What people wear defines who they are. The multifarious identity of the people of India is nowhere more explicit than in the dress choices they make — women seamlessly transitioning from wearing an exquisite sari to slim fitting jeans, men teaming Nehru jackets with English shirts. Nestled in India’s thousand years of dress history is the story of a nation’s tryst with civilisation, monarchy, foreign rule, colonialism, independence, tradition and modernity.
The wildly heterogeneous Indian clothing is characterised by remarkable continuity, regional variation, and creative assimilation. Material evidence suggests that drapes and wraps were the oldest forms of attires in the Indian subcontinent. As early as 2100 BC, we find the sculpture of the Bearded Man (Priest King) excavated in Mohenjo-Daro, Pakistan wearing a drapery with a trefoil motif that covers only his left shoulders. In India, this early tradition of wearing unstitched clothing is still alive.Remarkably simple, practical and always forgiving, a long piece of unstitched cloth is folded, wrapped, pleated, tied, draped and knotted to embrace a body that may have grown taller, slenderer, rounder or bigger.These draped garments are worn in varying sizes and techniques and are known by different names across the length and breadth of the country.
Perhaps the most recognisable icon of national fashion is the sari. Like the dhoti, a sari too can be worn in many ways (108 draping styles have been documented so far) depending on the region, context, and function. Its versatility allows it to be worn gown-like, trousers-like, or skirt-like for a formal outing or a hard day of labour, or for sport or dance.
The sari which is today the material representation of Indian culture and an assertion of national identity was invented centuries ago as a by-product of ancient Greco-Asian cultural contact. Textile art historians like Jasleen Dhamija have suggested that the early forerunner of the sari may have been the Chiton worn by Greek women in the Mauryan courts — a single piece of cloth pleated like a skirt and worn over one shoulder. The contact between the Greeks and the people of the Bactro- Gandhara region was propelled by Alexander III of Macedon’s brief invasion of north-west region of ancient Indian subcontinent (present day Pakistan and Afghanistan) in 327 BC, leading to the establishment of large trading networks and marriage alliances between Indo- Greek societies, the most noted being between Chandra Gupta Maurya and the daughter of Alexander’s general Seleucus Nicator. This increased cultural intermingling between the two civilisations had a significant influence on not just trade and commerce but also on Indian aesthetics and fashion. The Hellenistic influences in the Bactro- Gandharan sculptures can be observed in the classicistic folds and heavy drapery as well as the pronounced musculature of the carved figures.
Interestingly, a 1932 article written by the British writer Joan William in the Times of India newspaper in praise of the Eastern Sari compared the graceful folds, perfect symmetry and simplicity of the sari to the Classical style of Ancient Greece. Though the comparison is based purely on personal observation than an investigation of the dress’s historical origins, in doing so, the colonial writer brought the dress of ‘the other’ closer home to a larger pan-European identity and within the folds of higher acceptability.
Though today a dhoti is strongly associated with men’s clothing while the sari remains a popular traditional attire for women, historically, the earliest drapes in ancient India have been gender fluid and worn interchangeable by both the sexes. The arrangement of the drapery did not have within them the trappings of gender specific clothing. Take for example, the Mauryan sculpture of a cauri (fly whisk) bearer from ca third century BC that shows her wearing a piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and extending to the ankles dhoti style; leaving the upper body bare. This arrangement of the lower drapery closely resembles that of a male figure (probably Yaksha figure) from a similar time period. The costumes of these figures are not exceptional. The feminine attire seen during this period– the lower drapery, the bare torso and heavy ornaments became the norm in ancient India as did the attire of the male figure with minor variations. It is likely that over time, strict gender conformity demanded an adherence to dress norms that were in congruence with one’s biological sex.
Today sartorial choices in India are undergoing a rapid change. Indian clothes are reserved for festive occasions while western clothes are seen as a practical choice for everyday wear. Women, more than men, pay a price for this change. Western clothes touted as modern are sharply criticized for sexualising a woman’s body and regarded as the root cause of escalating violence against women. A woman’s attire at the time of vitriolic attacks and rape is periodically used in male defence to symbolise her desire for sex and put forth arguments of ‘she was asking for it.’
As tradition and modernity sharpen their claws, it is important to consider how our ideas of ‘modesty’ and ‘obscenity’ have changed over the years. In the eighteenth century when the British came to India, their attitudes shaped by the norms of Victorian fashion, they were shocked to see Indian women wear saris over their bare breast. During the Victorian era, the English women were governed by a strict dress code where frontal and midriff nudity was frowned upon. When the British saw many women, especially in eastern and southern India, bare-shouldered, hint of their bodies visible through the thin diaphanous cotton drapery, they thought it vulgar. Ironically, they noticed that it was not the women of high caste households but Devdasis or ‘the dancing girls’ (1) who wore blouses at that time.
