The British in colonial India were obsessed with rank and status. The divide between the British and Indians was pronounced, but so too were the differences between classes of white people. A strict pecking order influenced every aspect of colonial life. It decided which club, if any, you could join, and which set you belonged to. An official ‘Warrant of Precedence’ determined where you sat at dinner parties, and outrage was caused if someone of slightly lower social standing was allotted a place above his or her superiors at the table. The observance of this kind of excruciating social snobbery lasted well into the twentieth century, and, ironically, what were thought of as standard rules of British etiquette, were preserved in India long after they had vanished at home.
In India, as elsewhere, fashion and clothing were important ways of expressing status and underlining social divisions. When they first began to extend their power in South Asia, it was acceptable, even encouraged, for British men to adopt Indian dress and lifestyles. The nabobs, the British merchant-adventurers associated with the East India Company, dressed in loose Indian clothes, ate local foods, smoked hookahs, and took Indian wives and mistresses.
From the mid-nineteenth century, this began to change. Following the 1857 Indian Mutiny, alternatively known as India’s First War of Independence, the British stressed that their right to rule lay in their racial superiority. They therefore emphasised their difference from the Indians, and jettisoned Indian friends, mistresses and local lifestyles. The figure of the ‘sahib’ replaced the Indianised nabob. The sahib was a stiff upper lipped, British gentleman, ideally an official in the Indian Civil Service, who wore British style clothes – suits, hunting outfits and, later, the ubiquitous white flannels of British men in India.
British women began to join their menfolk in India around this time, and the inventory of clothing they had to wear is horrifying. Even in the heat of the north Indian plains or the steam bath of monsoon Bengal, they were required to adhere to British Victorian standards of dress, as well as wearing clothes that protected them from pestilence and the taint of India. They wore acres of fabric, often heavy flannel, and were swaddled in corsets, wool cholera belts and stockings. Indeed, British women in India didn’t give up wearing stockings until they were forced to do so by shortages during the Second World War.
If British clothing served to separate the British from the Indians, it also served to divide the British from themselves. White elites in India wore clothes from ‘Home’. In the first half of the twentieth century, fashionable white women in India kept up with trends in London, and they looked down on poorer whites who were seen to be sporting out-of-date styles. Whether it was people, clothes, or food, everything linked with home was considered better.
Less affluent whites, including many domiciled Anglo-Indians – that is white families who lived in India generation after generation – often wore clothes made by darzi wallahs – local tailors. This was considered a clear sign of lower status. In EDEN GARDENS, girls from the ‘Fishing Fleet,’ the well-to-do young British women who went out to India during the cold season in the hope of finding a husband, ridicule Maisy, a poor, Indian-born white girl, because she wears a dress made by a darzi who has copied an old fashioned style.
Many mixed-race families of Indian and white ancestry wore British clothes to stress their affinity with the colonial rulers, and to mark their superiority over Indians. These people, who were known by the derogatory term, ‘Eurasian,’ until comparatively recently, bought locally made clothes, indistinguishable from those bought by poor whites. The constant efforts of mixed race people to aspire to white status, and the concern of poor whites not to fall down the social hierarchy and be lumped together with ‘Eurasians,’ was complicated by the fact they often wore the same outward signs of status. Their clothing blurred racial and status lines, and, in the eyes of those people who were newly arrived from Home, both poor whites and ‘Eurasians’ looked cheap and comically old fashioned.
The sola topi, the sun helmet, is one of the most enduring symbols of British rule in India. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it became a part of the uniform of British men in the subcontinent. It is a large helmet made from the pith of the sola plant, and is lightweight and supposed to provide protection against sunstroke. For everyday use, a topi coved in khaki fabric was essential, and white topis were also worn, especially for more formal events. During the hot weather, topis were worn from sunup to sundown. In the 1930s, however, the topi began to fall out of fashion, and the love affair was over in the 1940s. This was partly because it was such a potent symbol of colonial rule at a time when the British were encountering severe pressure from Indian nationalists, partly because it was adopted by mixed race men, and therefore lost its association with high rank and authentic ‘Britishness,’ and partly because the taking of salt tablets by troops in Burma during the war showed that the topi was not necessary in the fight again sunstroke.
Interestingly, after the First World War, the followers of Gandhi also began to wear their own very potent icon of Indian nationalism; a cap made of khadi. This rough, homespun cloth was itself a symbol of the campaign for Indian independence, and its production was a response to the British, whose own cotton manufacturing and unfair export practices had decimated the Indian textile industry.
As someone who struggles with the heat of India and has a fair skinned person’s aversion to the sun, I cannot imagine how British people at the height of the British Raj in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coped with the restrictions of their clothing. They adopted some Indian habits that must have helped – habits like bathing, hair washing, and the frequent changing of clothes, which were novelties at home. Even so, it is a measure of how important clothes were to the maintenance of colonial hierarchy, and the perpetuation of British prestige, that image and style always triumphed over comfort and practicality.
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Image credit: Two British ladies in early 20th century India, Images of Empire/Universal Images Group via Getty Images