Clothing: A Social History

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All the clothes we wear have a story to tell. ‘Clothing’ is controlled by different regulations in all societies. Certain societies are rather rigid on how men, women, children, and members of various socioeconomic strata/organizations should dress. People’s identities were established/decided by these norms. They determine our perceptions of elegance and beauty, and also humility and shame. Civilizations evolved over time, so did these regulations. 

Sumptuary Laws in France

The sumptuary laws were supposed to be carefully followed in medieval Europe. In order to differentiate themselves from aristocracy post French revolution, Jacobin clubs endorsed the moniker “sans culottes.” Certain sumptuary laws were enacted for protecting domestic producers from imports as well.

As per the ‘sumptuary laws’, only royalty was supposed to wear rich materials including ermine, fur, silk, velvet, and brocade. Other ‘classes’ were instructed to avoid anything related to aristocracy. These variations were finally abolished during the French revolution. Both men and women started dressing in loose, comfortable attire from then on.

Clothing as a Notion of Beauty

Several women believed in the ideals of womanhood which were injected into them by society, literature and educational institutions. While being brought up, they were told that having a small waist was a sign of femininity. People believed that it was necessary for women to be in ‘pain’. Wearing a corset was regarded as lovely and womanly. However, these concepts did not enjoy universal acceptance.

Introduction of New Materials in the Indian Dress History

Before the 17th century, ordinary women in Britain hardly had any garments made of flax, linen, or wool. Post 1600, low-cost, attractive, and easy-to-maintain Indian chintzes were within European reach. Thanks to trade/commerce with India. Western culture has had great influence on Indian clothing history. 

With the industrial revolution, cotton clothing became accessible to more people. Artificial fibers initially appeared in the early 20th century. The particular clothing constructed of less expensive materials was easy to wash and maintain. In the late 1870s, heavy, constrictive underwear was no longer worn by people. Clothes had started becoming lighter, shorter, and more straightforward.

Women’s Reaction

English women started campaigning for democratic rights by the 1830s. As the suffrage movement grew stronger, women started demanding dress changes. By the end of the 19th century, people slowly started accepting reformers’ ideals, which they had dismissed earlier. New values were introduced as time passed.

Effects of Wars

The two world wars brought about major modifications in the women’s dress. Several European women stopped wearing expensive jewelry and clothing. Social barriers broke down as upper-class women started mingling with women from various classes. Women of different social classes began to dress in similar manner. 

Due to practical necessity, women’s clothing became shorter during the first World War (1914-198). By 1917, over 7 lakh women were working in the armament manufacturers in the United Kingdom. They used to dress in work outfits. The professional outfit comprised khaki overalls, hats, short skirts, and trousers. The ‘bright colors’ were replaced by subdued hues. Clothes started becoming plainer and simpler.

British Rules and Dress Codes in India

Clothing has different meanings in different cultures. Quite often it leads to miscommunication and conflict. Due to these conflicts, dress styles in British India evolved. The European traders, upon their arrival, were referred to as ‘hat wearers’ as opposed to our nation’s ‘turban wearers’. In India, the turban was both a heat shield and a symbol of dignity. ‘Indians’ were always adamant of keeping their turbans. 

It was common in the western culture to remove one’s hat in front of social superiors as a mark of respect. Cultural differences always led to misunderstandings. Another point of debate was the wearing of shoes. As Indians arrived before Governor-General Amherst in 1824-28, he wanted them to remove their shoes as a symbol of respect. Indians did not do it.

Designing the National Dress

In the late 19th century, nationalist sentiments spread across India. People tried hard to create cultural emblems to reflect the country’s oneness. Artists explored styles of art, poets composed songs. There were discussions over the design of the national flag, attempts were also made to design a national dress – a symbol of a nation’s cultural identity!

In the 1870s, the Tagore family in Bengal started experimenting with different designs, for identifying a national dress for both men and women. Rabindranath Tagore was the one who proposed that India’s national dress should incorporate features of Hindu and Muslim dresses.

Types of Clothes in India

Clothing worn in India has evolved over time. Indian clothing has had the influences from the Gupta period, the rise of Islam, and British colonization. Traditional clothing varies across the country. 

Various types of Indian clothing include:

  • Headgear/pagri/turban
  • Dhoti
  • Saree
  • Angrakha
  • Salwar Kameez

Swadeshi Movement

  • Eversince the British Industrial revolution mechanized spinning and weaving, there was a considerable increase in demand for raw materials including cotton and indigo.
  • People started rejecting British/mill-made  cloth in the mid 20th century.
  • They instead opted for khadi, despite it being more expensive.
  • In an attempt to evoke nationalist spirits, people started boycotting all British goods (Swadeshi Movement). 
  • Mahatma Gandhi asked people to use cloth as a symbolic weapon against British tyranny.

The Gandhi Cap

After returning to India from South Africa in 1915, instead of the Kashmiri cap, Gandhi started wearing the white cotton khadi cap. It soon became part of the nationalist uniform and even a symbol of defiance.

The cap was worn by a large number of Hindus and Muslims during the Khilafat campaign. Nationalist stubbornly wore the Gandhi cap as a symbol of resistance. The fez- a tasseled Turkish cap was also regarded as a symbol of anticolonialism in those days.


History of clothing in India is influenced by the movements in cultural tastes and ideals of beauty, changes in the economy, and is also influenced by socio-political circumstances. 

However, valuable and costly clothing is mostly worn by the rich even in today’s world!

Answer) As per the ‘sumptuary laws’, only royalty was supposed to wear rich materials including ermine, fur, silk, velvet, and brocade.

Answer)  Headgear/pagri/turban, Dhoti, Saree and Salwar Kameez.

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