This choice was governed by a strong Hindu belief that associated the wearing of the unstitched cloth with virtuosity while cloth fashioned by a lower caste darji (tailor) was considered impure. (Even today temples like the Padmanabhan temple in Tamil Nadu deny entry to devotees wearing stitched clothes) Under British India, wearing a blouse and petticoat began to be regarded as respectable and many middle-class Indian women made it a part of their everyday attire. This new dress lexicon was in part invented by the nationalist bourgeoisie who promoted, shaped and dictated the notion of ‘ideal Indian femininity’.
Jnanadanandini Debi — daughter in law of the Tagore household, the influential family of Calcutta that shaped the national intellectual discourse, and sister-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate, played an instrumental role in changing the fashion of the saris. After being refused entry to a club run by the British in India for covering her breasts with her sari alone, she invented a new manner of draping the Indian attire. Influenced greatly by the Parsi style as well as English sartorial fashion, the Nivi drape, as it came to be later called, was worn with front pleats, upper end draped over the shoulders, petticoat and Victorian blouse.
The dress reform that swept the subcontinent was visually reinforced in paintings which further popularised it. The modernist Indian painter from the court of Travancore, Raja Ravi Verma renowned for painting episodes from the Hindu mythology in Western academic realism, gave visual imagination to women of the past remodelling them into the fashion of the present. One can only imagine the profound impact these images that made its way into the homes of millions of people through Verma’s prints and oleographs, like contemporary fashion magazines, could have had in defining the new female body and fashion aesthetics of the time. It is interesting to note that the women of Verma’s household — dark-skinned, upper caste Brahmins who wore the sari in a two piece drape minus the pallav (upper end) and without the blouse- found little resemblance with Verma’s women on canvas who were almost always fair and wore the saree in a Nivi drape.
Today the sari blouse is well assimilated into the Indian fashion landscape such that women who do not wear them, for example the tribal women, are seen by the Indian colonial mind, as ‘uncivilised’ and as an ‘anomaly.’ On the other hand, Victorian restraint has given way to more liberal attire choices in England with skirts and little black dresses gaining popularity. As it happens, the English whose dress is today considered obscene by the traditionalist, once upon a time thought Indian clothes vulgar.
Today in a post colonial nationalist context, while traditional clothing for men and women is morally sanctioned and championed as a national signature, it, however, enjoys a limited geography of use. Nightclubs in Indian metropolis through explicit rules or unwritten codes discourage men and women in traditional dresses. There is high cultural anxiety for traditional clothes and designs by the upwardly mobile class of India that associates it with an ‘orthodox narrow mindset’ and blindly mimics and imports fashion from the west.
Even when Indian attire most notably the sari and baggy shalwars (loose fitting pantaloons that fit tight on the ankles) have made their journey from being traditional to today being trendy and hip, these fashion trends have been dictated and endorsed by the West. Such a reformulation of traditions for profitable exports has resulted in India changing its own ‘authenticities’ to create versions that have a stronger global appeal.
As the idea of the nation-state is continuously being crafted, negotiated and revised, clothing which has an intimate relationship with the body and by extension, personal identity, plays an important role. But the search for a sartorial identity in a country which is home to many faiths, practices, and tongues, where tradition and modernity live cheek by jowl, remains a deeply vexed issue. Today as India stands at the crossroads of global fashion influences and local practices, so does her identity.
1. Chitra Deb, Women of the Tagore household, Penguin Books India, 2010
2. Jasleen Dhamija, Asia, Central, History of Dress in Valerie Steel, Encyclopaedia of Clothing and Fashion Vol I, New York, Thomas Gale, 2005
3. Joan Williams, The Fascination of the Eastern Sari, The Times of India, Sept 12, 1932, p 13
4. Adam Geczy, Fashion and Orientalism: Dress, Textiles and Culture from the 17th to the 21st century, Bloomsbury, 2013
1. Devdasis were women dedicated to God who worked as hereditary temple dancers. They were skilled in many arts, enjoyed a high position in society and were financially independent; even owning land and property. However, around the late 19th century, this practice began to be regarded as synonymous with prostitution and “dancing girls” by the British and Indian social reformers. In 1988, Devdasi system was outlawed in India.