Before the eighteenth-century Europe, most people dressed according to their regional codes. Their choice of clothes was limited by the types of clothes and the cost of materials that were available in their region. Clothing styles were also regulated by class, gender or status in the society.
During the medieval period in Europe, dress codes were sometimes imposed through actual laws. The dress codes were spelt out in detail through these laws. People of France were expected to strictly follow the ‘sumptuary laws’ from about 1924 to the time of French Revolution in 1789.
The sumptuary laws attempted the behavior of people who were considered as social inferiors. They were prevented from wearing certain clothes, consuming certain foods and beverages and hunting game in certain areas. Items of clothing were regulated not only by income but also by social rank. Expensive materials like ermine, fur, silk, velvet and brocade could be worn by only the royalty. However, such distinctions ceased to exist after the French Revolution.
Effect of French Revolution:
During the French Revolution, members of the Jacobin clubs wore dresses without ‘knee breeches’. The Jacobins were also called the ‘sans culottes’. People began to wear loose and comfortable clothes. Blue, white and red were the dominant colours of dresses as these colours symbolized the nationalism in France. Other political symbols also became a part of the dress code; like the red cap of liberty, long trousers and the revolutionary cockade pinned on to a hat.
Sumptuary laws were not always made to emphasise social hierarchy, rather some of them were made to protect home production from imports. For example, velvet caps made with French imported materials were quite popular in sixteenth-century England. A law was passed to compel all persons over six years of age to wear woolen caps made in England; on Sundays and holidays. This law did not apply to those at high positions. This law remained in force for twenty six years and was very helpful in building up the English woolen industry.
Even after the end of the sumptuary laws, differences between social strata remained. But difference in income now determined the way a person dressed. People from different economic background developed their own clothing style based on sense of fashion, decency and practicality.
Clothing style was also determined by gender differences. While men were expected to be serious, strong, independent and aggressive; women were expected to be delicate, passive and docile.
From childhood, girls were laced up and dressed in stays. Stay is a kind of support in a woman’s dress to keep the upper body straight. Older girls had to wear tight fitting corsets. Wearing a corset meant inflicting huge pain on the body. Nevertheless, corsets were worn to maintain a slim waste which was considered ideal for women.
How Did Women React to These Norms?
Many women believed that it was their duty to remain docile and graceful as per the prevalent social norms. They thought it as their duty to bear whatever pain and suffering they had to, while maintaining a slim waist.
Reforms for Clothing: However, things were changing over the nineteenth century. By the 1830s, the English women began their agitation for democratic rights. When the movement for voting rights gained momentum, many also began a campaign for dress reform. Women’s magazines described the problems associated with tight dresses and corsets.
A similar movement developed amongst the white settlers in America. Traditional feminine clothes were criticized on various grounds. It was argued that long skirts swept the grounds and collected filth and dirt; which was not good for hygiene. The skirts were voluminous and restricted movement. They prevented the women at workplace. Women felt that comfortable and convenient clothes would allow them to work and to earn.
The reformers had to face lot of ridicule and hostility in the beginning. It was argued that the women were losing their beauty, feminity and grace by giving up traditional dresses. Many women reformers changed back into traditional clothes as they faced persistent attacks.
However, changes were more apparent by the end of the nineteenth century. With the First World War, many women began to work in factories. They needed comfortable clothes which did not hamper their work in the factories. New materials for clothing came into use. This development also changed the dresses.
Clothes; made of flax, linen or wool were difficult to clean and hence most of the ordinary women did not posses such clothes before the seventeenth century.
After 1600, trade with India brought Indian chintz into Europe. The Indian chintz was cheap, beautiful and easy to maintain.
During the Industrial Revolution, in the nineteenth century, mass production of cotton textiles began in England. This helped in making cotton clothes more affordable to a wider section of people in Europe.
Artificial fibres came into use by the early twentieth century. Clothes made by artificial fibres were cheaper and easier to maintain.
The two World Wars had profound impact on women’s clothing. Many European women stopped wearing jewelry and luxurious clothes. Most of the women began to dress in similar ways and the difference between the upper class and the lower class blurred.
During the First World War, clothes became shorter because of practical necessity. By 1917, over 700,000 women in Britain were employed in ammunition factories. Initially, they wore a working uniform of blouse and trousers with scarves. This dress was later replaced by khaki overalls and caps. Sober colours replaced bright colours; as the War dragged on.
Skirts became shorter for the sake of convenience. Trousers became an important part of Western women’s clothing as they allowed greater freedom of movement. Women began to cut their hair short so that the hairs could be easily managed.
By the twentieth century, plain and austere dress was considered as symbol of seriousness and professionalism. The schools for children also emphasized the importance of plain dressing. Entry of gymnastics and games in the school curriculum for women also paved the way for comfortable and convenient clothing.
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.
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.