GBI

A speculative exploration of an Uninvaded India

10 April 2024 16:22

This is a theoretical thesis, imagining what Indian fashion could have looked like if the British hadn’t invaded the country. Indian fashion before the British Raj was sustainable and circular, as they would hand loom and weave the fabrics, and a part of this craft was lost during the British rule, writes Tishya Thomas.

Britain was India’s primary contact with the Western world, and the hypothesis of them not having invaded India is a huge influence to neglect. 

The British first came to India as the British East India Company in 1664. They ruled over India for over 200 years, from 1858 to 1947.

British rule led to the development of infrastructure in India and the spread of Western education and culture. 

This Western influence bled into fashion and clothing and began to affect how Indian people began to dress and behave.
Many Indians looked up to the British and wanted to look like them, and eventually, they began to imitate them by wearing western clothing. 

Indian fashion before the British Raj was sustainable and circular, as they would hand loom and weave the fabrics, and a part of this craft was lost during the British rule.

In India, the tradition of recycling and repurposing was common practice before the British Raj. Handing down clothing in the same form or repurposed was done from generation to generation. The industrial processes that were brought down to India early on through the British brought in the culture of accumulating new items instead of leveraging its longevity. 
To understand what Indian fashion could have looked like without British influence, we need to see what it looked like before the British. 

An important period in Indian fashion History is the Vedic era (1500 to 500 BC), where the first records of the Sari were found. The “Sari” is the iconic garment of India. It consists of meters of lightweight fabric, where one end forms a skirt and the other end covers the head or shoulders. 

An important fashion element in this era is that the breasts were exposed with these loosely draped, unstitched garments. Sari’s and other garments were worn without anything covering the upper half of a woman. This was normalized due to the warm weather conditions. 

Unisex clothing was common, and this era was the start of the introduction of gold embellishments and embroidery. 

The Mughal Empire (16th to 18th century) was a grand empire in Indian history. Regarding fashion, it was the era where Muslim and Hindu fashion blended together. Wealthy people wore heavy embroidered tunics and saris to showcase their wealth. 
Royals introduced the Lehenga choli - a three-piece attire consisting of a long flared skirt, an ethnic crop top, and a dupatta [a long shawl-like scarf worn to cover the head and shoulders]. 

Moreover, textiles flourished in this era, all kinds of prints and embroideries came from this era and therefore this made trade very popular during this era. One of the countries that the Mughals traded with were the Persian countries. As these countries were India’s closest contact with the external world, the clothing during this era was heavily influenced by Persian fashion. 

British influence on Indian fashion 

One of the biggest changes that the British implemented into Indian fashion, is the blouse and petticoat underneath the sari. They deemed the Indian way of wearing the sari without anything covering the breasts as inappropriate and implemented a more “modest” way of wearing the garment.

Men began to transition from wearing traditional tunics to wearing suits, shirts, and trousers.

Additionally, the Indian public would purchase British factory-made trousers more often as these clothing eventually became cheaper than hand-spun Indian garments. 

The British influenced the creation of the Sherwani - it's a blend of the Indian garment, the Kurtha (long tunic), and a British frock coat. The British introduced buttons and other hardware into Indian fashion through this garment. 
Indian people of the high class would wear it to look like the British. It consisted of High collars, Shoulder pads, and buttons, all elements that were never used in Indian fashion before. 

The Sherwani was adapted to not immediately imitate the way the British dressed, as the British didn’t like it when Indians dressed the same as them. 

Indian textiles were anglicized as well, and Indian patterns and motifs switched to more Victorian motifs.
 

The Indian textile industry took a bad hit when the British colonized India

Prior to the British Raj, India was the largest producer and exporter of raw, high-quality cotton. India’s success in this market is due to the skilled artisans who carefully created their crafts and honed their skills everyday. 

On the other hand, the British textile industry struggled in the market due to a large amount of competition from Indian suppliers and exporters, before they colonized India. 

Once the Industrial Revolution hit Britain in the 18th century, production-wise, they began to have the upper hand to the Indian textile industry. 

Once the British gained superiority and power over India, they began exporting machine-made yarn and fabrics into India. The British textile industry proliferated in India but gravely diminished India’s textile industry in its own country due to them undercutting the costs of Indian fabrics by imposing tariffs on Indian fabric and encouraging the exports of their own low-cost fabrics.

