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Chapter 8: Woman's Dress

    “Upon my right hand did stand the Queen in a vesture of gold 
    wrought about in divers colours.”

                                                    Psalm XLV.

Dress in India can be comprised within a few typical forms. Fashion, which in Europe is so frequently variable and occupies itself with line and contour, is in India far more stable and persistent. Fashion exists, of course, as in every land where women live and grow and change. But it busies itself rather with what may be called the accidents than with the essentials of attire. In the choice of colour the women of India display a rich variety; and selection, though less subject to sudden and violent alteration, is governed by those moods of temperament which are generalized under the name of fashion. No less operative is changing temperament upon the designs of jewelry and the choice of gems to set in gold. Even in respect of the textures which women choose for their clothes, there are collective changes of mood and mode to be noticed. But in point of dress and adornment, as in most other activities, in India there is a governance by authority and a quasi-religious sanction which is foreign to the strongly individualist tempers of the West. The shapes and to some extent even the colour of dress and the design and manner of wearing jewelry are among those distinctive marks of social rank and ceremonial purity, in a word of caste, which are guarded jealously as if almost sacrosanct. It is only in the additions and embellishments permitted upon the normal habits of the caste that the human personality finds room for self-display. A woman must first of all make her dress conform to the approved habits of her class. That done, she is free to express her own tastes and talents within the range of such permissible colours and superfluous ornaments as do not alter the essential lines of her costume.

The interest of dress centres mainly upon the human psychology of which it is one among many other expressions. And it is not a little surprising that this inner and living bond has so often escaped the writers who have made costume their subject. Dress, regarded as form and colour only, has no doubt its own value to the painter. Like every arrangement in which selected hues or lines are grouped for the creation of a new beauty, it has an emotional appeal apart from its meaning or history. The uses of drapery in sculpture and the sensuous pleasure given by rich velvets and gold brocades in the paintings of Titian or Veronese are instances of the fascination of clothes, merely on their decorative side. But an intenser interest comes to being when dress is known to be also the expression of a character that in one sense may be called individual but may with more reality be regarded as part of a vast national life.

For by its very nature dress is a means selected to heighten the attraction of the sexes for each other. The use of clothes as a protection against the extremes of climate is merely secondary and is even something of a reproach to natural adaptation. It is as adornment, and in its purpose of attraction, that it has its real and ultimate meaning. That dress comes to be used incidentally to preserve modesty does not affect its primary purpose. Modesty itself is one of the secondary properties of love and one of its most powerful weapons. But it is when mankind becomes sophisticated that the value and function of modesty are properly understood; and it is then that dress and ornament are so designed as to combine their direct and, under the guise of modesty, their indirect attractions. It follows, therefore, that in any people the use of the means of attraction which are supplied by dress and jewelry must correspond to the attributes of the persons whom it is desired to attract. If the dress did not conform to some inbred desire in those who see it, it could have no power to please; even it might become repellent. But similarity of birth and training tends to mould the majority of each nation to something of an average, and it is after all as a response to the desires of the average person that dress is designed. It responds, therefore, to the psychology of the people in which it is found.

