British Influence on Indian Attire

From the mid-eighteenth century up to 1947, most of India was either directly ruled or indirectly controlled by the British. During this period of approximately two hundred years, Western influence pervaded all aspects of Indian society and culture. Indians were exposed to a new language, new types of food, new lifestyles, such as sitting on chairs, eating at dining tables and socialising at clubs. Inevitably, the influence crept into their ways of dressing and was visible not only in the adoption of Western wear by Indians, but also in the Westernization of Indian clothes.

The Achkan and the Sherwani

My father used to wear an achkan every day, and I thought of it as a very Indian dress. He generally wore it with a tight-fitted churidar pyjama, which was not easy to take off, and as children, my sisters and I were given the task of helping him to get out of it. Later, seeing my husband wear an achkan on official occasions, my belief that it was indeed an Indian garment was reinforced. However, I did not realize that it—as well as the sherwani—had evolved gradually as a result of many years of British rule, and both garments incorporated English as well as Indian elements. Though they look similar, the sherwani is slightly flared and longer than achkan. Today, it is common for the terms achkan and sherwani to be used interchangeably. I have used achkan as a common term for both.

Earlier writers like Watson (1866) and Baden Powell (1872) do not mention these garments at all. Nor is any information provided by most district gazetteers of the late nineteenth century. Both garments emerged around the late nineteenth century and became popular by the early twentieth century throughout India; there are some paintings and photographs of this period where men are depicted wearing achkans. Men of all religions wore them as daily as well as formal wear—only the material could vary, from the very ornate, to that of a simple, dark colour of an English suit. Historian and writer Abdul Halim Sharar has traced the achkan’s development in a series of articles written 1913 onwards for the Urdu journal Dil Gudaz, published from Lucknow. According to him, the achkan first evolved in the north, taking both European as well as Indian elements. Indian garments, like the chapkan (long outer garment) and angarkha, were, perhaps, the source from where certain features, like the achkan’s length, were derived. Specifically, Sharar attributes the achkan to Lucknow, and the sherwani to Hyderabad in South India.

The achkan that finally developed was long, with a front opening that fastened with buttons. The latter element is directly derived from European garments. A vertical row of buttons had become a feature of the Western dress from the seventeenth century onwards, and by the eighteenth century, both the coat and the waistcoat had a row of buttons. Initially, these were more decorative than functional, but by the early eighteenth century, the front edges of the coat had buttons, as well as button holes, which made them functional. European-style buttons arrived in India by the early twentieth century.

One can discern from a comparison of Indian maharajas and British officers depicted in nineteenth-century paintings that the garments of the former are relatively loose, and those of the latter have a slimmer fit.

Under Western influence, men’s clothes in India became slimmer and well-fitted, and the achkan was a fitted garment like the English coat, from which it took many elements.

Not only was this evident from the cut of the achkan’s sleeves, but also from the manner of wearing a white, English-style shirt underneath, with its edges peeping out at the achkan’s collar and sleeves. Other European elements adopted by the achkan were darts, slit pockets on both sides of the chest, and inner pockets. In line with English tailoring norms, the armholes were shaped to give a more comfortable fit. In some later-period achkans, shoulder pads, like those in English suits, were added. The achkan had high stand- up collars. In two paintings (p. 35), Lord Auckland (1838) and Lord Dalhousie (1850) are shown wearing a typical European coat with a high collar. This collar was adopted by the achkan and the sherwani—and even the kurta— and it came to be known in Hindustani as the bandgala (closed-neck). A shorter coat, in the style of the achkan, came to be known as the bandgala coat. Generally, the bandgala coat was complemented with trousers, though sometimes it was also worn with breeches. It had a close resemblance to the British officers’ high-necked coat.

The fabric used for both garments varied from time to time. Initially, the fabrics were similar to those used for chogas: khinkhab (a kind of brocade), silk, velvet, etc. At times, achkans were embroidered with metallic thread. In some cases European brocades were also used. There are many photographs and paintings of Punjabi maharajas and men from other wealthy families wearing achkans. At times, cummerbunds are worn over them. By the time India gained independence, achkans were being worn widely, mostly with no ornamentation, and in dark, drab colours. Both the achkan and the bandgala coat, worn with trousers, were adopted as a formal dress in India, and continue to be worn by officials for formal functions even today.

