Clothing in India: A Nationalist Discourse

The concept of Nation as an imagined community was developed by Benedict Anderson in his remarkable work ‘Imagined Communities’ published in 1983. Anderson rejects the assumptions that nation is a natural or inevitable entity. He asserts that nation is a cultural construct and they have aroused a deep sentiment among the citizen of any nation. Nation holds remarkable power over any citizen and he defines nation as an imagined political community (Anderson 1983). The nation is imagined because even though in reality all the citizen of any country never meets physically yet they see themselves as a part of one political community. Also, despite the actual inequality and exploitation present in any nation, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship (Anderson 1983).

Clothing in India

Since Anderson describes nation as a cultural artefact, there must be set of ideas, clothing, language, ways of behaviour etc that can be persistent and is transmitted and materialised in certain social practices from one generation to another. This essay explores how the Indian Nation-State and its constituent are imagined and constructed specifically considering dress and clothing. Clothes are seen as a part of cultural politics through which the nation is actively produced. Clothes are linked to the larger history of the society particularly in case of India where clothing became an important symbol of the national movement. Although with time the way it is seen and its perception also changes which will be further discussed in the essay considering the contemporary times.

In the Indian context, Satish Deshpande in his work ‘Imagined Economies’ says that the British rule and exploitation in India helped to invoke the nationalist thought in the colonial world and in identifying that they belong to one national economy who were fragmented earlier (Deshpande 1993). Deshpande says that the collective recognition of the shared status as an exploited producer was being nurtured which later aided in the nationalist movement.

But India is a diverse country so how was it possible to bind the nation as a single entity? Nehru in his book ‘The Variety and Unity of India’ says that there is immense diversity in India in terms of culture, linguistic, race, geography etc but nevertheless the Indian people belong to one nation (Deshpande 1993). But Deshpande says that obtaining this is a political process. Therefore, the political leaders like Gandhi and Nehru did this by invoking the shared glories of the ancient civilization that guaranteed the one-ness and coherence of the concept of India (Deshpande 1993).

Coming back to the core idea of this essay, so how do the dress and clothing helped in bringing this idea of one-ness in India? Clothing is one of the important aspects of our cultural identity and over the years it has undergone considerable changes. Since, it gets impacted by the social, political, and economic circumstances (Miglani 2021). Indian Sartorial sensibilities have been influenced by Greeks, Mughals, Britishers etc. But it was the Britishers that had the significant influence in India. In the colonial period, although the Britishers had their own motive of monetary benefits they were successful in changing the ideals of proper dressing in India (Miglani 2021).

Britishers established themselves as superior in India and there was presence of White supremacy. Therefore, to combat this feeling of inferiority, the Indians started adopting British attire such as hats and suits. This is because clothes gave them a sense of empowerment especially to those that belonged to the lower castes. For example, in case of Baba Saheb Ambedkar who adopted western clothing since it was related with the sense of power to him (Miglani 2021). There are several drawings of Bengali artist Gagaindranath Tagore that captured the mocking of coat on the top and dhoti below. Also, another reason that Indians were adopting western clothes was also because those clothes were stitched and factory made and cheaper in comparison to local Indian clothes. Therefore, there were social as well as economic factors (Miglani 2021).

Another factor was noted by Deshpande in his work ‘Imagined Economies’ that commodities foreign made imported goods seemed to be more attractive and held more glamor than the local ones. According to Deshpande, the main goal of the Swadeshi Movement was to confront and tame down this glamour and mystique of western technology (Deshpande 1993). Cloth was one of the most important commodities that was the reason of the success of the Swadeshi movement in India. There were even political reasons behind choosing clothes as one of the important weapons for the Swadeshi movement because it touched the life of every Indian (Deshpande 1993). The Britishers regarded tradition as something backward and non-modern but nationalist on the other hand began celebrating the tradition as an idealized past that represented India’s cultural and spiritual evolution (Kawlra 2014).

Therefore, there was the immediate need to maintain the balance between tradition and the modernity. The base ideologies that helped in the smooth running of the Swadeshi Movement was the assimilation of the superior material culture of the West under the spiritual side of the Indian culture (Chatterjee 1991).Therefore, the focus was not only on the production but also how it is made. Clothes helped in creating visual uniformity. It was during this time that the plain white undecorated cloth, Khadi became the Indian national Dress. Gandhi was trying to create something that can actually bring people together. Khadi became one of that reason despite the fact that Indian textile tradition had always been extremely colourful.

