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Posts tagged ‘history of dress’

24. The Contested Sari

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

The sari as national dress was contested across the early twentieth century as people imagined visions of postcolonial national futurity. Amongst Indian Muslims, many scholars have identified an Islamisation in dress reform from the late nineteenth century. National, religious, regional and transnational modalities ceded into dress debates within various Urdu periodicals read by cross-religious Urdu reading publics. Women’s magazines also discussed local and transnational shifts in conflicting identifications of a unifying mulki [national] or qaumi [community] dress. This comportment project emerged long before a separate nation for Muslims became a viable reality.[1] In 1927, an Ismat article entitled “Hamari Labaas” (Our Clothing) was written in response to a 1926 article on Muslim women’s clothing by male author, Mohammad Zafar. The disgruntled Hamshir Nalwar from South India contested Zafar’s assertion of the superiority of pajama dupatta [trousers and veil] over saris. According to Zafar, saris displayed the nakedness of the body. Nalwar, in contrast, states that Muslim women tie their saris in a different way to Brahmin (high-caste) women so that they remain identifiable from Hindus through wrapping techniques and supplementary clothing items such as jackets, sari corners [anchal] and skirts [lengha]. In doing so, she exalts southern regionality over religion in observing dress customs. This response questions the homogenous construction of a “qaumi Muslim labaas” [national Muslim dress] and reminds us of the distinct junctures of race and class between northern and southern India. Reformers discussing “qaumi Muslim labaas” variously cited Islamic sources of authority (Quran and the Sunnah), questioned the sari’s regional popularity in east Bengal and drew on localised connections across the Indian Ocean (Burma, Malaya and Jeddah) to argue that different Muslim communities had their own dress. Others looked beyond the distinction of saris and shalwars [trousers] to argue that dress was “qaumi” if it was comfortable, modest, simple, and economical [iqtisadi] and “pak saaf” [ritually pure and clean]. This simpler, purer choice was actually very similar to the gendered elements of dress reform advocated by Hindu reformers.

Image: Ravi Varma, “Woman holding a fan” (c.1895- 1900), this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas.


[1] The Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League in 1940 formally advocated the establishment of a separate homeland for Muslims.

Art in the Time of Coronavirus

By Zara Kesterton (@ZaraKesterton)

15 March 2020: we were beginning to realise just how much of an impact the coronavirus pandemic would have on all our lives. One of my friends messaged a group chat, ‘Now that we aren’t allowed to touch anything ever again does it spell the end of material culture? Is the new textual turn approaching?’ Read more

Fashion Gallery as Archive: Researching Dress History in Museums

By Zara Kesterton (@ZaraKesterton)

In recent years, it has become fashionable to talk of an ‘archival turn’ in history, in which the site of record-keeping has itself come under scrutiny.[1] At the same time, material history has risen to prominence as an intriguing counterpart or companion to the paper-trail left by written documents.[2] As someone who became fluent in the visual language of a museum long before I encountered academic history, I like to think of a fashion gallery as something that can be ‘read’ in similar ways to an archive, combining the perspectives of both historiographies.

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What Not to Wear: The Importance of Women’s Fashion in the Eighteenth Century and Today

By Matilda Embling

Women and fashion are often explicitly linked. One only has to consider the media coverage of the new Duchess of Sussex to uncover how frequently a woman’s identity is equated to, or even entirely subsumed by, the clothing she wears. In a recent Guardian article , the more conservative muted wardrobe she has opted for after her marriage was equated to the muting down of her opinionated, questioning personality.

This rhetoric is not new and has not been limited to public figures. In the letters of eighteenth-century women for example, descriptions of new female acquaintances are almost always accompanied by long reports of their dress. An East Anglian gentlewoman, Barbara Ward described a relative’s fiancé as ‘genteel and agreeable’ before immediately documenting her dress ‘the best cloths she has apeard in last sonday at church was blue and gold rich silk and black laced hood’.[i]

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Exposing the ‘Naked Man’: A 16th-century motif of cultural nudity

by Katy Bond

“Everyone’s way is made known through clothing” said Hans Weigel, author of a 1577 costume book of Nuremberg which illustrated the dress of a variety of nations.[i] In Renaissance Europe, it was expected that one’s countrymen would be identifiable through distinctive modes of dressing.

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Margaret F. Rosenthal and Ann Rosalind Jones, The Clothing of the Renaissance World (2008)

by Katy Bond 

When Cesare Vecellio published his celebrated book of world dress in 1590, the Earth’s horizons must have seemed to the Venetian artist, to be ever-expanding. First published under the title, ‘Degli habiti antichi et oderni di diverse parti del mondo’ (‘Of the clothing, ancient and modern, of diverse parts of the world’), his work claimed to offer its readers an encyclopaedic reference for the appearances and cultural habits of people the world over. Having been republished as a facsimile edition – with English translations – by Thames & Hudson in 2008, Vecellio’s invaluable research is now easily accessible to the historian interested in early modern clothing.

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