Europeanized saris: The aesthetics of clothing in women’s political activism in colonial India, 1890’s-1920’s

This paper explores the case of the few European women who on their arrival in India (1890s-1920s) abandoned the conventional Western dress for a costume whose elements reflected a reworking of elements borrowed from Indian culture. Women like Margaret Noble, Annie Besant or Madeleine Slade, well known for their political activism and sympathies for the Indian cause mirrored this phenomenon in different degrees. All three occupied a central place in nationalist politics from the beginning of the 20th century onward. Their choice of clothing has been entirely ignored till today although it is neither superficial nor anecdotal, particularly as they were prominent actors in the public sphere. And clothing practices, particularly in the colonial context represent an important stake, both for the British authorities and for the Indians. I will begin by examining these transformations from a subjective and an ethno-historical perspective: when and in what circumstances were these changes made? Can these changes in attire be attributed simply to personal taste or sometimes eccentric choices, a fashion statement at best, largely irrelevant to the conflicts between colonizer and colonized and the exercise of power? Are we instead to understand them as a form disguise or a kind of mimicry to be understood as “ethnomasquerade” (Kader Konuk, 2004)? How was their external appearance viewed by a colonial government, whose anxiety about maintaining distinctions between rulers and governed after 1857 made clothing conventions and colours favoured by the British community in India an imperative of imperial policy? On the other hand, how was it received by Indians, for whom clothes and colours were strong indicators of social roles and status, particularly codified for women? The paper analyzes such instances of behaviour as a specific form of intervention available to European women in a colonial situation. It investigates the impact of these practices particularly for Indian women at a moment when the latter’s position was a sensitive and emotive issue in nationalist politics.

Arundhati Virmani est Chargée de cours à l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Vieille Charité, Marseille). Elle est notamment l’auteure de : « Réflexions d’une hindoue convertie au christianisme : Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) et l’hindouisme », dans Daniel Tollet (dir.), La religion que j’ai quittée, Paris, Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2007, p. 277-290 ; « Roman de voyage, récit de voyage. L’Inde de Jules Verne, de Pierre Loti et d’Edward M. Forster », dans Alain Guillemain (éd.), A la recherche du meilleur des mondes. Littératures et sciences sociales, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, p. 209-224 ; « Contester l’Empire. Européennes au service de la nation indienne », dans Jacques Weber (éd.), Le monde créole. Peuplement, sociétés et condition humaine, XVIIe-XXe siècles. Mélanges offerts à Hubert Gerbeau éd. par Jacques Weber, Paris, Les Indes Savantes, 2004, p. 125-142.

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