Traditional Indian Dress: A Purported Disgrace?

In analyzing the
contemporary adaptation of Indian fashion, it is important to acknowledge its
history and primary contentions with European dress.   The earliest forms of Indian dress consisted
primarily of “cloths draped around the body and held together by tucks and
folds” (Tarlo, 26).  According to Tarlo,
Europeans labeled these forms of Indian dress as ‘disgraceful,’ which
“confirmed their notion of the evolutionary inferiority of the Indian race – of
its backwardness and barbarism” (Tarlo, 34).
The Europeans’ labeling of Indian dress as uncivilized began a system of
colonialism amongst the Indian population; a dynamic instigated and
precipitated simply by clothing.

Traditional Indian Dress

Conversely, Indian perspectives of European clothing
revolved around their preoccupation with what the garments “represented than to
either their practicality or their aesthetic appeal” (a concept relatable to
our earlier class discussions regarding brand name fixation and aspiring to
achieve the purported status which the brand names represent) (Tarlo, 44).  In attempting to adopt European dress,
Indians not only relinquished their native clothing style, but also surrendered
many of their cultural values as well.
This notion is epitomized in the Indian practice of changing their
clothes to fit the occasion, whether the occasion was Indian or European.  As Tarlo describes, “some men confined their
European image to a work context only and continued to wear Indian dress in
private and in other public contexts not related to work” (Tarlo, 53).  Amongst other hybridizations of Indian and
European dress, Indians’ situational attire established their native garments
as unprofessional and inappropriate for navigating through the professional
world, even though to them it represented modesty and respect as with the
traditional turban head covering.

What do you make of the colonialism imposed upon Indian dress?  How does this history relate to our practice of ‘dresssing for the occasion’ in the modern day?  To what extent are both males and females perpetuating the cycle of colonialism and westernization by wearing ‘suits’ for professional occasions, when the suit finds its origins in European dress?


8 thoughts on “Traditional Indian Dress: A Purported Disgrace?

  1. I think it is really interesting to look at imperialism from a fashion/clothing perspective. I especially was interested by Ghandi’s role in the politics of fashion in terms of the imperialism of India by Britain. I think that the imperialism of India represented in the change of fashion illustrates the dangerous dominance of one culture over another. Ghandi’s personal experience in the readings for the week offer an interesting perspective on imperialism. Ghandi was mocked for his clothing for the way that he dressed in his Indian attire while studying in London. He attempted to fit into the European culture by, as the readings put it, looking more “polished”.

    I found this part particularly interesting. For some reason we associate words like “polished” with western civilization. What makes a suit more polished than traditional Indian garments? Polished is seen as being “refined”. When describing someone as dressing “refined”, you are usually assuming a western connotation. But why is that? Who decided that one outfit is more polished than another? In Ghandi’s personal experiences growing up, it almost reminded me (as a much, much more complex and serious issue) as a make-over show. Imperialism is a larger, more contextual, complex, and consequential type of fashion policing.

  2. The disgrace here rests with the European nations imposing their ideals upon Indian tradition and deeming the Indian way of dress as inappropriate or barbaric. I find this topic to be quite thought provoking because it’s happened so often throughout the history of colored people. It’s always the Europeans imposing their beliefs and assumptions upon whom they consider the lesser peoples. Any group or society that is different from European society in any way were seen as inadequate and were in need of reform. This of course occurred in Africa as well where you have the Europeans invading African societies and forcing them to assimilate to their standards of living, governing, etc., and this creates huge problems within those societies because the European ideals inflicted upon them essential forced them to relinquish part of their identity. The remnants of colonization are still present in Africa and India till this day and that is an unfortunate consequence.

    I often think about how these supposed standards of beauty, dress and what is considered professional or appropriate came to be and it’s disheartening to think back to the history of colonialism because these standards were set by one group of people: whites. They have had the upper hand in pretty much every aspect of development. The reason being is even more unfortunate but the reality is that it’s because people of color have been looked down upon because they have this ascribed inferiority that whites are immune to.