Sari, Petticoat and Blouse

When I was growing up in Lutyens’ Delhi, I always admired women in saris with pretty blouses, which some of them carried with a lot of grace. Everyone, including the dhobi, the tailor and the maids, used the terms ‘petticoat’ and ‘blouse’. I often wondered whether there were Indian names for the blouse and the petticoat. How is it that these names came into common usage in India? The answer is that it is a hangover from the Raj. In fact, the very names clearly indicate the European origin of the garments.

Europeans who came to India in the nineteenth century found the sari to be a single piece of garment covering the body. For example, this was observed by Fanny Parker when she visited Bengal in the 1820s. In 1866, J. Forbes Watson, in his report ‘The Textile Manufactures and the Costumes of the People of India’, describes the sari as a single piece of cloth ‘that envelops the body and acts as a covering for the head’. However, he also mentions that, occasionally, it is worn with a petticoat. Perhaps the use of the petticoat, initially by upper- class Indian ladies, started around this time, taking inspiration from the layers of petticoats worn by European ladies, in the style prevalent in Europe. Watson also indicates that the petticoat was, at that time, not regarded as a legitimate garment by many, and perhaps not accepted by orthodox women, who would remove it while eating, cooking or praying. Women would then wear only the under wrapper, which was an unstitched garment. Wearing a choli (a short garment, just covering the breasts, generally tied with strings at the back) had its own norms, which varied over time and places. Watson notes that women, in certain parts of India, left their bosoms uncovered, as they believed covering it was for the impure only. In southern India, women of some castes did not wear anything above their waist, and it was only under the influence of Christian missionaries that they started doing so. In Travancore, in 1858, riots erupted in protest against women breaking away from the age- old tradition of keeping their bosoms uncovered and adopting the newer form of dressing.

Blouses for the saris evolved, drawing inspiration from European women’s dresses of the 1860s. The upper parts of women’s dresses were form fitting, and many women either wore separate blouses with skirts or a single-piece dress.

The form-fitting blouses had fasteners (buttons or hooks), either at the back, or in front. Shaping the bodice required skill on the part of tailors, through the incorporation of darts, curved seams as well as effective fasteners.

The way the sari is tied today evolved from the manner in which women dressed in Bengal: their saris were made of thin muslin, and were therefore quite transparent. This prevented the women from coming out of their houses. A new way of tying the sari emerged, and most writers attribute it to Satyendranath Tagore’s (brother of Rabindranath Tagore) wife, Jnanadanandini Devi. Satyendranath was the first Indian member of the Indian Civil Service, and, probably needed to interact socially with his European bosses. Rabindranath wrote (Visva-Bharati Quarterly, 1940) about how his sister-in-law had first introduced the new style of tying a sari, so that it was suitable to wear for outings and functions. He also indicated that it took some time before more women adopted the new. Once, when her husband was indisposed, Jnanadanandini had gone to the Viceroy’s reception in Kolkata, probably in 1867 or 1868, and although her dress is not mentioned, it would be safe to conclude that she had done so wearing the sari in the new style.

By the 1920s, the new way of tying the sari had become so popular that it overtook the older way, which had, by now, almost disappeared, except in some regions—and with older women, who were not open to the change. The new style had women wearing tailored blouses, like the European blouses, and petticoats. It became a uniform style for women throughout India, including, of course, in Punjab, for women from the upper classes, irrespective of religion. Many photographs are representative of this fact. However, in the villages of Punjab, wearing saris was not the norm even when I got married in the 1970s and went to my husband’s village in Hoshiarpur. In fact, anybody wearing a sari was considered as being ‘too forward’. Even today, the sari is not a popular dress in rural Punjab.

The style of wearing a sari is now standard throughout India, except for some relatively minor regional variations.

Excerpted with permission from Influences of the British Raj on the Attire and Textiles of Punjab by Jasvinder Kaur and published by Rupa Publications. You can buy the book here.