Search
Close this search box.

The Sartorial Power Play and Politics

Though not in deliberate imitation, the new clothes advocated by the dress reformers were much similar to that of men’s more user-friendly and comfortable pants-like
sartorial power play and politics
Bookmark (0)

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Western world did not think of their socialites wearing any clothes other than dresses composed of tight corsets, layers of petticoats, long skirts, bonnets and coats. Things began to change in the 1850s with the emergence of the Victorian dress reform movement, also called the rational dress movement under the leadership of different women dress reformers. These women proponents of the movement advocated, designed, and wore more practical and comfortable dresses which they referred to as the ‘rational dress’ than those of their time.

Women’s conventional clothing helped the guardians of the Western patriarchal society to exert control over women’s bodies and maintain gender hierarchies. For example, historically, sartorial art related to women’s dresses has been associated with notions of femininity, appropriate feminine behaviour and social identity. Insistence on dresses, namely, corsets and skirts, therefore, becomes an attempt to control women’s bodies, appearance, conduct, gender and social identity. The fashion, design, manufacture, promotion and marketing of women’s dresses were controlled by men, the power centres in society. It is they who defined and set ideals and standards of beauty, femininity and propriety. Those ideals and standards invariably reinforced male superiority and dominance in society.

An advertisement of the Warner Bros Corset Company from late 19th century.

The prevailing women’s dresses were primarily concerned and obsessed with shaping and defining women’s bodies according to patriarchal expectations and standards. This concern and obsession with the elaborate, cumbersome and restrictive clothing resulted in limiting women’s movements and freedom, which in turn reinforced traditional gender roles as well as societal control over them. Cleverly engineered sartorial power play and politics, what else? The nineteenth-century dress reformers, therefore, argued that conventional women’s clothing was a stumbling block to women’s full participation in the affairs of society. 

Though not in deliberate imitation, the new clothes advocated by the dress reformers were much similar to that of men’s more user-friendly and comfortable pants-like dresses. For practical reasons, during both World Wars, many women took to pants as they began doing jobs that were traditionally done by men. Though many women continued to wear pants after the Wars, traditional women’s dresses continued to rule the realm of women’s attires almost until the emergence of the women’s rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. With the women’s rights movement, pants became the most favoured dress by women in the West. 

However, conservative sections of Western society ridiculed women’s rational style of dress and looked upon their wearing pants as a grave danger to their society. They contended that the new developments would obliterate gender differences, break down traditional family values and bring about social and moral chaos. Pants-wearing women, they reasoned, would not only question the conventional male authority but also turn out to be wild, immodest and promiscuous with no one to marry them. 

Women in trousers in 1916.

With increasing globalisation and cultural exchange, during the last few decades, people all over the world have been adopting Western dress habits and styles which have become a symbol of modernity, progress, and affluence. However, some people tend to look upon Western dress as a threat to traditional dress habits and styles that are important aspects of preserving cultural identity and heritage. They think that the trend of embracing the Western style of dressing may lead to the erosion of their long-cherished customs and traditions and culture. 

A single bench of the Madras High Court in 2015 ordered temple authorities in Tamil Nadu not to allow people in Western clothes – jeans, shorts, skirts, short-sleeves and tight leggings – to enter the temples in the state from 1 January 2016 as these clothes are seen supposedly as inappropriate to worship in temples. Men in dhoti, pyjamas, shirts, and kurtas and women in sarees, half sarees, blouses, churidars and upper clothes were permitted entry. However, in 2016 a division bench of the Madras High Court stayed the order. 

In 2022, hearing a petition that only people who believe in Sanatana Dharma be allowed to enter Hindu temples in order to prevent people of other faiths from entering the temple, the Madras High Court said that certain forces in the country are raising controversies relating to dress codes and it is spreading all over India. Expressing concern over this growing disharmony caused by such controversy, the Court asked, “What is paramount? The country or the religion?” The Court went on to express its concern by saying, “It is shocking that somebody is going behind a hijab and somebody is going behind a dhoti.” As the same petitioner requested the Court for an order enforcing a dress code in temples across the state of Tamil Nadu, the Court asked the petitioner to produce evidence for his demand specifying where in the Agamas (theological treatises and practical manuals of divine worship) does one find reference to pants, dhotis and shirts. The statements and the questions of the Court were in condemnation of the manipulation of religion, worship, and sartorial practices for vested interests, be it for power and control over others, economic advantage, or political mileage. 

A single bench of the Madras High Court in 2015 ordered temple authorities in Tamil Nadu not to allow people in Western clothes – jeans, shorts, skirts, short-sleeves and tight leggings – to enter the temples in the state from 1 January 2016 as these clothes are seen supposedly as inappropriate to worship in temples. Men in dhoti, pyjamas, shirts, and kurtas and women in sarees, half sarees, blouses, churidars and upper clothes were permitted entry. However, in 2016 a division bench of the Madras High Court stayed the order.

