Blog Details

28 Aug

How the British Raj has influenced the way Indian women dress

There are erogenous zones in every country. Many Indians today believe that decorum and modesty are indigenous to the country, yet they are British imports passed down from the Raj.

The oldest depictions of women show them wearing very little clothing.


Men and women wore rectangular pieces of fabric on the bottom portion of the body and one on the upper part of the body in sculptures from the Maury and Sunga periods (about 300 BC). It isn't much else.


Stitched upper clothing with a breast band and a lower garment can be seen in Gupta images from the 7th or 8th century.



Modesty has had several definitions throughout history and in various countries and societies. It wasn't always about hiding your face and body, and India's scorching heat paved the way in many ways. People did what was convenient for them.

The regional differences, on the other hand, are fascinating. Even during colonial times in southern India, some women did not cover their full bodies. And as India's history of contact with foreign cultures progressed, trends and ideas began to shift, with Greek, Roman, Arab, and Chinese influences influencing the country.


The influence of the Mughal empire was crucial - they dominated most of India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th centuries - and we witness Muslim and Hindu ladies wearing different clothes in the 15th century. Although Muslim women typically cover their heads and wear separate robes, I haven't noticed any written dress regulations. These clothes gave birth to garments like the salwar kameez, now considered India's national wear.



Some Bengali ladies did not wear blouses under their saris during the Victorian era; instead, they went bare-breasted. This did not sit well with Victorian society, which had its notions of propriety, and blouses grew more common.

After she was reportedly refused entry to clubs under the Raj for wearing the sari fabric over her bare breasts, Jnanadanandini Debi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore - brother of the famous Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore - popularised the blouses, jackets, and chemises, as well as the modern style of the sari today. Tagore is said to have encouraged his wife to embrace Western ideas.


During the Victorian era, the English phrases "blouse" and "petticoat" made their way into Indian slang. Shirts became fashionable to wear under the sari, and these fairly British innovations are now considered traditional clothes.



The sari blouse has long been regarded as proper and connected with tradition, even though it can be revealing due to the crop top's bare midriff. It was traditional in India for a lady to cover her body with a draped fabric, regardless of what was underneath.

With time, the British influence grew even greater. We're seeing a lot of different types of blouses with varying sleeve structures and necklines.


Unlike Great Britain, India has no written codes of behaviour or sumptuary regulations governing what should be worn. Word of mouth was used to spread what was deemed appropriate.


So today's hemline guards, who undoubtedly believe they are protecting women by dictating what they should wear, are following previous political tyrants' footsteps.


Even though Indian women are now far freer to do whatever they want, at least in cities, we still witness dress rules being established and women being chastised for what they wear. Some people even associate clothing with rape.


These folks don't realize that standards of decency are continuously evolving and that rape results from how certain men think rather than what women wear.



Our clothing is a reflection of who we are. However, what we think of as traditional Indian modesty may be everything but.