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L’Inde des Lumières

Marie Fourcade
Ines G. Županov

L’Inde mise en scène // India on the stage

Clothing the Enlightened Body: European Dress in India during the Age of Reason

Habiller le corps des Lumières : le vêtement européen en Inde durant l’âge de raison

Tara Mayer


During the Enlightenment, Europeans devised elaborate theories that defined and demarcated European identity from that of other, non-European peoples. Unlike fixed, hereditary attributes such as blood and genetics that were the primary indicators of racial identity in the late nineteenth century, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Europeans constructed notions of human difference based on a range of overlapping categories. Many of these elements were seemingly fluid and subjective, including education, language, religious affiliation, civility, manners, and dress. Through an examination of the shifting role of clothing in constructions of European identity in the sub-continent, this article argues that although these early notions of human difference were seemingly less rigid than later racial criteria, they reflected an already well-established hierarchy of human progress. This article maps three key themes in European discursive constructions of Indian material culture. First, it traces the shift from early perceptions of India as a land of immense material wealth and material sophistication to one mired in stagnancy and decay. It then describes European fears of climatic degeneration and cultural osmosis, by which the carefully delineated boundaries of European physical and cultural separateness were seen to be made vulnerable and permeable over time. Lastly, it examines the ways in which clothing was seen as a defense against the Indian environment and the perceived dangers of going-native. In their sum, these examinations reveal how in Enlightenment discourses, material culture and clothing became powerful modalities through which the perceived superiority of European imperial identity and authority were both constructed and communicated.


1During the eighteenth century, Enlightenment notions of human difference were being shaped by Europe’s commercial and military encounters with the wider world. These encounters forced Europeans to define the boundaries of their own identity, based on a wide range of traits observable in other peoples. Eighteenth-century notions of race, or human difference as it was termed at the time, were not based on fixed hereditary attributes such as blood and genetics, but on a complex interplay between physical, moral, and cultural criteria. In her study of early European attitudes toward human difference, Roxann Wheeler convincingly demonstrates that our contemporary inclination to frame questions of personal and social identity in terms of a binary opposition between white and black has been anachronistically applied to the eighteenth century, when “multiplicity”—the use of overlapping or, at times, even competing categories—was more commonly practiced:

Throughout the eighteenth century older conceptions of Christianity, civility, and rank were more explicitly important to Britons’ assessment of themselves and other people than physical attributes such as skin colour, shape of the nose, or texture of the hair. Embodied in dress, manners, and language, the concepts of Christianity, civility, and rank were not simply abstract categories of difference; they constituted visible distinctions that are difficult for us to recover today (Wheeler 200: 7).

2Human difference was seen to be the composite of several visible and non-visible factors, including lifestyle, civility, education, religious affiliation, manners, and dress. While these traits may appear fluid, subjective, mutable, and even arbitrary in contrast to hardened nineteenth century concepts of race, they were nevertheless predicated on a firmly-established notion of European superiority.

3Enlightenment taxonomies and evolving epistemological practices operated in tandem with Europe’s imperial expansion, creating distinct hierarchies of order and giving birth to the natural and social sciences. In the natural sciences, the notion that human differences could be understood and classified rationally was expressed most articulately in the work of Carolus Linnaeus, whose system of binomial nomenclature remains the primary taxonomic system used by biologists today. Historians of the Scottish Enlightenment—men such as Alexander Hume, Adam Ferguson, Francis Hutchinson, and Thomas Reid—were equally committed to applying human reason to logically explain the past as well as the cultural, sociological, and ethnographic variations of the present. No theory was more influential or better suited to this venture, however, than the stadial or four-stage model of human history outlined by Adam Smith (1896) in his lectures on jurisprudence. Smith advanced the theory that civilisations could be grouped and classified on an intellectual scale that measured human relationships to the natural world. Crucial to Smith’s criteria of human progress and development was the role of material goods. Smith ordered societies from their most primitive state (defined by having no relationship to the material world and no ownership of goods) to those at the pinnacle of stadial development (those societies that distributed labour into an economic network in which barter, trade, and finally commerce could flourish). Despite the Enlightenment promise that reason had the capacity to produce universal progress and understanding, Enlightenment taxonomies positioned European societies at the apex of human development and achievement. Moreover, climates, civilisations, and cultural characteristics were seen as overlapping categories, all of which could potentially impede a society’s stadial progress.