As long as there are efficient manipulators, there are enough people who are willing to be manipulated. No wonder, when the seventeen-year-old Neha Paswan in the Deoria district of Uttar Pradesh decided to wear jeans and tops against her elders’ wishes in 2021, some men of her family killed her and hung her body from a bridge. Obviously, they were trying to save their version of their sacrosanct tradition and cultural heritage from the supposed decadent Western influence. No wonder the twenty-two-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in police custody under questionable circumstances in 2022 a few days after she was arrested in Tehran by the Iranian moral police for violating hijab laws. The world is not a stranger to such misguided instances. 

Protest against hijab in Iran in September 2022

It is unfortunate that even in the twenty-first century, in many parts of the world, people are not permitted either to wear clothes of their preference or not to wear clothes that are not of their preference. And if they do not abide by these rules they could be in serious trouble, and what is worse, they could get killed. The most dangerous side of sartorial power play and politics indeed! Some countries and cultures are notorious for such extremes in their sartorial obsessions. 

Imagine a situation where one has to obtain permission to cover one’s body parts and one’s nakedness by paying a fee. It is rather inconceivable. Perhaps there could be nothing more absurd and inconceivable than such a situation. And yet, such situations and times did exist in India. Levying of mulakkaram (breast tax) was such an absurd scenario that existed in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore in India during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Girls and women from the supposedly polluting casts (Ezhavas, Nadars, and Parayas known today collectively as Dalits) in the state were not permitted to cover their breasts. They had to pay a tax for the right to cover their breasts. 

The breast tax was only one among the various bizarre taxes that women of the polluting castes had to pay. Travancore’s kings ensured the subjugation of the Dalit community by imposing numerous preposterous taxes on them. While these taxes kept the Dalits in the state eternally in debt, poverty and in subjugation, they kept the upper caste people bourgeoning. Thalakkaram (the head tax – tax for the right to have one’s head not cut down), meeshakkaram (moustache tax – tax for the right to keep a moustache, thirumudi-kettu karam (turban tax – tax for the right to wear a turban or other headgear which was the privilege usually upper-caste) were some of such absurd taxes. 

Woman from Kerala in early 1900s. Photograph Sunil Janah.

Under the facade of maintaining social hierarchy and harmony, Dalit women were forbidden from covering their breasts. Starting from the early stages of the development of their breasts, all girls and women from the Dalit community in the state had to get permission from the king against a fee if they wanted to cover their breasts in public. The rate of tax depended on the size and shape of the breasts as measured and recorded by the king’s taxmen. Every month, the taxmen would visit the families of girls who began developing breasts and women who covered their breasts. 

Legend has it that one day, the king’s taxmen came knocking at the door of Nangeli, an Ezhava woman who lived in the early nineteenth century at Cherthala in Alappuzha, a coastal village which is part of the present Indian state of Kerala. They asked Nangeli to pay her pending breast tax. Within herself, Nangeli had been questioning the veracity of this outrageous and discriminatory breast tax which made no sense to her. Since she had decided not to bow down to this abominable practice anymore, she refused to uncover her breasts as well as pay the tax. In refusing to pay the tax, she was defending her right to cover her breast for which she would neither seek anyone’s permission nor pay any fees. She was also defending her right to her own body. She was asserting her identity, individuality and integrity as a person. 

As per one version of the story, one day in 1803, as the taxmen kept insisting on the payment of her share of the breast tax, she went inside her house, cut off her breasts and handed them over to the taxmen at her door in a plantain leaf. Nangeli bled to her death. As per another version, as she refused to pay the tax, the taxmen informed the case of the recalcitrant Nangeli to other taxmen who barged into her house, raped her and cut her breast off and took them to the king in place of the tax money. Nangeli died a dreadful death. Owing to his wife’s death and in protest of the breast tax, her husband, Chirukandan, jumped into her pyre and committed suicide. The place where Nangeli lived and died later came to be known as Mulachiparambu (meaning land of the breasted woman). The place now is known as Manorama Kavala in Cherthala in the state of Kerala.

Brahmin family from Kerala in 1902.

As the horror of the Nangeli episode spread across the kingdom, fearing an uprising of Dalits, the main source of his tax, King Sreemolam Thirunal of Travancore, revoked the breast tax with immediate effect. However, even after the revocation of the breast tax, in practice, Dalit women were not allowed to cover their breasts. 

Men covering their chests and women covering their breasts became a mark of modesty in Travancore and present-day Kerala only after the arrival of Christianity. Until 1860, even upper-caste women including queens did not cover their breasts. They wore only a shoulder cloth, a mark of their superior social status. No immodesty or shame was attached to people not covering their torso or breasts. 