Looked at from this aspect, the fundamental difference between the costumes of European and of Indian women becomes at once more deeply significant. In Europe, during the long centuries that have succeeded the fall of Rome, one quality above all has clung to dress, that is, bizarrerie of form. The Teutonic barbarians who uprooted the Mediterranean civilizations and imposed in their place those tribal feudalisms and customary rules from which Europe is not yet fully freed, seem whether from their primitive particularism or their inborn brutality to have largely been lacking in the sense of form. Symmetry and simplicity were conceptions beyond their northern brains and outside their temperament. Even to this day the German (who with least admixture of blood or education represents the primeval Teutonic savage) is hardly able by any effort of reason to comprehend the meaning of these words. In essence, it would seem, his mind is formless, vague, amorphous. So in their buildings, the Goths could find no use for purity of form. What they sought always and with a great effectiveness achieved was a shape, or rather a conglomeration of shapes, complicated and exaggerated, with lengthy spires and cumbrous altitudes, that should be curious, awful, and bizarre. They never sought to soothe the mind. Their churches do not so much attract attention, but capture it, as it were, by an audacious ravishment. And as this purpose was congenial to their own psychology, so did they win their effect among their own and kindred peoples. Similarly their women, if they were to excite the desires of men habituated to bloodshed and the strong stress of war, had to take their attention by storm, with the aid of the fantastic and unexpected in their costume. Without the subtlety of imagination and finesse to excel by a fine harmony or a graceful nicety, they were forced upon the extravagant and exuberant. The lines of their dress were not designed to be congruous with the human body or to agree in beautiful drapery, but were meant rather to amaze the onlooker by a sudden onslaught upon his vision. At any cost they were to be effective--to produce, that is, an immediate effect by the strangeness and extravagance of their form. In regard to colour they had less invention and hardly any taste; and the grey skies of the north are not suited to the richer hues. So it was to contortions of line and form that they had recourse. However mitigated, these are characteristics that remain to this day. Even in modern dress, the lines tend to be abrupt and exaggerated, and an ever-changing fashion varies them in a discordant manner. Every ten years, it has been said, the shape of womankind, as it is visible, changes in Europe. Each new change means, of course, an attempt to capture attention by a novel attitude. This is the cause that, out of the whole nineteenth century, it was only for a few years under the Consulate and early Empire that woman’s dress appears tolerable to an artist’s eye or even, upon reflection, to the common man or woman.

Indian dress, on the other hand, has this in common with the classic style, that it is simple in form and harmonious. It exacts no distortions or deformities. It veils the body but it does not misrepresent it. Still less does it attempt to substitute a fictitious for a natural line. But while the Indian mind, like that of the classic Mediterranean peoples, approves a natural simplicity of design, unlike the other, it delights in a profusion of extraneous ornament. Even the monstrous temples of the South are in essence simply planned, but they are overlaid and even overloaded with masses of strange carving and decoration. Indian psychology, in this not dissimilar from the Teuton, has a craving for the wonderful and bizarre. The people are of those that look for miracles. But, by a fortunate dispensation, they are content to leave the pure lines of form undisturbed--a quality that keeps them in regard to the broad facts of life true to nature. For their wayward fancies they find scope in bizarrerie of colour and external decoration. Thus the Indian woman wears dresses that in shape are easy and simple and beautiful, but she seeks further to attract by a marvellous variety of colour and a curious adornment.

The limits of the bizarre as it appears in India are probably reached in the dress of the Banjara women. They belong to a tribe that, far from unmixed, has in it much of that gipsy race, which has also migrated across the Sind deserts and Asia Minor to the furthest corners of Europe. For centuries they were the carriers of India, transporting salt and opium and grain on their pack-cattle along the trade-routes across the continent. They have settled down now, some of them, in little settlements where, under their own chieftains, they till the soil and deal in cows and buffaloes. But many of them are wanderers to this day, daring smugglers, dangerous when they are cornered, often even thieves and robbers. The men are especially handsome, with a free and fiery look, and a manly air. But the women also are not by any means unattractive, and the striking dress they have chosen, with its bold colours and its swinging skirt, sets them up well and handsomely. The pity is that they will wear it till from age and dirt it drops off with its own corruption. The bright colours they affect reach their limit in the pleated skirt with its glaring reds and yellows, a motley that has in it something of the clown or mountebank. The bodice in no real sense fulfils its part but is rather a bright-decked screen dropping from the neck to just below the waist-line, stiffened with pieces of glass and thick stitching. The mantle which they adopt, unlike that of most Hindu women, is short, like that of the Mussulman, but coarser. Their jewelry is peculiar to themselves, and in shape strange and striking. It is worn about the head in great profusion, so that the twinkling cunning face seems almost set in silver. The hair has two pleats at each side into which tassel-like ornaments of silver are hung. But most bizarre of all is the horn or stick, twined into their hair, which rests upon the head and props up their mantle like a tent. Originally perhaps designed to give the head a better protection against the eastern sun, it has now acquired a religious significance and is never doffed, even at night in bed, except by a widow. That with this inconvenient attachment, they still can balance by its nice adjustment heavy pots of water on their heads is one of the minor wonders of the Indian country-side. The Banjara encampment with its boldly-clad and boldly-staring women, also it may be added with its strong fierce dogs of special breed, is a sight too picturesque ever to be forgotten, especially in a country where life tends in the villages to a brown monotone.