4British observers of eighteenth-century India suggested that the climate of the Indian sub-continent was diametrically adverse to social, moral, and material progress. Their letters, journals, memoirs, and travel narratives are replete with descriptions that juxtapose romanticised recollections of India’s once-glorious past with a present state of perceived stagnation. While Orientalist scholarship represented India as having had an ancient civilisation equalling and, in certain respects, even surpassing that of classical Greece or Rome, its principal tomes also identify a supposed dramatic decline after this early apex of achievement. Stagnation and decay became the primary descriptive tropes applied to India’s religious, social, and political institutions. In Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa, William Macintosh (1782: I, 301) declared that “in India, both on this side and beyond the Ganges, there is a scrupulous tenacity of ancient customs and manners, and the object of emulation is, not to invent anything new, but to preserve in their original purity, the usages and the doctrines of the most remote antiquity.”

Fig. 1. Company officer receives noblemen on a terrace, Murshidabad 1760-1765.

Fig. 1. Company officer receives noblemen on a terrace, Murshidabad 1760-1765.

© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

5Historians have long associated the European discourse on Indian backwardness with the establishment of the British Raj and the broader emergence of more hardened, racialized, European attitudes towards “the other”. These attitudes, it is said, came to supersede previous, more open-minded views of India that were typical of Europe’s earlier encounters, and of the sociological worldviews seen to characterise Enlightenment, Romantic, and Orientalist thinking. The present article challenges this chronology—the implied linear progression from openness to rejection—and instead reveals the presence and prevalence of a discourse of Indian stagnation and inherent inferiority even in the eighteenth century, otherwise seen as the heyday of European liberalism in its encounter with the Orient. This revision centres on an examination of European views on material culture and in particular clothing. It is argued that these discourses, and the theories and attitudes behind them, are directly reflected in the changing role of material culture and shows how Enlightenment theories about hierarchies of progress were played out in European material, and specifically sartorial, attitudes and practices in India. Dress served as a central preoccupation in the discursive othering of India from the time of the earliest encounters, and remained a key field for the projection of attitudes towards, and anxieties about, European identity. It is this sense of an inherently superior, albeit potentially fragile, European identity that is clearly discernible in Enlightenment-period reflections on India and which served as an intellectual and ideological foundation for its more mature exaltation—one which came to encapsulate the New Imperialism of the nineteenth century.

6This argument is advanced in three parts. The first reconsiders the supposed Enlightenment view of India as a romanticized, timeless dreamland to show that ideas of Indian stasis that were crucial to the sense of a European superiority were already well emplaced. The second part provides further evidence of these identity discourses by examining European fears of degeneration, as well as the sartorial responses to this anxiety: across the eighteenth century, European commentators of different backgrounds and expertise ruminated about the potential hazards that India’s tropical climate posed to the very traits that were seen to exemplify and ensure European superiority. The ultimate proof of this danger, it was posited, could be found in the case of the Portuguese whose empire, as the third segment shows, was seen to have been hindered by their inability to ward off the corrupting influences of the Indian environment. Lastly, these themes are situated against the current debate about Europeans in eighteenth century India, and in particular the question about the extent to which Europeans did or did not assimilate culturally to their Indian environment. In their sum, these arguments serve as a corrective to the idea that open-minded, or liberal, Enlightenment worldviews were suddenly and dramatically replaced by an advent of racial consciousness and the epistemological strategies born out of imperialism and the social sciences. Most importantly, the themes of corporality and physicality so central to discussions about clothing serve here to reveal the darker elements of Enlightenment ideology—such as contamination and degeneration—which remain all too often unexplored in scholarly accounts which focus exclusively on linking the intellectual fruits of the Enlightenment to their contemporary manifestations.

Fig. 2. Jean Chardin, 1739.

Fig. 2. Jean Chardin, 1739.

Source: Chevalier Chardin en Perse, in Sur les routes d’Europe et d’Asie.

From Riches to Ruins: Shifting European Perceptions of Indian Material Culture

7Upon his arrival in India, the seventeenth century European traveller entered an entirely new aesthetic realm. It is testament to the profound shift in attitudes that the acuteness of this early encounter became a source for reminiscence and mystification in the nineteenth century:

An air of magic, a feeling of romance hung in days of yore over every part of this land of promise; a spell framed of novelty and magnificence fascinated every adventurer… and prepared him for scenes of wonder, luxury, and riches; nor was his expectation disappointed. Whatever the price he might pay in loss of time or health, pleasures courted his acceptance, and an almost ideal state of luxury and grandeur opened on his view, calculated to revive in his mind, if not to realise, the wonders of those Arabian tales that delighted his boyhood… If his fate lead him to the court of a Native prince, there anything connected with Europe is lost sight of, and eastern pomp assumes it place: the Natives, unchecked by the control of their conquerors, exhibit their inherent taste for luxury and show; numerous and glittering cavalcades, rich and costumes, elephants, camels, and horses magnificently caparisoned with multitudes of attendants (Anonymous 1824: 56-57).

