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Summary: Clothing- A Social History Notes | Study Social Studies (SST) Class 9 - Class 9

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Introduction
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Introduction

The emergence of modern world is marked by dramatic changes in clothing. We will focus on some of the histories of clothing in the modern period i.e. 19th and 20th centuries.

Why these 2 centuries are important?
  • Before the age of democratic revolutions and the development of capitalist markets in 18th century Europe, most of the people dressed according to their regional codes and were limited by the types of clothes and the cost of materials that was available in the region.
  • After 20th century, the colonization of most of the world by Europe, the spread of democratic ideals and the growth of an industrial society, changed the ways in which people thought about dresses and their meanings.
Sumptuary Laws and Social Hierarchy
  • In medieval Europe, dress codes were imposed upon members of different layers of society through actual laws which were spelt out. From about 1294 to 1789(the time of French revolution), the people of France were strictly expected to follow some ‘sumptuary laws’. These laws tried to control the behavior of some social inferiors which prevents them from wearing certain clothes, consuming certain food and beverages and hunting game in certain areas.
  • In medieval France, the items of clothing a person could purchase a year were regulated by income as well as social rank. The material used was also authorized. Only royal members could wear expensive materials like ermine, fur, silk, or velvet, brocade etc.
  • The French Revolution ended these distinctions. Members of Jacobin clubs called themselves the ‘sans culottes to distinguish themselves from people who wore the fashionable ‘knee breeches’. Both men and women began wearing clothing that was loose and comfortable.
  • The colors of France-blue, white and red-became popular as a sign of patriotic citizen. Other political symbols too became a part of dress: the red cap for liberty, long trousers and revolutionary cockade for hat.
Clothing and Notions of Beauty
  • The end of sumptuary laws did not meant that everyone in European societies could dress up in same way. The French Revolution had raised the question on equality and ended aristocratic privileges and its laws. But differences in social strata remained. The poor could not dress like rich nor eat like them but laws barred this sense of people. Differences in people defined what the rich and poor could wear and different classes developed their own culture of dress.
  • Styles of clothing emphasized differences in men and women. Women in Victorian England were groomed from childhood to be dutiful and docile while men were expected to be aggressive, serious and strong. The ideal women could bear pain and suffering.
  • From childhood, girls were tightly laced up and dressed in stays. The effort was to restrict the growth of their bodies. When slightly older, girls had to wear tight fitting corsets. Tightly laced, small waisted women were admired as attractive, elegant and graceful. Clothing played a part in creating the image of frail, submissive Victorian women.
How did women react to these norms?
  • Many women believed in the ideals of womanhood. The ideals were in the literature they read, the education they received at school or home. From childhood, they grew up to believe that having a small waist was a womanly duty. Suffering pain was essential to being a woman. The torture and the pain this inflicted on the body was to be expected as normal.
  • Over the 19th century, ideas changed. By the 1830s, women in England began agitating for democratic rights. Women’s magazines described how tight dresses and corsets caused deformities and illness among young girls.
  • Such clothing restricted body growth and hampered blood circulation. Muscles were underdeveloped and spines got bent. Doctors reported about daily complaints of women having acute weakness, felt languid and fainted frequently. Corsets then became necessary to hold up the weakened spine.
  • A similar movement developed amongst the white settlers. Traditional feminine was criticized as long skirts swept the grounds, collecting filth and dirt which caused illness. The skirts were voluminous and difficult to handle. They hampered movement preventing women from working and earning. It was believed that reform of the dress would change the position of the women.
  • The reformers did not succeed in changing social values. They faced ridicule and hostility. It was argued that women will lost their feminism, beauty and grace. Many women reformers changed back to traditional clothing due to persistent attacks.
  • Change was clearly in the air by the end of 19th Ideals of beauty and styles of clothing were transformed under a variety of pressures. People began accepting the ideas of reformers as new values came with new values.

New times 
Many changes were made possible due to introduction of new materials and technologies. Other changes came because of 2 world wars and new working conditions for women.

New Materials

  • Before 17th century, clothes made up of flax, linen or wool were possessed by women which were difficult to clean. After 1600, trade with India brought cheap, beautiful and easy maintained Indian chintzes for Europeans.
  • During industrial revolution, in 19th century Britain began the mass manufacture of cotton textiles. Cotton clothes were available to a larger section of society in Europe.
  • Heavy, restrictive underclothes were discarded. Clothes got lighter, simpler and shorter.

