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. 🙂


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:


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


And for some group shots:



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:



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:


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



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.


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. 🙂

Lily Absinthe Takes A Look At India During The British Raj

With the recent series Indian Summers on Masterpiece, our thoughts have turned towards the subcontinent of India and in particular that period of British rule commonly referred to as the British Raj or just Raj. In particular, we have been exploring the relationship between India and fashion during the  late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Composed of the present-day nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (and some other areas such as Oman and Sri Lanka at various times), British India was enormous in comparison with the United Kingdom itself: India had a land mass of approximately 1,893,179 square miles and a population of approximately 225 million (according to the first census taken in 1881). In comparison, the United Kingdom had a land mass of 120,832 square miles and a population of approximately 35 million (including Ireland).

Map of the British Empire, 1897.

Political Map Of British India, 1909.

But numbers alone do not tell the story. Culturally, “India” was a collection of various small states and territories populated by a variety of ethnic and racial groups following a variety of religions and  speaking many different languages. British India was the centerpiece of the British Empire and the effects of that relationship are still felt to this day and especially in the areas of food and fashion. However, during the period of British rule, the relationship between Indian and Britain was a complex one and had both positive and negative aspects. While the British were more than happy to make money trading for various Indian products, they were less enthusiastic about cross-cultural contacts.


Taj Mahal, Agra, c. 1890s

Basically, British racial attitudes of the time conditioned the relationship between ruler and ruled and this meant that while they ruled India, they did so in a distant manner, taking measures to maintain a distance, both culturally, socially, and even physically on occasion. These racial attitudes became especially hardened in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 – 1858 (or First War of Independence as it’s referred to in India) and the British ruled with the attitude they were were essential to India- without them the country would dissolve into anarchy that many characterized as a “bloodbath.”

Culturally, this cultural and social distance was reflected in the manner of British settlement. Great efforts were made to recreate a slice of Britain and this was especially true in the case of Simla, a town located in the hills of northern India. The climate in Simla (referred to as Shimla today) was similar to that of England  and it was here in 1863 that the British decided to make it the summer capital of British India; twice yearly the entire government would move from Calcutta (Kolkata), over 1,000 miles away to escape the heat.

Viceregal Lodge, built in 1888. This was the summer residence of the Viceroy of India.

Viceregal Lodge, 1909

The Mall, Simla, c. 1880s

Turning to fashion during the Raj, here are a few views:


Judging by the sleeves on the women’s dresses, the above family picture appears to date from the early 1890s. This appears to be more of a formal portrait (except for the woman in the back who has an injured arm in a sling).


The above picture appears to date from the 1890s and we see a light dress being worn by the woman on the left while a more full outfit is being worn by her companion.

Two British Women In Rickshaws - Ceylon (Sri Lanka) c1870's

The above picture also appears to date from the early 1890s. While it’s hard to arrive at any definite conclusions in regard to fabric or construction, it’s fair to say that the women’s outfits were probably lighter than what would be found at home in terms of fabrics. Interestingly enough, we see a variety of looks. On the right in the above picture, we see a shirtwaist/skirt combination being worn with her late 80’s flowerpot hat. The woman to the left is wearing a more fashionable 1890s gown.


Couple and household servants.

The above picture is most likely from the early 1900s and here we see a shirtwaist/skirt combination.


April, 1905

In the above picture we see the English mother in what appears to be a wrapper, a practical garment both for the climate and dealing with children. This would not be worn outside of the immediate household.



In the two above portraits, the subjects are unidentified but judging from the clothes, it appears that these two portraits were taken sometime in the late 1890s. These two women are fashionably dressed

What is interesting and not unexpected is that there does not appear to be any sort of a cultural crossover in terms of clothing, at least from Indian to British. This is an area that bears more study because it poses some interesting questions regarding the transfer of fashion between cultures. Compared to other places and times the social/cultural walls dividing ruler from ruled were high.

Some insight can be found by considering the nature of the Raj itself. Unlike more traditional empires, the Raj was not the result of an organized process of military conquest but rather a series of disjointed actions that occurred over a hundred years. Initially, the British came to trade in the guise of the East India Company. However, at the time they first arrived, there was a growing political vacuum as a result of the decline of the Mughal Empire during the 18th Century and gradually the British acquired increasing political power as they sought to reinforce their economic position.

The British were well aware that due to inferior numbers, they could not rule solely through military force, but rather they used a combination of political manipulation, economic power, and selective military action. As part of this, there was the idea of prestige, maintaining a superior position based on the idea of belonging to a superior race. As part of this process of maintaining prestige, women were viewed as an essential element and not only were they expected to be good wives and mothers, they were expected to personify all those traits that made the British a superior race. This also meant that wherever the British resided in India, it would be a transplanted piece of Great Britain (as much as possible) and this was reflected in places such as Simla.

And naturally, as fashion reflects society and culture, it followed that fashion worn by the British in India would replicate what was worn back home although the materials used were no doubt lighter and more suited to the warmer climate found in India. Also, many Indians connected with the Raj began to adopt Western dress.

The above is just a cursory, extremely simplified view of the Raj and there is naturally a lot more to it. However, what is striking to the casual viewed is that for the most part, the British in India existed in their own world, mostly apart from the Indians and interaction was severely limited except for a few “proper” channels, a situation that largely remained unchanged until 1948 when Indian and Pakistan became independent nations. However, it must be noted that the social situation was a lot more fluid in the early days during the 17th and 19th Centuries and the 1920s and 1930s.


The Raj is long gone now and the world has moved on. We look upon the past with its riches in fascination but at the same time we know that there were aspects that are best left behind. However, at the same time, there is much that is worthwhile and for us, that serves as a driving force for what we do.