It was only after the revival of Khadi by Gandhi that marked a great stage in the Indian national movement where Indians started to boycott the British clothes due to the feeling of nationalism. It was during this point that clothes become more than a symbolic identity. It was being attached with the feeling of nationalism and nationalistic identity. It was much more than bodily adornment and coverings. Clothes were seen as something that represented ideology and it was never seen before. Khadi was an important symbol because it represented the idea of self-reliance and self-rule. Hence, they became a political tool in the freedom struggle. (Miglani 2021).

However, the situation of Indian women was bit different than Indian men. Since, Indian man adopted the Western clothing earlier but Indian women were dressed in such way that represented the regional differences. However, with the call for independence, Sari became one of the significant factors that helped in creating pan-Indian national imagery that articulated the tradition (Kawlra 2014).since, women were seen as the keepers of the Indian tradition and was central to the nationalist narrative.

There were ideals of beauty and modesty that were associated with women and it was particularly adopted from the upper caste homes and was being attached to the nationalist appropriate image of women in India (Kawlra 2014). Hence, women bodies and sexuality were confined under the patriarchal norms that represented their cultured upbringings as well as feminine grace. For example, in several parts of India it was very necessary for the women to cover their breast with an upper cloth.

Partha Chatterjee in his work mentions about the spiritual domain that was part of the anti-colonial nationalism. Under this, the domain of family and the position of women underwent considerable changes particularly in case of the nationalist middle class (Chatterjee 1991). The new woman was seen as modern but also representing the signs of tradition. And sari was important in shaping of the modern Indian women who was educated and urbanized still supported traditional ideals and vales through her dressing in her mundane life.

The revival of sari can also be seen in Kalakshetra in Madras in the case of traditional dance forms of India such as Bharata Natyam through the contribution of Rukmini Arundale who helped in inventing new dance costume. Bharata Natyam was also being institutionalised as the classical dance form that was being represented both nationally as well as internationally and the costumes of the highly acclaimed individual imitated the dress of cultured and educated elite women which helped in diminishing the earlier ill reputation of the devadasis. (Kawlra 2014).

The printing press and cinema during the early twentieth century played an instrumental role in the popularization and spread of a national ideal of women and feminine beauty through sari which was based on the ‘tradition.’ The paintings of Raja Ravi Varma led to the creation of the Image of iconic Indian women who was seen as the marker of the national culture. Indian womanhood was defined under the ‘domestication of divinity’ (Kawlra 2014). The feminine images that were reflected in the painting of Varma were being taken from the Hindu mythic text. Although the mythic heroines in his painting were regionally discernible still, they became quite popular in representing the social and political values of a nation-in-the-making and a pan-Indian character was achieved (Kawlra 2014). Even calendars, magazines and films were also responsible for this feminized tradition as well as the nation.

In the nationalist discourse, the nation was imagined as the Bharat-Mata, a mother who inspires her sons that is citizens to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the nation. The draped saree of Mother India that was being represented as an unspecific ethnic identity and was the powerful representation of the nation that propagated the idea of abolishing the English mill made fabrics. Even her sari is the tri-coloured flag of the party that Gandhi was part of in the 1920s and it was this version which later became the Indian National Flag (Kawlra 2014). This image of Bharat Mata not only mediated between the tradition and modernity; it was also a powerful national symbol that united the citizens of India.

This is how dress and clothing was seen in the discourse of the nation building. But it is important to note that the nationalist strategies are responsible in shaping even the contemporary choices of the clothing of the Indian citizens despite the global influence in terms of fashion. There are several examples of Indian women who began adopting the stitched blouses and petticoat that were the marker of emancipation and progress. It was more unifying and was associated with the feeling of gentlewomen in the modern women. The inspiration was even drawn from the English Memsahibs for example fancy sari blouses with pleats, ruffles, etc and even sari draping was becoming more dress like (Kawlra 2014).

The new national dress was the result of the incorporation and specialization of the regional and local textile design that indicated the notion of the ‘Unity in Diversity.’ It led to the creation of the transnational dress which had the unifying aspect associated with it. An example can be seen from analysing the photograph of Jnanadanandini Debi who was the wife of Satyendra Nath Tagore. In that photograph she can be seen wearing a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse along with the silk sari. Her style of dressing represented the modern Indian woman, it was the mix of English, Muslim and Bengali. She draped the sari on the left which was the sign of progressive Parsi manner. Later that came to be known as the ‘Thakurbari Sari’ (Kawlra 2014) . Post-independence the concept of the Unity in Diversity can be seen by analysing the wardrobe the prime minister Indira Gandhi in the national as well as international stage. Since her collection of Saris included handloom saris from different parts of India and it acted as a patriotic symbolism that was attached to the indigenous culture.