    There seemed to be this desire for “sameness” that I feel defines why Europeans went about things they way they did. It’s upsetting that Europeans looked at traditional Indian dress as barbaric because in imposing their standards and values, they were dismissing Indians standards and values. Colonialism instigated the trend amongst colored people of internalized racism where you have indigenous peoples becoming more and more unappreciative of their customs and traditions. This is an unfortunate occurrence that happens in fashion and beauty amongst people of color and it perpetuates divides, socially and economically, within each community.

    As far as what the present day “dressing for the occasion” goes, Europeans definitely have influence over the ways we go about dressing up. Cocktail dresses and suits for men are the traditional dress for special occasions or fancy dinners. Suits are appropriate for corporate occasions and worn by both men and women. These traditions of European dress seem to be universal as you see it in most colored societies such as Asia, Africa, Middle East, and South America. In the more modern and/or developed areas of these places you will often see western influence in the not only societal and governmental structure, but in the way people dress as well.

  3. I feel like these questions could be used for an essay rather than a quick post however it obviously sparks a lot of conversation and opinions.

    When I think of how India was colonized by the British I feel like by changing the clothing they imposed so much on the country. For some reason the way they dressed made they seem like they were inferior and it bothers me as their way of dress is so beautiful and unique. To me it shows the British were unfamiliar with the area and were quick to make it more like them so they would feel more comfortable.

    When it comes to “dressing for the occasion” I believe since it was sparked there it’s quite amazing the idea has caught on so strongly. We all feel like certain clothing can be worn for different occasions and sometimes for only one making that clothing more valuable or exciting to wear. IT’s a strange idea that if you wanted to wear a ball gown because you feel beautiful that you would be seen as strange and what not. Then it does make the clothing industry more marketing and able to expand with this idea as they can create unique looks for these various occasions and increase the cost on the garments regardless of how much they actually should be.

    I feel like with male and females the idea of wearing suits may come from the idea when the suit was worn back then they were seen as superior and obviously an idea spun off saying that this is what makes part of a professional setting. Farther back before this in European times many people wore suits however it came down to pieces of the suit or materials that showed the wealth. It just shows a big part of the evolution of how we dress and for what.

    • This post to me really encompasses politics and fashion. It made me understand that when we all go to interviews that we believe we are being professional; dressing in a manner that does not distract the employer from what is on our resume. Now I honestly believe it is just the recycling of imperialist ideas on a multicultural nation. I took a class Afro 199, and we had a guest speaker come talk to the predominantly black class about being professional. I remember hearing things about how we should dress, that yes seemed logical to me, but also somethings that I just did not understand until now, for example natural black hair is seen as being rebellious and if you have it you should pack it neatly back, black men shouldn’t wear dreads, things like that. So I am convinced when we go to these meetings we are not trying to be professional but colonizing ourselves to fit a Western and European narrative of what is superior.

      Even within my Nigerian culture, my mom dresses in a business suit when she goes to work, but when we go to parties, or church is when my mom is comfortable wearing traditional wear. It makes it as if you can only potray who you are, in a small setting. Even when she goes to business parties, my mom still sticks to the Western idea of casual professional attire. When I think of the indian traditional dress I think that though individuals are proud to wear it, they have internalized the idea that it is not modest and professional. I dont think the idea of the suite being professional internationally is going to go away anytime soon, until professionals start to learn about the multiple cultures of dress.

  4. What is ironic to me is that I find the traditional Indian dress extravagant and beautiful. At times, I find myself envying their culture, dance, and tradition, especially the tradition of dress. I have a friend who’s origin is in Pakistan. She is American and grew up here but she has visited Pakistan on several occasions and her father lives there. Even though Pakistan is not apart of India, it is right next door. She has learned how to blend both her American cultural and her Pakistan cultural as well. She dresses in traditional Pakistan dress for her family events and gatherings. But on the daily basis, she dresses like a typical American her age. I think she does a great job at identifying as Pakistan-American.

