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.