As divided as India stands today, it has had a rich heterogeneous history shaped by the many ethnic and religious groups that came to India and became one with India. The nation is built on this very diversity that is distinctively its own—she doesn’t take, she assimilates. India is not a country that was merely superficially influenced by the different cultures that it welcomed on its soil. The colours on India’s saree were hardly ever imperfections, they were the colourful hues that make it distinguished. She made its own what people brought to her, so much so that it was almost impossible to make out what was borrowed and what was originally her own. It is no wonder that we take pride in our piping hot samosas and jalebis and call high-flying people ‘hi-fi’ over chai.
Seeing as how we have derived from the many communities that settled and ruled the land, it is hardly a surprise that we took a few things from our colonisers whose territorial presence lasted roughly 200 years. They have had a substantial role in the shaping of modern India. Among the many other institutional social changes they influenced, one was the perception of a woman’s modesty as its association with her clothing.
The establishment of the Crown Rule in India saw augmented control of the British on India’s social, political and economic institutions. To passively push their subjects to conform to their oppressive policies with less resistance, they strategized glorifying the British rule as progressive in contrast with the pre-colonial stage which was projected as a stage of stagnation. Presenting modesty, decorum and social etiquette as progressive concepts and associating them with the clothing of Indians was one such way in which this was done.
The British were able to formally change the attire of the aristocrats and the army through one or the other way over time. One of the manners in which this was done was by gifting mantle and insignia to the Indian princes on whom they bestowed the honour of knighthood. The Nizam of Hyderabad in one of his letters to the viceroy wrote that the “people of this country have a particular antipathy to wearing costumes different from their own.” While the Nizam himself refused to put the mantle on after receiving it, the other recipients of knighthood gladly complied, for it meant getting closer with the rulers. The same can be said for most of the royals and privileged in India.
Unlike the aristocrats, army and the employees of the government, the clothing of women in India was never formally regulated by the British government. Perhaps it could never be because the clothing of women in India greatly varied with their states, caste and class. Among the Hindu and Muslim upper-class, the women were usually confined to their forts and cut off from the outsiders. For them, modesty was centred around the face and head. While veiling the face was considered a tradition, even among the royalty, how a woman covered the rest of her body was never conventionally regulated in Indian society. Indian women of all statuses did not initially wear undergarments that confined or constricted their breasts, stomachs or hips. Even in the later nineteenth century, when Indian women started wearing blouses, they were designed to highlight the form of their breasts.
When it came to the majority of the Indians that belonged to the lower strata, they were characterised by the British by nakedness. The image of the common Indian men in their minds was of ‘naked fakirs’. Although it was recorded by an initial shock, it did not invoke uneasiness. On the other hand, the common Indian women, who unlike royalty could be seen out of their houses for work, were met with the male lust of the British men, possibly emerging from a sense of stark cultural difference.
Whereas in Britain, women’s bodies had been traditionally covered and their sensuality censored (particularly in the Victorian era), it was common and ordinary for lower-class women to be bare-chested in India. An average Indian woman’s clothing or lack thereof wasn’t previously seen from a sexual gaze. While the context in which these women existed was still the same, the gaze changed when they were observed by the British men. Various pieces of literature and art from the time depict Indian women from an imperial and male gaze where there British man’s gaze lustfully lingered over Indian women’s body part by part and he passed aesthetic judgements.
In that sense, the shift in the perception of the lower-class Indian women to now being inadequately dressed resulted in them being sexualised and consequently, a need was felt to clothe them to meet this previously foreign concept of modesty.
Women were also indirectly impelled to meet the British’s idea of modesty through their guidelines. Jnanadanandini Debi, the sister-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore, was reportedly refused to enter the clubs under the Raj for wearing the saree over her bare breasts. She is known for popularising the wearing of a blouse under the saree today.