Even in politics the role of clothing is very evident. Fashion and politics in India have always gone together. What people in position of power wears creates visual as well as psychological impact. It also dictates their ideology and is important for the integrity and image of the politicians (Dhar 2021). Clothes helps in creating an image that is needed to connect with the culture nationality and people.

An example can be seen in case of Annie Besant’s involvement of politics in India when she was the member of the Indian National Congress in 1917. For the public image she did her sartorial reworking that was based on the principles and cultures of the ‘East.’ In several photographs she can be seen wearing a sari with long sleeved shirt blouse (Kawlra 2014). Therefore, the style statement of any politician asserts their belief system.

Clothes are used as a tool of communication can be traced back from the era of Gandhi, who decided to wear dhoti and homespun unstitched upper piece of cloth. He advocated for the simple living through his choice of clothes and inspired the suppressed people all over the world. In contrast to him was Subhash Chandra Bose who chose to wear military uniform and his slogan was ‘Give me blood, I will give you freedom.’ One recent example can be seen in case of Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh who wore black shirts to the legislature to protest when Centre refused to give special category status in 2015 (Sinha 2019). Hence, the choice of clothes political leaders wear speaks out their message (Mukherjee 2022).

Nowadays, many politicians localised their outfit because that helps in building connection between the politician and the people they are addressing. Example can be seen in case of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi who wears traditional outfits and regional headgears of the respective he visits during the rallies. When he was campaigning for general elections in Assam, he wore Assamese Japi, an elaborate pagdi in Punjab etc (Dhar 2021). In the same way during the election campaign in Punjab, the chief minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal wore a Sikh turban to connect with the people at the grassroot and cultural level. (Mukherjee 2022).

Globalisation has also impacted the clothing choices of the politicians particularly those who belong to the younger strata. It has given the urban and corporate character to the clothing style conveying mixed messages through their dress (Mukherjee 2022). The white kurta pyjama supremacy is still intact that shows their respect and appreciation for the Indian culture and tradition. Due to globalisation, the India’s most important urban cities are cosmopolitan in character hence they need politician not only to represent them but also those who look like them. For example, Rahul Gandhi replaced the Jawahar waistcoat with a quilted Burberry bomber waistcoat. He was also spotted wearing kurta with jeans, kurta pyjama and sneakers etc, when he was addressing college students during a political event. Hence, his image helps him in becoming more familiar. Also, even the jackets of Modi that is called as ‘Modi Jacket’ is very much popular amongst the Corporates and the masses (Dhar 2021).

Hence politicians uphold a particular value system from their dressing like liberals added bit of contemporary aspect in their clothing however right wingers used bold colours that were attention seeking reflect adamant attitude. Example of the right wingers can be Bal Thackeray of Shiv Sena who earlier wore pant and shirt like urban office goers. However late he abandoned all these and adopted orange of a Sadhu’s robes to signal his sympathy for the Hindutva (Doctor 2014).

Women politicians also adopted strategies of power like choosing outfits that were similar to their male counterparts in the arena of politics such as suits. This aspect is famously known as ‘power dressing’ that emerged in the 1980s.

Although these days younger politicians from urban constituencies have started to adopt casual outfits too saris still resonate with the people of India and is considered as power dressing for women politicians. Several variations on terms of wearing of Saree are noticed amongst the popular women politicians in India. For example, Jayalalitha wore a cape to her sari. Sushma Swaraj added a sleeveless jacket with her saree that was a power suit and it mirrored the traditional male outfit. Even her Bindi and sindoor gave the impression of women embodiment that represented her culture and heritage along with being in power. She dictated the conventional idea of Indian Hindu women (Mukherjee 2022).

Another powerful example can be seen in case of Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal who represents the idea of frugality and communist values that resonates with the common man. She wears white sari with coloured borders particularly blue. Even most government offices in Bengal are painted blue (Mukherjee 2022). She shows her non elite, ordinary social background through her sartorial style to connect with the people and become more relatable for mass appeal. Bahujan Samaj Party’s leader Mayawati also asserts her Dalit identity through her light pink salwar kameez with dupatta round her neck that is different from the usual, bob cut hairstyle and her diamond earrings. It is more than mere accessory since represents the image that was once preserve for the elites only (Sinha 2019).

It is evident that in majority the Indian parliamentarians have stuck to dress code to avoid controversies. It has been limited to sari, salwar-kameez, safari suits, kurta pyjama etc. however in recent time many politicians have boldly began to embrace change in the clothing that they wear to the parliament. A recent example can be seen in case of Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan, MPs of Trinamool Congress who were in limelight for wearing western clothes inside the parliament in 2019 (Dhar 2021). Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also seems to embrace this change as she displays the character of the modern Indian women through her clothing choices. Along with Sarees she has also repeatedly been seen in shirts, jeans, trousers, etc (Mukherjee 2022). Therefore, introduction of the cosmopolitan character is noticeable.