The War

  • Changes in women’s clothing came about as a result of 2 world wars. Many European women stopped wearing jewellery and luxurious clothes. Women mixed up upper class, lower class and social barriers and began to dress in similar ways.
  • During First World War (1914-1918), clothes became shorter as per the necessity. By 1917, over 700,000 women in Britain were employed in ammunition factories. They wore a working uniform of blouse and trousers with accessories like scarves, caps etc. bright colored clothes were replaced by sober clothes. Skirts became shorter and trousers gave greater freedom of movement.
  • By the 20th century, a plain style reflected seriousness and professionalism. New schools for children emphasized the importance of plain dressing and discouraged orientation. Gymnastics and women were included in school curriculum for women. When they went out to work they needed comfortable and convenient clothes.
Transformation in Colonial India
  • There were significant changes in male and female clothing during colonial period due to influence of western dress forms and missionary activity and due to the efforts by Indians to fashion clothing styles that embodied an indigenous tradition and culture.
  • When western style clothing came in India in the 19th century, Indians reacted to this in 3 different ways:-
    • Many people incorporated some elements of western-style clothing in their dress. Baggy trousers and the phenta were added to long collarless coats, boots and a walking stick to complete the look of gentlemen. Western style clothing was attractive to groups of dalit converts to Christianity. Men were affected more than women by new dress styles.
    • Some people were convinced that western culture would lead to a loss of traditional cultural identity. Its use was taken as a sign of world turning upside down. Like the cartoon of Bengali babu mocks him for wearing western style boots with hat and coat along with his dhoti.
    • Some men resolved this dilemma by wearing western clothes without giving up their Indian ones. They began stocking western style clothes to work outside home and changed into more comfortable Indian clothes at home.

This difference between outer and inner worlds is still observed by some men even today.

Caste Conflict and Dress Change
  • India had its own strict social codes of food and dress. The caste system defined what subordinate and dominant caste Hindus should wear, eat etc. and these codes had the force of law. Changes in clothing style that threat these norms created violent social reactions.
  • The Shanars in princely state of Travancore were considered as ‘subordinate caste’ and were generally prohibited from using umbrellas. Men and women were expected to follow local custom of never covering their upper bodies before the dominant castes. Shanar women were not allowed to wear blouses and cloths to cover themselves and were attacked in 1822 by Nairs in public places.
  • The government of Travancore issued a proclamation in 1829 ordering Shanar women to not to cover their upper parts of the body. But this did not prevent Shanar Christian women from adopting the blouse and upper cloth.
British Rule and Dress Codes
  • Specific items of clothing convey contrary meanings in different cultures leading to misunderstanding and conflict. Styles of clothing in British India changed through such conflicts.
  • Consider a case of the turban and a hat. The turban was worn in India just for not protection from the heat but as a sign of respectability, and could not be removed at will. But in the western tradition, it had to be removed before social superiors as respect. This cultural difference created misunderstanding.
  • Another such conflict was related to wearing of shoes. During 19th century, it was customary for British officials to follow Indian etiquette and remove foot wears in the court of ruling kings or chiefs. But in 1830s, Europeans were forbidden for wearing Indian clothes at official functions.
  • Indians were expected to wear Indian clothes to offices and follow Indian dress codes. By mid of 19th century, shoe respect was made stricter and Indians were made to take off their shoes while entering any government institution. Many Indian government servants were uncomfortable with these rules.

Designing the National Dress

  • Indians began devising cultural symbols to express uniting of nation. In late 19th century, a kind of nationalist feeling swept across India. Artists and poets looked for national style of art and songs.
  • The Tagore family of Bengal experimented with designs for a national dress for both men and women. Rabindranath Tagore suggested that instead of combining Indian and European dress. India’s national dress should have elements of Hindu and Muslim dress. The chapkan (a long buttoned coat) was considered most suitable for men.
  • In late 1870s, Jnanadanandini Devi, wife of Satyendra Tagore, returned from Bombay to Calcutta and adopted Parsi style of wearing the sari pinned to left shoulder with a brooch, worn with blouse and shoes. This came to be known as Brahmika sari.
The Swadeshi Movement 
  • Swadeshi movement started in Bengal in first decade of 20th This movement developed when people were urged to boycott British goods of all kinds and started their own industries. The use of khadi was made a patriotic duty. Women were urged to throw away their silks and glass bangles.
  • The change of dress appealed to the upper castes and classes rather than to those who had to make with less and could not afford the new products. The experiment with Swadeshi gave Mahatma Gandhi important ideas about using cloth as a symbolic weapon against British rule.  
Mahatma Gandhi’s Experiments with Clothing
  • He used the symbol of clothing in a most powerful way. We are familiar with an image of him wearing a short dhoti, at the spinning wheel. Initially, he thought of wearing this for short duration but later he was convinced of appeal of a powerful symbol.
  • He also promoted the use of handspun in order to promote the idea of Swadeshi. He even went to attend second round table conference meeting in 1931 wearing a short dhoti without a shirt.
Not all could wear Khadi

Mahatma Gandhi’s dream was to clothe the whole nation into khadi as a means of erasing differences between religious, classes etc. some examples of other responses were:

  • Nationalists such as Motilal Nehru, a successful barrister gave up his expensive western style suits and adopted the Indian dhoti and kurta.
  • Other nationalists such as Babasaheb Ambedkar never gave up the western-style suit. Many Dalits began in the early 1910s to wear three-piece suits as a political statement of self-respect.
  • Other women like Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Nehru wore colored saris with designs instead of coarse white homespun.

Conclusion
Changes in the styles of clothing are linked up with the shifts in cultural tastes and notions of beauty, with changes within the economy and society, and with issues of social and political conflict.

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