The bizarre is again to be found prevailing even over form on the Mongolian borderland of Northern India. In Nepal, whence come the brave Gurkha soldiers of our wars, dress, like the shape and decoration of the wooden temples of the people, has in it something alien to the normal lines of Aryan and Indian womanhood. And the strangeness is heightened by the quaintness of the jewelry and the uncut turquoises in which they delight.

But in most of India proper the essence of dress is simple. Shoes are not in general worn, though loose wide slippers of velvet or of leather may be sometimes seen. The natural result is that the foot retains a beauty which can never be expected when it is cramped by constant pressure. The working woman, tramping miles along the roads or over fields, with heavy burdens on her head or her child upon the hip, loses of course too quickly the springing instep and sinks to a flat and sprawling foot. But in the higher classes, or among the womanhood whom caste preserves in a moderate seclusion, the foot is small, well-curved, and light. It is a thing of infinite fascination, tinted perhaps with the henna’s pink, almost like a flower. Even aged women there are to be seen, their faces worn and wrinkled, who still have the unspoilt feet of youth and well-born blood. Among the richer ladies of the greater cities, where it is smart to be “advanced,” Parisian shoes and silken stockings are nowadays worn, at least out of doors--a habit enforced by the security thus gained against plague infection; but the greater number still preserves the foot free and beautiful.

For the rest, among Hindu women the dress consists of three portions only, never more, though they may be only two. These are a skirt, a bodice, and a mantle. The skirt is not very different from the petticoat of Europe in cut, but may either drop simply or be made up in accordion pleats, something as a kilt is pleated, so cut as to stand out a considerable way at the ankle. The latter shape, worn mainly by the women of Márwár, but in painting invariably given to Rádha and the loves of the god Krishna, is most beautiful with its brush and swing. The skirt is fastened plainly by a silken cord tied fast at the waist and is sometimes girdled by a silver belt. The Indian bodice again is designed in the main to support the breast whose form it defines and even, by its pattern, accentuates. It may either fit all round the person, fastening in front by buttons or a ribbon, or be a covering for the chest only, put on from the front and tied across the open back by two tapes. But the most distinctive feature of all is certainly the glorious drapery of the sari, which has been translated “mantle” in default of a better word. The sari is an article of dress as distinctive as the Spanish mantilla and as difficult to wear with the right charm and manner. It is an oblong of material, hemmed when possible at one side with gold embroidery and edged with a sort of closed fringe. When, as is most common, it is worn with a skirt, its length is about fifteen feet and its breadth about three. When, however, as in a contrasting style, it has by its intricacies to take the place of an absent skirt as well, it measures some twenty-five feet in length. It is to these mantles that the Indian lady devotes her deftest thoughts and on them, within the limits conceded by caste and fashion, that she displays her personal tastes. Their hues and patterns have an infinite range. Some are in plain natural colours, white or red or blue--solid, unbroken colour, not least beautiful in the stark sunlight. Others are delicate cotton prints, flowered and sprigged and dainty. Sometimes they are printed in a bold decorative pattern, formal and conventional. Neutral and half tints at times mix in a bewildering wealth of hue, till the eye is at a loss to know whether the ground be green or pink or purple. The border may be a plain hem-stitch or a two-inch broad piece of gold brocade, sumptuously woven in the acanthus pattern or in the shape of birds and flowers. But in the draping of the mantle, so simple in cut yet of such infinite variety, consists the highest art and the true expression of personality. One end is taken round the waist a couple of times and tucked into the waist-band at the centre, falling to the feet in formal folds; the other passes over head and shoulder, with the breadth decorated and displayed across the upper half of the body. In the management of the upper half lies the true secret. It must show the full beauty of the cloth, yet by a sort of innocent accident, without a hint of ostentation. At the same time it must be loose enough to allow graceful folds to drop naturally from the head to the shoulders, and tight enough to sit close at the breast whose curves it accentuates while it seems to veil. Enough but not too much of the bodice must be shown with a fine nicety. The border is at times allowed to turn carelessly up, till the gold armlet above the elbow can be seen even on the covered right arm. At one moment, a modest gesture brings the mantle across the face, as in shy courtesy before an elder or an illustrious man; in a crowd it is draped to hide both arms and conceal the figure; when it slips, it is quickly drawn forward over the head with a charming pretence of timidity. The Márwári woman by a trick peculiar to herself makes of her mantle a screen held open between two fingers, through which only her lustrous eye appears, melting and languorous; and in the armoury of every Indian woman the mantle by its nice management is the chief instrument of love.