The educated upper-class men too had a role in regulating what women wore. Following their British counterparts, they started perceiving a relation between women’s clothing and her propriety and decency. They believed that Indian women could benefit by being more ‘decently’ attired like the Europeans and this had an effect on how women in their families now dressed. S. C. Bose, who otherwise condemned the Bengali upper-class for imitating the British in their appearance, urged for a change in women’s clothing “which private decency and public morality most urgently demand.” This way, the autonomy of the common woman over her body further reduced as her clothing choices were now hardly her own. The educated upper-class males who looked up to the British values of women’s modesty and etiquette now suddenly perceived the Indian women around them who did not adapt to them as indecent or vulgar.
The covering of lower-class women’s bodies was also interestingly a sign of struggle against caste oppression in certain states. The case of Nadar women is highly cited in this regard. The kingdom of Travancore was marked by a strict caste division and social hierarchy. Among the many social restrictions and obligations placed on the Nadars, who hailed from a lower caste, was that their women were required to be bare-breasted in the presence of brahmans and other high-status people as a form of respect. While for common women in other parts of India, such as Bengal, being bare-chested was characterised by convenience and personal autonomy, for Nadar women, it was characterised by oppression.
The conversions to Christianity were frequent among the lower-caste in the hope of alleviating their condition. After conversion, the Nadar women started wearing the breast cloth worn by Nair women, which was met with resistance by the upper caste Hindus. Covering of the breast by the cloth that Nair women wore resulted in the Nadar women being attacked and beaten in public places. The Protestant missionaries made it their agenda to free Nadar women from the evils of caste oppression. The support from the missionaries could be said to be the factor that drove the Nadars to protest by refusing the restrictions and gradually evolving their attire that imitated the costume of upper-class Hindus.
While some historians see the covering of Nadar women as a sign of victory against the orthodox Hindu caste system, some view it as the triumph of Christianity’s values and decency. The missionaries were concerned with making Indians more decent and civilised as Europeans; however, the Nadars cared not about modesty but attaining what they were unreasonably and wrongfully denied. Unlike in the case of Bengali women, the covering of the body meant liberation for the Nadar women. The distinction laid in autonomy of the women.
Fast-forward to today—with the opening of international markets in India in recent decades, the West has highly influenced the way that the Indians today dress regularly. Sarees and salwar kameez have been replaced by jeans and shirts or tops in urban cities. While many have incorporated western attire in their daily lives due to convenience, style or globalisation, the orthodox Indians continue to resent this westernisation that they believe is destroying their culture. This possibly also stems from a sense of inherent hate towards the colonial rule and its adverse after-effects.
Ironically, today, the idea of a woman in saree is perceived as decorous in contrast with the idea of a woman in western clothes which is seen as indecent and revealing. The wearing of saree or salwar kameez is associated with sanskar or what is ideal for an Indian woman to do. We have incorporated the western value of decency and we repel westernisation with it. The result is that we find ourselves in an absurd paradoxical society where the Indians now shame the average Indian woman for being not Indian enough when she wears western clothes that are revealing of her body’s shape or skin.
What started with men clothing women’s bodies to prevent sexualising them continues to limit the Indian women’s lives. While in the West, the women have been able to achieve liberation, an Indian women’s sexuality, behaviour and autonomy continue to be controlled by the males around her. Her clothing is not only associated with her morality but the dignity of her family and her nation. The personification of the nation as a mother and its further spiritualisation during the freedom struggle had a significant role to play in this. Even decades after that, the nation that eulogises its women fails to comprehend them as humans.
We did not only take from cultures that made India, we also took from the colonisers who oppressed us and entrenched their tool of oppression in our society. While the formal institutions continue to regulate what a decent woman should wear and the upper-caste males what the women in their families wear, we choose to call it our tradition.
This post was written by Khushi, IIIrd year
 While these delicacies are popularly regarded as Indian-origin, they originated in the Middle-east and came to India with Arab invaders.
 Indians use the word hi-fi, possibly derived from the English word high-flying, to describe posh people.
 Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India
 Jacques Lacan’s c describes the concept of gaze as having the power to create anxiety and loss of autonomy in the person who knows themselves to be visible to another as an object.
 Philippa St George, HEAT AND LUST: DESIRE AND INTIMACY ACROSS THE (POST)COLONIAL DIVIDE
 BBC, Dressing the Indian woman through history (6 December 2014)