This new cosmopolitan character of the Indian clothing is also induced with its new perception. It is apparent in case of Miss India and the Neoliberal nostalgia for homeland (Kawlra 2014). Even in matter of saree the cultural semantics are being changing since it is now echoing ideals of beauty and promoting the ‘ideal’ body forms influenced by the international fashion media. These ideals are very different from the cartographic boundaries of Indian women that was advocated during the Indian National struggle. For instance, this can be noticed through the popular case of a well-known media personality, Mandira Bedi who wore a designer sari that graphically evoke the tri-coloured flag of the nation. Her sari was not claiming the cartographic boundaries unlike the paintings of the Bharata Mata instead it represented the contoured and sculpted body of Indian female influenced by the international standards.

Therefore, one question that emerges is, to what extent choosing what to wear is related to choosing the nation in the contemporary context? Clothes represents the culture, tradition, and heritage of any nation. It has the unifying aspect that binds the citizens into one feeling of nationalism regardless of the diversity. It also represents ideology and acts as a political tool as explained above through several examples. However, globalization and the resultant global capitalist consumption has led to the rise of cosmopolitan character in the citizens of India. Along with the changed consumption pattern of the common Indian citizen, the changes in the clothing of the Indian politicians have also been noticed. With changing times, the creation of transnational character among Indian citizens is very evident. The Indian clothing have been regularly confronting the global capitalist consumption as well as competition.

Therefore, it is undeniable that clothes are linked to the larger part of the society. It is one way through which nation is actively produced and it also became one of the important symbols of the Indian National movement. Thus, the dignity of the national dress should be maintained and respected in every way. However, in my opinion there should not be any rigid criteria to differentiate as who is truly Indian and who is not or their Indian-ness by only judging their clothing choices. The way in which Indian Nation-State is imagined has also witnessed a gradual shift. It is no longer only patriotic but also cosmopolitan in character. Our country embraces diversity and along with that it also propagates the idea of Freedom of Choice in modern India. Therefore, choosing garment of choice should be treated with the ideology of Free will in the mundane matters.

To conclude,

Clothing is one of the important aspects of Indian nation through which Indian Nation-State and its constituents are imagined. In case of India, the importance of dress and clothing as an important marker of the national identity emerged during the Freedom struggle movement. It was only after the introduction of Khadi during the Swadeshi movement the concept of Indian national dress was emerging. Influential political leaders like Gandhi and Nehru used clothes to invoke the feeling of shared glories and one-ness. Sari also became one of the important factor that helped in giving India a pan-Indian character despite the presence of diversity. Clothes are important in the language of politics since it represents the ideology and beliefs of the political leader. Clothes are important for the integrity and image of the politicians. Globalization has brought the cosmopolitan character in terms of clothing also. This is the reason a change in the choice of clothing can be seen in politics as well as among the common citizens of India because of confronting global consumption pattern. Hence a gradual shift can be noticed in terms of how Indian nation-state is imagined in terms of clothing. Although the importance of Indian national dress in imagining India can never be ignored.


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Deshpande, Satish. 1993. “Imagined Economies.” Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Dhar, Vaishali. 2021. “The Politics of Fashion: From PM Modi to Rahul Gandhi- a window into philosophy and belief systems of politicians.” Financial Express.

Doctor, Vikram. 2014. From Bal Thackeray to Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi: How politicians Sartorial styles have played a key role in India. April 12. Accessed November 2022.

Kawlra, Aarti. 2014. “Sari and the Narrative of Nation in the 20th-Century India.” In An offprint from GLOBAL TEXTILE ENCOUNTERS, 213–226. Oxbow Books.

Miglani, Pooja. 2021. “How the Raj Influenced The Indian Understanding Of Clothes.” The Sparrow.

Mukherjee, Trisha. 2022. “Saris to Saffron: Power Dressing And the Indian Politician.” Outlook.

Sinha, Chinki. 2019. “Power Dressing: How Netas walk the talk with their wardrobe.” India Today.

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I am a dedicated sociologist with a passion for unraveling the intricate threads that bind our society together. Holding a Masters degree in Sociology from the Delhi School of Economics, my academic journey has honed my empirical research, writing and analytical acumen as well as enabled me to cultivate a deep understanding of social nuances. I have passionately engaged in an array of research projects spanning a diverse spectrum of subjects.