The short mantle, worn as described, should of course imply a skirt. But in the south of Gujarát, from Surat to Bombay, whether from the steamy warmth of the climate or from some subtle change of mood, ladies of the richer classes, while continuing to drape the mantle in the same graceful way, have of late years given up the usage of a skirt and wear at most a trim lace petticoat. The effect is not unlike that of a recent ephemeral fashion in Western Europe. Seen in the bold Indian sunlight, the double thicknesses of light silk or cotton are little less transparent than a veil of gauze and limbs are revealed in a shadowed fulness, which is less modest than it is suggestive.

In the Central plateau, however, and the south of India the skirt is also dispensed with by a fashion that can claim at once antiquity and respectability. There it is the long mantle, twenty-five feet in length, which is worn. Of thick coarse silk and dark solid colour, it is so draped as to be caught between the legs in a broad, low-hanging fold, tucked loosely at the back. Its folds are carefully arranged to leave a double thickness, marked by the border of the mantle, over the upper part of the legs. It is a style inherited from a remote antiquity, descendant from the dresses seen even on Buddhist carvings in the great rock temples of the Deccan. Beautiful it can hardly be called, with its effect of a divided skirt and its too clumsy folds and thicknesses; but it is certainly not frivolous. Rather perhaps should one say that it is eminently respectable, with its sameness and stiff conventionality. The pressure of the ascetic ideal is shown even more strongly in the monotonous colours, dark blue usually or dark green, which are the ordinary wear in those parts of the country. To the artist the costume, one would think, had little value; yet that it can be idealized is seen from the effects achieved in the simplifications of early sculpture. This contrast in dress between the southern part of the Peninsula and Gujarát or Northern India reflects once again that contrast in belief and character which has already, perhaps with a too frequent repetition, been remarked. This monotony of asceticism is even more noticeable in the south in the dress of widows (poor creatures with shaven heads, their limbs untouched by a single jewel!)--a dress of a mantle only, white or of a strange dull, dingy red--a dress that kills all looks and attractions, save where the light of religious duty, nature overcome, makes the starved face seem spiritual.

In the dress of Mussulman women the main feature is that trousers are substituted for the Hindu skirt. They may be wide and baggy, cut in loose full curves from the hips to the tighter openings at the ankles, a style not too precise to be devoid of all attraction. Or, as worn by ladies of the Upper Indian aristocracy and by other women who lay claim to Moghul descent, they may sit tight like gloves from ankle to knee, a fashion at once ugly and repellent. It would be difficult, even after long reflection, to design a style of dress so unbecoming to a woman’s gait and figure, so crudely frank, so hideously unsuggestive. A bodice may or may not be worn, as Hindu influence is more or less strong. A long fine shirt, half open at the neck and falling to about the knee, is an invariable article of dress, which on a young woman fits well and gracefully. In former days, and even now among the older-fashioned, a long full-pleated skirt and jacket in one was worn above the other garments, fitting tight to below the breast, then from the high-set waist-line spreading out in wide stiff pleats like a broad petticoat. Over her head the Mussulman lady wears a shawl or mantilla, less long than her Hindu sister’s mantle, which is made of the finest textures and is dyed in the most delicate of colours. It is the full dress of the Mussulman lady that, except in Southern India, the dancing girl has made her own for professional uses and embellished with every device of pattern and every richness of material.

