Indian Summers & Keeping Cool…

In looking at the statistics for the Lily Absinthe website, we note that lately we’ve been getting a lot of traffic from India. So, to give a shout-out to India, we thought we’d take another look at the British Raj, an era that dovetails with the era of clothing that we focus on. 🙂


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Cooling off in South India, c. 1890

Fall in the American Southwest can feel like a continuation of summer and as such, there is often little difference between “Summer” and “Fall” when it comes to clothing and especially with late 19th Century clothing. Another place that can get just as hot is India and it certainly had an effect on clothing worn by Westerners, and the British in particular, during the British Raj. Compared to the climate in Great Britain, India’s climate has  a wide range of variation ranging from the wet tropical south of Kerala or Tamil Nadu to the alpine-like Jammu and Kashmir in the north and as such, changes in clothing were required.

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The heat of the summer could be excruciating brutal to Westerners and especially women. Those who could would depart for the cooler climates of the various hill stations located in the foothills of the Himalayas. Even the administrative capital of British India would relocate from Calcutta to Simla (known today as Shimla), a town located in northern India which the British had remodeled into a small-scale replica of England.

However, for those unable to escape the hot weather, adjustments were made in clothing choices. One of the most common adaptations was the increased use of linen as a basic material for both men and women’s clothing. For men, one of the more typical styles (I restrict my comments to civilian wear, military is a whole other thing) was the sack suit, the all-purpose daily working outfit for government officials, businessmen, and anyone else attempting to maintain an aura of respectability. Below are two pictures, most likely from the 1920s:

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One variation on the sack suit was the use of jodhpurs or riding breeches:

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And for some group shots:

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In both above pictures, it appears that the men are wearing suits either made from linen, wool- probably tropical wool, or even cotton drill. Of course, by today’s standards the sitters in each of these pictures appear to be very formally dressed but in actuality, this would be considered normal day wear.

And for more informal settings:

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For women, fabric choices were more broad to include cotton, silk, wool, linen, and pique. In selecting a suitable wardrobe for India, the following advice was offered in the 1882 book Indian Outfits & Establishments: A Practical Guide for Persons About to Reside in India by “An Anglo-Indian”:

With regard to dress, some of the most serviceable materials are thin woollen or cloth, which are adapted for the cold weather; plain white washing calico or linen for morning wear in the hot weather; uncrushable net, gauze, or lace for evening wear, with silk slips, made body and skirt in one, to wear under them ; one good black silk made with square and high body, and one or two afternoon dresses, mixtures of silk and cashmere, or tussore; some loose morning wrappers of washing materials, and one or two tea gowns of some patterned material now fashionable. Also a cloth habit, and two white washing ones; these are not expensive and exceedingly comfortable; they should not be made quite tight, but skirts and coat bodies (half fitting) separate. I found mine more useful than I can express. Pique was the material I had one made of, thin hunting cord the other.

However, velvet and velveteen were not recommended:

…do not take out velvet or velveteen if you can avoid it, as there are various insects which revel in velvet of any kind; you would have to keep it always in tin, and, notwithstanding all precautions, you would very likely find the nap eaten off in places when you took it out.

The author also recommends that one not take too many dresses with them because of the problems of storage in the tropical/semi-tropical environment. Rather, she recommends that the patterns and fresh material be obtained from England and to either sew new dresses yourself or have a local tailor or durzee make it.

Below are a few pictures of women in India:

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This portrait appears to have been taken sometime either in the mid to late 1870s or early 1880s.

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The above two portraits appear to be from the mid to late 1890s. The above portraits may be a touch more fancy than what was worn everyday, given India’s climate but no doubt made of lighter materials than the the equivalent dress at home in Britain.

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And of course, one was not complete without a riding habit. Horseback riding, walking, and other light exercise were highly recommended as a means of countering “lethargy” and “indolence,” two of the hazards that the British were believed to be susceptible to. In modern terms, it simply meant  not letting the heat get to you. 🙂

Fashion adaptation to the environment is always an interesting topic and especially so when it comes to the British response to conditions in India. Although sheer practicality would seemingly point to the idea of complete adaptation (i.e., “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”), this was not the case with the British. For various social, cultural, and political reasons, the British sought to maintain a cultural and social distance from the native Indians and fashion was one means of on maintaining that distance. However, at the same time, many Indians (usually ones who had direct dealings with the British in one way or another) gradually adopted Western dress (another fascinating topic that deserves its own set of posts).

Ultimately, when different cultures meet, invariably there is an exchange of ideas and this is especially true when it comes to fashion (and food, for that matter- Indian restaurants can be found in just about every major city in Great Britain). Today, India is a vibrant, modern country with a thriving fashion industry that has adopted many elements of Western dress and then blended them with their own styles and aesthetics.

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Rohit Bal, Bridal Fashion 2013

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Ritu Kumar, 2016 – 2017

This initially started off as an excursion into a brief look at how Western dress of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras adapted to conditions in India but it seems that we’ve wandered off into a broader evaluation of fashion and cultural exchange and it demonstrates that fashion does not exist in a vacuum but rather is a reflection of the social and cultural beliefs of a particular time and place. We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief excursion and we’ll be taking a closer look in future posts. 🙂

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