These machine-made fabrics began to replace almost all Indian-made cloth, leading to mass unemployment and poverty for Indian weavers and spinners.

Before the British Raj, India produced 25% of the world’s textiles, and towards the end of their rule, it dropped to 2%.

Central Asian and Persian countries would have influenced Indian more without the Raj

What Indian fashion would look like without the influence of the British Raj?

In the 19th century, before the British invaded India, there was a lot of trade between India and countries like Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. These nations undoubtedly were the First to influence Indian fashion, and this is evident through the heavy Persian influence in Mughal fashion. Without the British's influence, the countries trading with India, like the Central Asian and Persian countries, would have had a heavier impact on Indian fashion.

Furthermore, the British brought with them several rules regarding the levels of modesty in Indian fashion. Without the British, the sari would have been worn without heavy blouses and would have been more lightweight and sheer. Or, in my opinion, the ‘Pallu’, or the end of the sari, would have been draped over the upper body of a woman, similarly to how they would drape it around their waists. The sari would have had numerous ways to drape it far sooner than it does today, and this could have given the sari more time to evolve.

Indians additionally would dress up for the weather, and the implementation of heavy British wear led to Indians wearing clothing unsuited for them and the weather. Without the British, the natural loose clothing would have been more popular for a longer time and more suitable for the hot weather.

India’s textile industry would have boomed without the British influence. In theory, without the British Raj, the Indian textile industry would have grown to be one of the largest in the world. This hypothesis was made because India was one of the leading exporters of textiles before the British Raj. Until 1750, India produced about 25% of the world’s industrial output.

Traditional indigenous Indian weaving and textile creation processes would not have been lost and would have been a more sustainable way of creating garments in the long run. Hand weaving and looming would have been a more critical and standard method of creating quality sustainable fabrics. 

However, while the British presence introduced Western fashion to India, it is crucial to remember that India has had a long history of cultural resistance and preservation.

Without the influence of the British, there would have likely been resistance to adopting Western clothing styles. Instead, elements from other cultures may have been selectively incorporated into Indian fashion, like what happened with the Persian and central Asian countries.

Despite it all, Indian people still wear traditional Indian wear. However, a large population has moved to wear Western styles. Indians with high status or with more financial capacity do not necessarily wear it often, but only during special occasions like weddings or festivals.

Indian menswear without the influence of the British would be very similar to the Mughal attire, where they could have worn long-sleeved, embroidered tunics with long, baggy pants underneath them, made from a breathable, light material like muslin, cotton, or silk.

Garments such as dhoti, kurta, sherwani, angarkha, and various turban styles would likely have continued to evolve and diversify based on regional and cultural preferences. These garments could have had more diverse patterns, colors, and designs reflecting local craftsmanship. 

India is a country that is so large and diverse that the different regions would have had various influences on garments. Without the British colonisation, these regional variations would likely persisted and flourished, leading to a more diverse range of menswear styles across the subcontinent. This is also due to the fact that menswear was primarily impacted and anglicized by the British Raj.

Modernization and digitalization bring cultures closer to each other

Despite the British invading India, the modernization and digitalization of the world brought nations and cultures closer together over time. This would have eventually brought over western styles and it would have infiltrated Indian fashion. 

Most Asian countries, like Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan, especially those not colonized, primarily wear Western clothing as opposed to their traditional indigenous styles. The digital age has made communication and the transfer of information very accessible, and Asian countries automatically became Westernized, and not only with regard to fashion.

It is important to remember that this thesis is based on theoretical work and that the British did colonize India. This thesis is just a deduction and explains the possibilities of the type of fashion that could have emerged without their influence.

Indian fashion today has majorly affected and influenced Western fashion trends. Indian embroidery is of the highest quality, and Indian textiles are frequently used in Western fashion. Several Indian garments, like the sari, the shawl, and the ‘Banyan’ (an Indian nightgown), have been an integral part of and an inspiration for Western fashion.

 

Tishya Thomas is a recent graduate from Istituto Marangoni, Milan, in Fashion Design and Accessories. She currently lives in Milan and is keen to pursue her career in organizations focussed on circular and sustainable fashion leveraging her Indian origins blended with western education and exposure to look at and develop design to create an impact on global circularity driven fashion. She can be contacted at tishyathomas@gmail.com or LinkedIn.

Previous newsletters