It would be interesting to digress here, in relation to Indian dress, upon that long conflict between the decolleté and the retroussé, which in Europe has from time to time been settled by the successes of the former. But a full discussion would go beyond the purpose and necessary limits of this book. Briefly it may be said that, in this matter too, Indian dress quite correctly expresses the difference which subsists between the present European and immemorial Indian temperament. For, with reasonable exceptions, it may be said that in India, on the whole, no special feelings, either of modesty or the reverse, attach to the lower limbs. The skirt is, therefore, not the hampering, stiff garment that it usually is in Europe. But the upper half of the body, on the other hand, has a far greater significance than in Western Europe. And this it is which has made the use of the covering mantle or sari the most distinctive feature of Indian costume.

Dress even in its simplest form has been seen to have its sectarian meaning and restrictions. A widow for instance, at least among orthodox Brahmans in the Peninsula, is limited to certain solid colours, never black or dark blue, red as a rule, or white. And every woman is restricted to definite shapes and cut. To transgress beyond these limits would be to offend against caste rules with a sanctity defended and sanctioned by a caste tribunal. But greater significance attaches to the use of jewelry. Some stones are valued for this or that magical virtue; certain metals can or must be used only at definite times and places: some shapes of ornament are bidden or forbidden to a certain caste. The prohibition against wearing gold upon the feet is the most obvious instance. Here a value of a magical kind, as a purifying agent, is ascribed to the metal, and its use was not allowed on limbs where it might be contaminated by the dust and dirt of the road. Only in royal families is the prescription ever disregarded; and even then only by few.

Of forms and modes of ornament peculiar to one caste and partly at least sanctified by superstition, something has already been said in describing the fisher and the gipsy women. But instances might be multiplied without end. Each section nearly of the community has at least one peculiar jewel, associated with a religious festival or a caste ceremony or belief. Perhaps the most obvious examples are the charms and talismans freely worn by all classes of Mussulman women. In these the stones and their settings are the symbolic expressions of deep and mysterious thoughts and the instruments of a magical significance. On amulets of white jade or carnelian are inscribed in Arabic characters the highest names of the Most High. On other cartouches are engraved the sacred symbols of the Jewish Cabbalists, just as Hindus draw and venerate that sign of the Swastika which from the time of the Bronze Age has presented the beneficent motions of the sun. They have little boxes of chased gold in which are enclosed written charms to protect the wearer from the malice of jinns and the malevolence of the evil eye. On heart-shaped plates of silver they cut the sacred hand which persists in the escutcheon of Ulster baronets, and on others are inscribed the name of “Tileth” and the injunction, “Adam and Eve away from here.”

But the use of jewelry has a religious tinge no less among Hindus. It is for instance a common belief that at least a speck of gold must be worn upon the person to ensure ceremonial purity. Thus in Northern India there are castes where married women wear plates of gold on some of the front teeth; while it is general when preparing the dead for the burning to attach a gold coin or ring to the corpse. Moreover, the wearing of jewelry by women is prescribed by the sacred text which says: “A wife being gaily adorned, her whole house is embellished, but if she be destitute of ornaments, all will be deprived of decoration.” This again is one reason why there is so little change in the design. Variety there is, and indeed the number of ornaments, each with a different name and use, is almost bewildering. But in each kind the design passes from one to another generation almost unchanged, and the craftsman has no need to devise new forms and varying settings. What has been worn by the grandmother will be equally pleasing to the grand-daughter. When there is change and variety, it is only in the large commercial cities, where European patterns are being exploited to the ruin of indigenous craftsmanship.

