Clothing as Symbolic Allegiance

People manipulate objects such as clothes in defining themselves.” – Emma Tarlo

       In the readings, Tarlo discussed Gandhi’s desire to unite India via a national uniform, consisting of khadi fabric and (as they later became known) Gandhi caps. Clothing can be a powerful symbol of difference or assimilation, and history is full of examples of clothing being used in a political context.

Though the wearing of this fabric was intended to be equalizing, it soon became a very subtle status symbol. Rather than denoting status via the type of fabric or style of clothing being worn, very subtle differences in fabric quality began to indicate wealth and social standing. Additionally, the very poor struggled to afford khadi of any quality, further stratifying people. Some even began making khadi into Western style clothes. The “problem of what to wear” became a national concern, and the social requirement to wear this fabric undermined its original message. It was no longer a representation of a united belief in Indian independence, but rather the uniform of nationalism.

This idea that a particular clothing style or manner of dress can somehow be a symbol of morality has come up repeatedly in American history. During World War Two, when fabric was rationed to the public to help the war effort, women’s fashion began to favor slimmer silhouettes and shorter hemlines (not too short – it was still the 1940s). Girdles were also less common for a time, as the materials had to be used to make war equipment, and so clothes for women had structured waists to compensate. Due to women working in factories, pants were worn openly for the first time due to their functionality. Most scandalously, the bikini’s owes its invention in part to these fabric rations, given that the previous style was full coverage with a little skirt around the hips. Because of all these years of rationing, which continued for a few years after the war as the economy recovered, Dior’s “New Look” was met with shocked criticism by some, who saw it as an affront to national values. However, women were drawn to the new style, and it eventually won out.

       During the Cold War years, when everyone who stood out was at risk of being accused of being a Communist, modesty and conformity were the name of the game. There were clear codes of behavior, as spelled out in the video below, and others like it. Modern media depictions of this era emphasize conformity and traditional family roles, and correcting the behavior of others seems to be a recurring theme.

Ten years later, we have one of the better examples of Americans rebelling via their clothing. The 1960s were fraught with political protests and a national push toward social change. The wardrobe of the hippie movement both highlighted their difference of opinion and alienated them from those who stuck to mainstream values and wore more modest clothing. Jackie Kennedy’s conservative suits and prim hats are a strong example of this style which aligned itself with tradition.

Clothing is repeatedly employed to reflect the wearer’s social values, and differentiate the wearer from others who do not share in their beliefs. The use of khandi fabric separated those who stood for Indian independence from those who still seemed to outwardly side with the British. Wearing too much excess fabric as a woman during World War Two could be taken as one not supporting the war effort, and, by extension, the nation. Swaying too much from prescribed values, via clothing or otherwise, during the height of the Cold War could get a person branded a communist. Do any modern examples exist of people showing loyalty (or disloyalty) through clothing, in the United States or elsewhere?


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