  5. Any evidence of difference (clothing included) was stamped out by colonizers because it represented a threat to their interests. If they could make the locals behave and act as they wanted, they could more easily manipulate them in order to get what they were always after: money. No one ever colonized a foreign country just to experience a little exotic flavor. Creating a dialogue that Indian clothing and practices were inferior allowed the British to replace this foreign social system with their own, a system they were familiar with operating and exploiting. Also, changing what was sartorially acceptable opened up a new market for British goods.
    Enforcing conformity in clothing is an easy way to wield control over a group of people. In the business world now, as it was in India in colonial times, the preferred style is a Western suit, the style of which barely changes over the years. This is seen in most countries, and it probably has something to do with the fact that Western nations are the business powerhouses right now.
    This post immediately made me think of my former roommate, who is a business major of Indian descent. I used to watch her agonize over the difference between “business casual,” “business professional,” and “business formal” attire, concepts which still make my skin crawl. Her western clothing supposedly signified her respect for the speakers and interviewers she was going to see, and it seemed like she and others in her major were convinced that stepping away from the prescribed norm would completely undermine their credibility. However, in her day to day life, she dressed extremely casual, to the point that my mother would have referred to it as “sloppy” — sweatpants, the same sweatshirt every day.
    For one thing, I think it is interesting that were she to wear clothing form her culture to any of these business events, even the “formal” ones, her clothes would have been perceived as too gaudy, too flashy, too attention grabbing. Essentially, they would have drawn too much attention to her as an individual. Standing out from the group too much was the worst thing. It seemed a little like high school to me: standing out too much meant you did not fit in, which is wrong. Being too plain meant you had no personality, which is wrong. It’s no wonder she spent so much time deciding exactly how colorful or how individual she could be without offending.

  6. I really enjoyed last weeks presentation with regards to Indian dress. As far as my feelings toward the issue… I found the colonialism imposed upon Indian dress to be quite tragic, ignorant, and downright racist. For the Europeans to have the mindset that because another culture dresses differently it must be “wrong” and “disgraceful”, while although not shocking, it’s completely ignorant setting the example that anything different is bad and needs to be fixed. The Indian dress was and is quite beautiful, just very different than that of westernized dress.
    Today males and females perpetuate the cycle of colonialism and westernization by wearing suits to work, special occasions, etc. It works to advance the idea that wearing suits is what you wear when you have to look your best. And that by wearing this kind of dress others will respect you more and think of you as being higher in society.


    I found this topic interesting. As a young black woman I find it interesting that throughout my life I have been conforming to Western ideas. I do consider myself to be Americanized in this sense because though I was born in America, I don’t wear clothing from my African descent. This type of confirming happens with the majority of minority cultures here in America, as seen above with Indians. Why is it that Western ideas seem to have been quietly deemed as being superior? Of course, history can answer this question but it’s a very intriguing topic to think about. Why do we not see various cultures in the media? For example, let’s specifically target broadcast news. How often do we see an Indian, Black or Latino reporter? And if we do, why isn’t that Indian news anchor wearing a traditional garment or the Black anchor wearing her hair in its natural state?
    A couple of years ago, there was huge buzz that was generated around Florida anchorwoman, Rochelle Ritchie who decided to take a huge step and rock it natural in her kinky state. Fortunately, the company was a true supporter of her decision and it became a heart warming story to black women worldwide. I remember when I was younger my family and I went on a tour of NBC news of former news anchor, Mark Suppelsa. He explained that each anchor got a monthly “beauty” stipend to keep their hair, amke-up and clothes looking nice. Of course the term “nice” is subjective but it is just another story to put out there to think about. What does our society consider to be appropriate.

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