combination of Western and Traditional: Some people preferred to use a combination of western and Indian dresses. Many people wore coats and hats along with the dhoti. Many others wore pagri along with three-piece suits. Many people wore western dress at their workplace but changed into the Indian dress at home.

Caste Conflict and Dress Change

India had its own strict social codes of food and dresses which were based on the caste system. Some of the dresses and food were strictly forbidden for lower caste people. Changes in clothing style often created violent social reactions because such changed threatened the established social norms.

The Shanars were the subordinate caste in the princely state of Travancore. The Shanar men and women were not allowed to cover their upper body. During the 1820s, the Shanar women began to wear tailored blouse after they were influenced by the Christian missionaries. The Nairs attacked the Shanar women in May 1822 for wearing a cloth over their upper body. The Government of Travancore issued an order in 1829 to prevent the Shanar women from covering their upper body. But the conflict lingered on for a long period. After many years of conflict, the government finally passed an order which allowed the Shanar women to cover their upper body but not in a way the upper caste Hindu women do.


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.



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