Uniform, Mahatma Gandhi & British Empire

Kristina Akhrarova

Standing armies, economic exploitation, and divide-and-rule political strategies have been examples of imperial domination. Townships, ceremonial thoroughfares, and residential areas were named after British sovereigns to demonstrate power and rank between the rulers and the ruled. Nevertheless, Bernard Cohn, an expert on British colonialism in India, believed that a far greater power was found in spectacles, rituals, and mass ceremonies, which subtly incorporated the indigenous princes, emirs, and chiefs into a descending hierarchy.

Portrait of George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston.William Logsdail, English painter

In the book "Below the Peacock Fan: First Ladies of the Raj" Marian Fowler wrote about His Excellency The Marquess Curzon, who was the Viceroy of India. He prepared for his visit to the Amir of Afghanistan before setting out to explore the northwest frontier of India. In return for a modest fee, a theatrical costumer in London arranged for him a cluster of gorgeous stars from small Eastern European countries. Additionally, he had an enormous pair of gold epaulets, a glittering pair of patent leather Wellington boots, and a gigantic curved sword (if obsolete as a weapon, a potent symbol of masculinity) with an ivory hilt and engraved scabbard. A cocked hat and spurs round out the look. In such uniform, he considered himself appropriately dressed for his audience with the Amir. Later, in Victorian India, Curzon would create imperial spectacles and ceremonies to establish and maintain British authority. A series of special events with dazzling military parades and brilliant uniforms celebrating King Edward VI's coronation culminated in this theater of empire in January 1903. It took the Viceroy about seventy-seven pages to elaborate on this celebration. Lady Curzon developed her own range of exquisite gowns to present the feminine side of this assertive male authority.

Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the East India Company as a military as well as a commercial power.Francis Hayman, English painter and illustrator

Certain rules of dress were deliberately humiliating in this choreography of empire. In the eyes of the British, the wearing of shoes by Indians would establish equality. Therefore, the Indians were required to remove their shoes when in the "British space" such as their homes and offices. In the meantime, the British wore shoes wherever they entered an Indian space such as a mosque or temple. And, only those Indians who wore European clothes in public were permitted to wear shoes to receptions and balls. During Mahatma Gandhi's mobilization of the Indian national movement, he challenged the imperial government's symbolic authority by calling on Indians to return honors and emblems bestowed upon them and to dress in simple peasant clothing rather than the western clothes or "native" costumes demanded by the government. The British dressed up in splendid uniforms to establish and maintain authority over the Indians, while the nationalists dressed down to regain the power they had lost and as a way to retain self-respect.

Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest unifier of India.Getty

Marian Fowler wrote that the State Entry into Delhi on December 29, 1902, was accompanied by a procession of gaily-painted elephants drugged so they would remain docile in the crowds. The Viceroy and Lady Curzon rode on the largest of all elephants in a silver-gilt howdah. The proclamation declaring King Edward VI King of England and Emperor of India was attended by 26 thousand people. On the evening of the State Ball, the Viceroy and the I Vicereine made a grand entrance in the Moghal Palace. Four thousand guests lined the length of the ballroom to the marble podium. He was in satin knee-breeches, she was in her famous peacock dress. The cloth-of-gold was embroidered with real emeralds and metal threads in a pattern of peacock feathers by Delhi's master craftsmen to the point that the fabric beneath had almost disappeared. It became the identifying image of this American heiress who played the role of Vicereine of India. According to Nigel Nicolson, Lady Curzon's biographer, she went to great lengths to prepare her remarkable wardrobe for India with the guiding concept that she must appear ultrafeminine while the men were ultramasculine. The gendered dress code was strictly enforced. While men wore uniforms and robes, women were free to choose their own colors, materials, and designs as long as they adhered to the acceptable models.

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Accessible Fashion History Education

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