Dissertation Proposal : Adoption of Indian Dress

By Ankita Chugh

Adoption of Indian Dress by Male British Officials in the late Eighteenth Century.

“India has always had a strange way with her conquerors. In defeat, she beckons them in, then slowly seduces, assimilates and transforms them.” White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India, William Dalrymple (2002)

I used this quote in the essay I wrote when applying for this course; little did I know then that I would use this same quote to begin my final project. When I first started this course, I didn’t plan to do my final project on a historical subject and was determined to work on contemporary issues around Indian fashion. However, during the past months, I have realised that there are issues within dress history that need to be further explored, particularly with regard to Indian dress history, an area where there is a paucity of academic research. Additionally, other than contributing to this field of research, I was motivated by the way we have been taught to view dress history in this course, which has a unique way of narrating the past and offers a different perspective.

The quote mentioned above is from the book White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India (2002). It is one of the many books that I read for my Masters in history back in India but it stood out for me because it was the only book I had come across that discussed, albeit briefly, Indian dress in the early colonial period. Furthermore, it discussed the acceptance and incorporation of it by British Officials. Dalrymple moved away from portraying the British of the East India Company as a small alien minority confined in their presidency towns and focuses instead on the profound cultural interaction that took place within this period (Dalrymple, 2002). The tone of this early period of British life in India, according to him, was about the intermingling of peoples, cultures and ideas (Dalrymple, 2002).

The subject briefly discussed by Dalrymple is what I would like to further explore in my final project. Dalrymple conducted extensive research on the figure of Captain James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at Hyderabad in the late eighteenth century. Kirkpatrick represents a minority, but this minority was an important section of British men in India who not only married local women and went on to have families but also adopted an Indian lifestyle: ‘Virtually all Englishmen in India at this period, Indianised themselves to some extent.’ (Dalrymple, 2002)

The British in India, particularly the officials who were stationed at a distance from the main presidency towns, had long adapted themselves to Mughal dress and customs and by the late eighteenth century it was considered a little unfashionable (Dalrymple, 2002). Nevertheless, the inter-cultural hybridity continued, particularly in dress. For instance, in private and informal public situations, Indian dress was quite popular, at the time it was known as ‘undress’, the Council at Calcutta was also known to have worn it during meetings (Dalrymple, 2002). The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was a significant period for the East India Company as it was beginning to establish its political authority over vast territories within India. This expansion of the colonial state also witnessed a change in the company’s policies regarding their officials in the public as well as private sphere. Company officials were eventually ordered to wear only European dress.

Emma Tarlo also discusses the subject of British attitudes towards Indian dress in her seminal work on clothing in India. Tarlo briefly discusses British attitudes that developed during the course of the nineteenth century towards Indian dress, particularly around men’s dress (Tarlo, 1996).

In her book, Tarlo states that British attitudes towards Indian dress were by no means homogenous (Tarlo, 1996). She recognizes that there were those among the British in India who had a genuine appreciation for Indian dress and some even sought to revive Indian dress in an attempt to protect its aesthetic and cultural value. However, Tarlo’s aim was to demonstrate the characteristics of the dominant racist stereotype, which was widely expressed in British diaries, novels, newspapers and political cartoons (Tarlo, 1996). Wearing Indian styles became increasingly seen as a sign of eccentricity and even became a cause of discredit in the nineteenth century. The British increasingly sought to distance themselves from their Indian subjects, which was achieved by maintaining differences in dress and customs (Tarlo, 1996).

This subject of adoption of Indian dress among colonial officials has been touched upon by scholars, however, there is still no significant academic research that has been undertaken to further investigate this subject. There is no dearth of academic research on the textile history of India due to its economic and cultural significance. Despite this, Indian dress, particularly that of men, has not received the kind of exploration it deserves. Tarlo recognizes this gap in research about Indian dress in colonial history and this ‘gap’ is what I intend to investigate.

This subject for me is a story; it’s a story about men who came to a foreign land, let go of their pasts and inhibitions and embraced a completely different culture. As simple as this story sounds, the process of accommodating to a new culture was complex, as was much of colonial history. In the course of my research I hope to find more answers as to why these men adopted Indian dress in the first place. Was it because of their prolonged isolation from their own homeland and culture? Was it because of the influence of their Indian wives or partners? Or was it about aspiration, an attempt to emulate the Indian nobility?

Was the transition from English to Indian dress that easy? Was it immediate? No, it was like any other process of cultural accommodation: a gradual one. For one thing, how would these men re-negotiate their sartorial choices in a land where the rules and codes concerning dress that they were familiar with were no longer applicable.

In my final project, I intend to further explore this subject, which has been briefly discussed by Dalrymple and Tarlo. The eighteenth century is of particular significance to me as men’s dress within Europe and America during this period became tailored in a specific way and there was an adherence to societal norms and conventions. J.C. Flugel, in ‘Psychology of Clothes’ (1969), discusses the reduction of the sartorial decorativeness for men during the eighteenth century. He states that men essentially gave up brighter and elaborate forms of ornaments used in dress (Flugel, 1969). Flugel argues that the French Revolution and the social upheaval that followed were significant factors that contributed towards the simplification of men’s dress in the late eighteenth century (Flugel, 1969).

Keeping Flugel’s theory in mind then, how do the officials of the East India Company adjust to their new Indian attire, particularly in terms of colour as well as the flowing nature of Indian robes? The aim of this project would be investigate the cases where British officials in India adopted Indian dress in the late eighteenth century. The time period of the late eighteenth century has been selected because it represents a crucial juncture in colonial history; this is the period where the first signs of demarcation between ruler and subject begin to emerge within the policies of the East India Company. However, at the same time this period also represents the cultural interaction between the colonial rulers and their subjects and the adoption of Indian dress is significant to this process. The objectives of the project would be to investigate the nuances of this process of adopting a different culture against the backdrop of the expansion of the colonial state. In the course of the research for this project, I would like to find as many cases of British officials adopting Indian dress in India and try and identify if there were common traits amongst the officials who adopted Indian dress. Or, was every case unique? If so, what were the reasons for these men to give up their ‘native’ clothing?


Thomas Daniell, Sir Charles Warre Malet, Concluding a Treaty in 1790 in Durbar with the Peshwa of the Maratha Empire, 1805, oil on canvas, © Tate, London 2011


One thought on “Dissertation Proposal : Adoption of Indian Dress

  1. Pingback: Featured Student : Ankita Chugh | [In]Tangible: Redressing Fashion

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