The bracelet is the most significant and the nose-ring the most peculiar of Indian ornaments. For bracelets are above all the visible sign of marriage. Young girls before their wedding may wear bangles of many kinds: but the first act of widowhood is to discard them all. Some which are made of lac are peculiar to the married woman, and next to them in significance are the bangles of variegated glass which are so much appreciated. On the husband’s death these are at once shattered; and the same breaking of bangles is the accompaniment of divorce. The nose-ring, as it is called in English, is only seldom in shape a ring. In Northern India indeed, in certain castes, a real ring of large diameter passes through the cartilage; and its effect is not beautiful. But in most places and classes, it is not so much a ring as a small cluster of gems affixed by one means or another to the nostril. That worn most commonly in the Deccan--a sort of brooch with a large almost triangular setting--is also clumsy and unbeautiful. Another type, worn by the cultivators of Gujarát, is like a button in which the jewelled top screws, through a hole bored in the nostril, into the lower half--a form no less ungainly. But Mussulmans adopt a different and more graceful form. Through the central cartilage of the nose a small gold wire passes on which drops a jewel, at its best a fine pear-shaped pearl, dangling down to the central curve of the upper lip. But the prettiest of all--a real aid this to a pretty face--is a small stud of a single diamond or ruby fixed almost at the corner of the left nostril. Here it has the value of a tiny beauty-spot, more attractive by its sheen, and draws the eye to the curve of a finely-chiselled nose and down to the petulant smiling lips.

Among the most beautiful of Indian ornaments are the champlevé enamels made by Sikh workers who have found a home in the pink city of Jaipur. In golden plaques they scrape little depressions which they fill with oxides of various metals, fixed by the nicely-varied temperature of fire. Gems also are worn in great profusion by the richer classes, though little by those who have to regard their ornaments also as an investment. To the poor of course the purchase of silver or gold jewelry is still the only form of saving with which they are familiar and in which they have confidence; and it is quite impossible even to guess the millions of bullion hoarded unproductively in this form in India. In regard to gems, many a superstitious belief still remains. Thus it is believed that in an evil conjunction of the sun the ruby is propitious, while the diamond is remedial against the baleful influences of the moon. On the day of the week named after Mars or War, the coral should be trusted, and the zircon is efficacious against Mercury known as Buddha. The pearl is specially designed for wear when Jupiter is dangerous. The cat’s eye deflects the radiances of Venus and in the ascending node the emerald is sovereign. This lore of gems is set out at length in the Ruby-garland of Maharaja Surendra Mohan Tagore.

The graceful dress and finely-designed jewelry of the Indian women is a covering and an embellishment, suitable and, as a rule, singularly attractive. But the person that is so covered receives no less care. An almost scrupulous personal cleanliness is observed by nearly every woman. Among the gipsy and criminal tribes indeed clothes are worn until they drop off from age; and the untouchable castes who perform the lowest menial services and cluster in sordid hovels outside the village also leave much to be desired. In the crowded slums of the industrial cities, too, it is to be feared, there are many, especially of the professional beggars, who from vice or dulled apathy allow themselves to become foul and loathsome. But even the worst of these could perhaps be equalled in the mean streets of Europe. These degraded classes once out of account, however, there is no question that the niceties of personal cleanliness are followed in all ranks with a fine devotion which can be equalled only in the upper class of Europe. In some points they may put even those to shame though they cannot vie with the modern luxury of the English or French lady’s bath, with its sponges and gloves and powders and perfumed salts. Washing in India is a religious ordinance, scrupulously observed, and the body is cleansed with water and made smooth like bronze with orpiment and tinged with henna and perfumed with the essence of flowers, till it is a mirror of purity, worthy of adornment and respect.