Social History of Clothing

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Sumptuary laws and social hierarchy

The sumptuary laws tried to control the behaviour of those considered social inferiors, preventing them from wearing certain clothes, consuming certain foods and beverages (usually this referred to alcohol) and hunting game in certain areas. The French Revolution ended these distinctions.

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Clothing and notions of beauty

The French Revolution had raised the question of equality and ended aristocratic privileges, as well as the laws that maintained those privileges. Differences in earning, rather than sumptuary laws, now defined what the rich and poor could wear. The notion of what was beautiful or ugly, proper or improper, decent or vulgar, differed.

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Clothing Materials

Before the 17th century, most ordinary women in Britain possessed very few clothes made of flax, linen or wool, which were difficult to clean. After 1600, trade with India brought cheap, beautiful and easy-to-maintain Indian chintzes within the reach of many Europeans. Then Britain began the mass manufacture of cotton textiles which it exported to many parts of the world. Cotton clothes became more accessible to a wider section of people in Europe. By the early 20th century, artificial fibres made clothes cheaper.

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Social codes of dress and food in India

Though there were no formal sumptuary laws as in Europe, India had its own strict social codes of food and dress. The caste system clearly defined what subordinate and dominant caste Hindus should wear, eat, etc., and these codes had the force of law. Changes in clothing styles that threatened these norms therefore often created violent social reactions.

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British rule and dress code

In 1824 - 1828, Governor-General Amherst insisted that Indians take their shoes off as a sign of respect when they appeared before him, but this was not strictly followed. By the mid-19th century, when Lord Dalhousie was Governor- General, shoe respect was made stricter, and Indians were made to take off their shoes when entering any government institution; only those who wore European clothes were exempted from this rule.

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Dressing the national dress

As nationalist feelings swept across India by the late 19th century, Indians began search for a national dress to define the cultural identity of the nation. The Tagore family of Bengal experimented with designs for a national dress for both men and women in India.