Toolika Gupta – University of Copenhagen

The effect of British Raj on Indian fashion (Clothing and Textile preferences) of the Early Twentieth Century

By Toolika Gupta


During the early Twentieth Century, British had colonized a major part of the Indian
Subcontinent, uniting it to form “India”. India was a cultural mix of a variety of princely
states that existed. Each had its own castes, culture, religion and way of dressing. But the younger generation, changed its dressing habits in order to ape the mightier West. The British fashions were aped in order to reflect modernity and reject the traditional, rural past.

This change occurred at various levels. It started with the Aristocrats. The Royal Men and women of India were the first to adopt the “western Fashion Statements”, but curiously always shifted to their traditional garb, during celebrations and ceremonies like birth, marriage and death.
Fashion is a representation of cultural identity. This cultural identity was changing. The modern Indian was convent educated, secular, patriotic, wanted to belong to India and not to a particular religion, state or culture. The poor and the low caste Indians saw a nice opportunity to mix with the upper class by adopting western fashion which came without class distinction – they felt.
The bearers employed by the British were forced to wear a uniform which comprised of mixed elements of the East and West – resulting in Army uniforms and bearer uniforms, thus initiating the change of dressing sensibilities.

This is clearly reflected in Indian Cinema. Indian Cinema is major source of the study of Indian Fashion in the early twentieth century, it mirrored the sentiments of a modern society, trying to gain independence and self-governance in a manner set up by the British.
Other sources of Study are the museums and literary sources. There are accounts of textile and clothing preferences written by James Forbes Watson “From Victorian times, as transport was fast, papers, periodicals and novels from England were available in India and they dominated the life of womenfolk. Fashions of London and Paris were also reaching fast.”(Dr. Murthy K.L., 2001).

Purpose of Study

The purpose of this research is to study the effect of British Raj on the then existing fashion of India. The purpose is to research the influence in textile and clothing preferences of the Indian Populace due to voluntary and forced changes.
The area of Study includes

  • The existing costume that was in India, prior to British Raj, which was a cultural blend from ancient Indian costumes, to the influence of Persians and Turks during the Mughal rule
  • How the Modern Indian men and women, in the earlier twentieth century copied the British styles in order to reject tradition and show a major change taking place in textile and clothing preferences of all sections of society due to political and technical advances - as a result of British Raj

Method and Methodology

Secondary Research will be conducted by

  • An extensive study of period films
  • An extensive study of the Photographs taken during the early twentieth Century
  • An extensive review of Literature

Primary research will be conducted by visits to various museums and national archives and the study of actual fabrics and costumes. The list of museums includes:

  • The V&A
  • Crafts Museum, New Delhi
  • The City Palace Museum, Jaipur
  • The Calico Museum, Ahmadabad

The Methodology followed will be based on Case studies.

  • Case studies of 4 maharajas, or Indian Aristocrats will be undertaken to show the influence on Aristocrats from various regions.
  • Case Studies of Low Caste people converting to Christianity and adopting western fashion statements
  • Indian Army uniforms and the uniforms of bearers will be studied before and after the British raj.
  • Case studies of women’s fashion in North, South, East and West India.
  • Case studies of the nationalists’ or freedom fighters’ clothing in the early 19th Century.

Analysis and Conclusion

These case studies will be analyzed and compiled in order to study the Influences of
British Raj on Indian Fashion. There will be a detailed documentation along with
illustrations and visual references.

“Clothes have been used to assert power, challenge authority, and instigate social change throughout Indian society. During the struggle for independence, members of the Indian elite incorporated elements of Western style into their clothes, while Gandhi's adoption of the loincloth symbolized the rejection of European power and the contrast between Indian poverty and British wealth.” (Tarlo 1996).

Importance of the study

"The process of imitation and adaptation are central to our understanding of creativity. Human cultures evolve through a continuous exchange of ideas, beliefs, habits and forms. Dressing habits in particular constitute a fertile plain in which this exchange takes place." (Artemis Yagou: 2009).

The rise of a “westernized” society in India, was a result of the mighty British taking over the reins of the country. The Importance of this study is that

  • It will establish the cultural, technical and most importantly political influences on fashion in the Indian Scenario
  • It will be a study of factors that dictate fashion and fashion preferences
  • It will try to prove the relationship between Politics and fashion
  • It will also try to prove the relationship between fashion and cultural identity in India

Toolika Gupta presented her thesis at University of Glasgow
See her presentation here