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History of Clothing: A Social Reform

Last updated date: 01st Mar 2024
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Clothing History

The clothes we wear have a tale to tell. Clothing is governed by various regulations in all societies. Some of them are fairly severe regarding how men, women, and children, as well as members of various socioeconomic strata and organisations, should dress. People's identities were defined by these norms. They influence our perceptions of elegance and beauty, as well as humility and shame. As civilizations developed over time, these regulations altered as well. Here we will get to know the perspective of clothing - a social history.

Sumptuary Laws in France

The Sumptuary laws' were expected to be carefully followed in mediaeval Europe. To distinguish themselves from the aristocracy after the French Revolution, Jacobin clubs adopted the moniker "sans culottes." To protect domestic producers from imports, some sumptuary laws were enacted.

According to the “sumptuary laws”, only royalty could wear rich materials such as ermine and fur, as well as silk, velvet, and brocade. Other classes were advised to avoid anything related to the aristocracy. These differences were abolished during the French Revolution. Both men and women began to dress in loose, comfortable attire from then on.

Clothing Used as a Notion of Beauty

Many women believed in the ideals of womanhood. Society, literature, and educational institutions provided them with ideals. They were raised to believe that having a small waist was a sign of femininity. It was necessary for a woman to be in pain. They had to wear the corset in order to be considered lovely and womanly. However, these concepts were not universally accepted.

Introduction of New Materials in the Indian Dress History

Most ordinary women in Britain had very few garments made of flax, linen, or wool that were difficult to clean before the 17th century. After 1600, commerce with India placed low-cost, attractive, and easy-to-maintain Indian chintzes within European reach. The clothing history in India was largely influenced by western culture at a certain point in time.

Cotton clothing became more accessible to a wider range of individuals throughout the Industrial Revolution. Artificial fibres first appeared in the early twentieth century. They were clothing constructed of less expensive materials that were also easy to wash and maintain. Heavy, constrictive underwear was no longer worn in the late 1870s. Clothes became lighter, shorter, and more straightforward.

Women’s Reaction to These Norms

By the 1830s, English women had begun to campaign for democratic rights. Many women began fighting for dress change as the suffrage movement grew stronger. At the end of the nineteenth century, people began to accept the reformers' ideals, which they had before dismissed. As time passed, new values were introduced.

Effect of Wars on Clothing

Due to the two world wars, major modifications in women's dress occurred. Clothing, a social history associated with it can be well observed in this section. Many European ladies stopped wearing expensive jewellery and clothing. As upper-class women mingled with women from various classes, social barriers were broken down. Women of all social classes began to dress in a similar manner.

Women's clothing became shorter during the First World War (1914-1918) due to practical necessity. Over 7 lakh women worked in armament manufacturers in the United Kingdom by 1917. They were dressed in a work outfit. The clothes of new professional women were khaki overalls, hats, short skirts, and trousers. The use of bright colours in clothing was phased out in favour of more subdued hues. Clothes got plainer and simpler as a result.

British Rule and Dress Codes in India

Clothing has a lot of diverse meanings in different cultures. This frequently results in miscommunication and conflict. As a result of these conflicts, dress styles in British India evolved. When European traders first arrived in India, they were known as the 'hat wearers,' as opposed to the Indian 'turban wearers.' In India, the turban served as both a heat shield and a symbol of dignity. As a result, Indians were adamant about keeping their turbans.

In Western culture, it was customary to remove one's hat in front of social superiors as a display of respect. Misunderstandings arose as a result of cultural differences. Another point of contention was the wearing of shoes. When Indians arrived before Governor-General Amherst in 1824-1828, he insisted that they remove their shoes as a symbol of respect. This was not followed by the Indians.

Designing the National Dress

As nationalist sentiments spread across India in the late nineteenth century, Indians sought to create cultural emblems to reflect the country's oneness. Artists searched for a National Style of art, poets composed National Songs, a discussion erupted over the design of the National Flag, and an experiment to find a National Dress began. This step was made to symbolically identify the nation's cultural identity.

