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The Effect of the British Raj on Clothing in India - Driven By Curiosity
The Effect of the British Raj on Clothing in India
11 th Aug 2013

The seventeenth century saw the advent of what could today be seen as ‘modern fashion’. In London, home recipe books began to feature instructions for makeup, and Britain began trading worldwide, laying the foundations for the empire.

Initial expeditions by Europeans were composed of small groups of traders, and locals did not much distinguish between different European nationalities. Not only that, but the clothes Europeans wore seemed completely inappropriate for the tropical climate. There was therefore no initial appeal on the part of Indians to emulate the modes of Europeans. Rather, European traders quickly adjusted their clothing and customs to those of the locals: where it was seen as respectful in British society to remove one’s hat when speaking with a social superior, in Indian society this was seen as disrespectful. Instead, Indians removed their shoes as a mark of respect, whilst this was not a custom for the British.

With the commencement of the East India Company’s rule, however, the English no longer needed to show respect for those they had conquered, and as a result the opposite happened. Indians began to adopt the styles, customs and language of their rulers. This emulation was epitomised by the memsahib, or Western beauty, whom Indian women would travel long distances to see and admire.

In the nineteenth century, the New World economy took off in earnest, and the invention of the cotton gin meant that the trade in textiles, which depended largely on slave labour in the southern United States and South America, grew exponentially. Between 1795 and 1850, finished textiles imported from England to India grew by 1300%, whilst England imported barely any Indian clothing. India was a key source of cotton production for Britain, and when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, British merchants could not rely on the United States for cotton. This intensified the involvement of Britain and India in an exchange of culture and produce.

Company rule in India ended in 1858, and India official came under the rule of the British Government. The conditions could hardly have been more conducive for Britain’s lasting influence to be ingrained in Indian society. Such changes included that Sarees in India were initially worn without a blouse or a petticoat - there was only a breast band called a ‘Pratidhi’, which was only worn by upper-class women. The culture of wearing blouses came from the British, where the torso of the gown was copied and blouses made.

The influence of the British also broke down traditional norms which dictated that only one or another caste could wear a certain style or piece of clothing, promulgating the spread of western fashion through all ranks of society. Indians employed as labourers or servants by the British were often required to wear western attire, and yet this was generally not seen as derogatory treatment but instead as a privilege.

British modes of fashion therefore spread throughout the subcontinent, spurred on by a conducive economic situation, the advent of railways and longer-distance shipping routes, and finally by the receptiveness to social change by Indians. British influences today have become fully assimilated by Indian tradition, which no longer recognises a blouse or a petticoat as an imported element of British fashion.

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