By the eighteenth century, when clothing, especially, upper clothing became a symbol of social status, upper-caste people began covering their chests. Since Dalits were not entitled to the same social status as that of the uppercase people, they were not permitted to adorn themselves with this new marker of social status, clothing on their torso. A similar situation existed in Medieval Europe. Under the Sumptuary laws (regulating the clothing and appearance of individuals based on their social status) prevalent in many parts of Europe between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, commoners were not allowed to dress like nobility and aristocracy. For example, commoners were not allowed to use expensive fabrics such as silk, velvet, and furs used by the nobility and aristocracy. They had to use garments made of wool or linen. While Sumptuary laws controlled economic excesses, they prevented upward mobility, they protected social hierarchy. Starting with ancient Greece and Rome sumptuary laws existed in different parts of the world in varying forms throughout history. 

Women in Hassan, Karnataka in early 20th century.

Dalits were expected to remain bare-chested, especially while appearing before people belonging to higher castes such as Vellalars, Nairs and Nambudiris (the Malayali Brahmins). Vellalars and Nairs who were lower than Brahmins were not permitted to cover their chests while appearing before the latter. Nambudiris remained bare-chested before a deity. Though women of the privileged higher castes, namely, Vellalars and Nairs, were expected to remain bare-breasted in the presence of Nambudiris, they were allowed to cover their breasts with a light upper cloth (a marker of social status, not modesty) while at home. Dalit women, on the other hand, were expected to remain bare-breasted in front of all and at all times. 

In the new context of the eighteenth century, Dalit women not being allowed to cover their breasts at all assumed a larger significance than Dalit men not being allowed to cover their chests. Besides, Dalit women being allowed to cover their breasts on payment of a fee made the situation not only discriminatory but also outrageous.  

A decade after the death of Nangeli, in 1813, Dalit women of the princely state of Travancore began the historical Channar Lahala (the Channar revolt), also called Maru Marakkal Samaram (Struggle for the Right to Cover Breasts). As a large number of Channars of members of a sub-caste of the Nadar community in Travancore embraced Christianity in order to escape the evils of the Hindu caste system in the nineteenth century, under the influence of their newfound social status, the women of the community demanded the right to cover their breasts. In 1813, Colonel Munro, the British Resident and Diwan of Travancore granted the Christian Channar women the right to cover their breasts. Again, in 1814, the government of Travancore issued orders granting Christian women the same right. The upper caste people rose in revolt tearing the upper clothes of the Christian women in public. This led to large-scale violence and insurgence.

A decade after the death of Nangeli, in 1813, Dalit women of the princely state of Travancore began the historical Channar Lahala (the Channar revolt), also called Maru Marakkal Samaram (Struggle for the Right to Cover Breasts). As a large number of Channars of members of a sub-caste of the Nadar community in Travancore embraced Christianity in order to escape the evils of the Hindu caste system in the nineteenth century, under the influence of their newfound social status, the women of the community demanded the right to cover their breasts.

Dalit women, both Christian and others together would carry on their struggle until 1859 when the king of Travancore would allow all women in his kingdom to cover their breasts. However, in “Phenomenalizing the Global: Women’s Movements in India, 1813-2000” Simi Malhotra argues the breast tax continued to exist in various forms until 1924 when it was abolished completely, and the maru marakkal movement would continue as late as 1952.  

While people in India many were fighting for their right to cover their bodies, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who once wore Western clothes – pants, a coat and a hat – discarded them all and adopted the loincloth (which covered his body only partly) for his attire, the attire of the poorest Indian peasant. Wearing this attire of the poorest Indian, against the English court etiquette, Gandhi attended the Round Table Conference at Buckingham Palace presided over by King George V. Gandhi was insistent that he would not wear any other clothes than his loincloth to meet the King and attend the meeting because a large number of his fellow Indians did not have the means to clothe themselves because of Britain. When he was asked if was wearing enough to meet the king, he had no compunction in answering, “The king had enough on for both of us” – a socio-economic and political statement that only Gandhi had the courage and credibility to make and a sartorial power play and politics that only Gandhi had the humanity to play. 

Sartorial art, over and above covering nakedness, fashion, and social status, is about power play and politics.  

Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Having pursued his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s College, he furthered his academic journey by obtaining a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Pune University, a Master of Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a PhD from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. In addition to his academic pursuits, he writes on a wide array of subjects encompassing literature, philosophy, religion, culture, cinema, politics, and the environment.

Weekly Newsletter

Enjoy our flagship newsletter as a digest delivered once a week.

By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement and Privacy Policy & Cookie Statement.

Read More

Subscribe to get newsletter and to save your bookmark