Bengal's Tagore family experimented with designs for a National Dress for both men and women in India in the 1870s. Instead of blending Indian and European clothing, Rabindranath Tagore proposed that India's National Dress incorporate features of Hindu and Muslim dresses.

Types of Clothes in India

While discussing the history of clothing, let’s take a look at the types of clothes in India in general. The clothing worn in India has changed over time. Indian clothing has reflected influences from the Gupta period, the rise of Islam, and British colonization throughout history. Based on geography, climate, ethnicity, and culture, traditional Indian clothing differ from one part of the country to another. Here is a short list to describe the types of Indian clothing — 1) Headgear/ turban/ pagdi, 2) Dhoti, 3) Saree, 4) Angrakha, 5) Salwar Kameez, etc.

The Swadeshi Movement

The British Industrial Revolution mechanised spinning and weaving, resulting in a significant increase in demand for raw materials such as cotton and indigo. As a result, India's position in the global economy has shifted. Large numbers of individuals began rejecting British or mill-made cloth in the mid-twentieth century, opting instead for khadi, despite the fact that it was coarser, more expensive, and more difficult to obtain.

As a result of this step, the Swadeshi movement arose. People were exhorted to boycott all British goods and to develop their own manufacturing industries for items like matchboxes and cigarettes. Despite the fact that many people were rallying to the cause of nationalism at the time, competing with the inexpensive British goods that had flooded the market was nearly impossible. Mahatma Gandhi gained crucial ideas about using cloth as a symbolic weapon against British tyranny as a result of his Swadeshi experiment.

The Gandhi Cap

Mahatma Gandhi changed the Kashmiri cap he occasionally wore into a simple white cotton khadi cap after returning to India from South Africa in 1915. He wore the cap for two years, from 1919 to 1920, before giving it up, but by that time, it had become part of the nationalist uniform and even a symbol of defiance.

A vast number of Hindus and Muslims wore the cap during the Khilafat campaign. Three Santhals were killed when a mob of Santhals attacked the police in Bengal in 1922, seeking the release of Santhal inmates, believing that the Gandhi cap would protect them from gunshots.

Many nationalists stubbornly wore the Gandhi cap and were attacked or incarcerated as a result of it. The fez, a tasselled Turkish cap, became a symbol of anticolonialism in India with the advent of the Khilafat movement in the post-First World War years. Though many Hindus wore the fez, such as in Hyderabad, it soon became associated entirely with Muslims.


In order to sum up the history of clothing in India, changes in clothing styles are thus tied to movements in cultural tastes and ideals of beauty, as well as changes in the economy and society, as well as social and political turmoil. With this we can say that clothing was never the same and it had gone under its own evolution but one point is certain that valuable and costly clothing were only worn by the people who could afford them and this is the same case that can be observed in today's world.

FAQs on History of Clothing: A Social Reform

1. Why couldn’t everyone wear Khadi?

Mahatma Gandhi's dream was for the entire nation to be clothed in khadi. Though he was successful in inspiring the Indian people through khadi, there were many differing viewpoints. Some of the reasons why Khadi isn't suitable for everyone are — compared to khadi, British machine-made clothing was substantially less expensive. Western India's rich Parsis were adamant about keeping their western garb. In India, the caste system was quite strict, and everyone dressed in a western manner. As a result, many people adopted it out of a sense of self-respect and equality.

2. What were the British rules and their dress codes?

In India, the turban was worn as a sign of respectability as well as protection from the sun. As a symbol of respect, the hat had to be removed in the Western tradition before social superiors.

In the early nineteenth century, it was usual for British officials to remove their shoes in the presence of governing kings or chiefs.

3. How did Britishers impact the Clothing of the Indians?

The clothing styles of Indians as well as Britishers had a great difference that time. Where the Kings and Maharaja used to wear loose royal clothes and Women used to wear Sarees and Other traditional Clothing, Britishers used to wear much fitted clothes. The great difference led to the introduction of Shirts and Pants as clothing in the Indian market as it was considered more superior and comfortable as well. Eventually western clothing has become a distinct part of Indian society even in today's world.