Fig. 3. Portrait oriental de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Nicolas de Largillière, circa 1700.

Fig. 3. Portrait oriental de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Nicolas de Largillière, circa 1700.

8While destined for a literary journal with European readership and, thus, undoubtedly embellished, this passage exemplifies the dream-like quality that Europeans ascribed to India’s rich material culture. In Fabulous Orients, Rosalind Ballaster (2005: 267) notes that this descriptive motif first emerged in the seventeenth century as part of the discursive construction of India during this time: “Some of the first European informants were jewel merchants such as Jean Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (Fig. 2 et 3) who presented India as a kind of physical ‘fairyland’ rich in minerals and precious stones, while the accounts of physicians, philosophers, and priests, such as Francois Bernier and the Protestant chaplain Edward Terry, understand the spiritual and mystical traditions of India as a conflation of material and dream states.” To the European merchant-traveller, India appeared wondrous in its rich aesthetic splendour and extraordinary in its promise of material wealth, as a land ripe with boundless, but wasted, potential. The nascent notion that India’s material riches required European ingenuity to be fully exploited was coupled to a broader discourse on European moral responsibility. Preoccupations with idolatrous Hindu practices such as the much-decried “suttee” (sati) informed European representations of India from the very earliest Indo-European encounters. During the seventeenth century, this preoccupation served to temporarily instill a sense of moral proximity between Mughal rule and British ideals, which found expression in the image of the Mughal empire as an advanced civilisation that brought order to a violent, irrational, idolatrous, and superstitious population.

  • 1 The khil‘at refers here both to a garment itself as well as the ceremonial ritual of exchange.

9This early aesthetic admiration of Indian civilisation and superficial agreement with Mughal perturbation did not, however, result in any dramatic alteration in the material consumption or sartorial expression of individual Europeans in seventeenth-century India. Despite a necessary participation in elaborate Mughal courtly rituals such as the khil‘at ceremony, during which robes of honour were ceremonially exchanged and honour and authority symbolically transferred, early European dress in India diverged remarkably little from European sartorial standards “back home”1. The intriguing image of a British official taking part in ceremonial forms of native display should therefore not replace, in our imagination, the much more common, albeit less striking, sight of him in his customary leather breeches, lace ruffs, and woollen overcoat. Even during the earliest Indo-European encounters, the prestige that Europeans associated with their dress allowed for few public concessions to the Indian climate and environment.

  • 2 Belinda and Sir Plume are characters in Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic narrative poem, The Rape of th (...)

10Enlightenment notions of European cultural superiority were manifested in the proud maintenance of one’s national dress during public occasions, even despite the gruelling heat of India’s climate. James I instructed Sir Thomas Roe, who represented him at the Mughal court in 1615, “to be careful of the preservation of our honour and dignity, both as we are sovereign prince, and a professed Christian, as well in your speeches and presentation of our letters as in all other circumstances as far as it standeth with the coustoms [sic] of these Countries” (Foster 1899: 522). Roe dutifully upheld his king’s request and strictly adhered to the most elaborate and ostentatious English fashions of the time. Not only at court, but also in the port city of Surat, he and his men were seen strutting about clothed in “their vast hats of velvet and taffeta with bunches of feathers” (Kincaid 1938: 20). The dress of one’s bearers and retainers was deemed an equally serious matter. Roe was followed by troops of servants for whom he chose an elaborate livery consisting of “red taffeta cloaks guarded with green taffeta” (ibid.), which he deemed appropriate for an audience with the Great Mughal. Indeed, “the extravagance of European costume, the ruffs ‘of twelve, yea sixteen lengths, set three or four times double, ’ the slashed silks and heavy folds of lace, always impressed Indians with awe” (ibid.). Indian nobles routinely enquired with astonishment and curiosity about such fantastical creations as Caroline wigs, tri-corn hats, leather breeches, and velvet surcoats, leading one historian to comment on “the stoic endurance of those English envoys, sacrificing all comfort in their determination to do their country credit by their fashionable appearance” (ibid.). So keen were these young men to publicly display their English finery that they insisted on driving in open carriages (unless accompanied by their wives), “so that the people might behold and admire their fine clothes” (Wilson & Carey 1968: 46). Although far removed from London’s temperate climate and swiftly shifting fashions, the young Englishmen in seventeenth-century Surat nevertheless beseeched their friends and relatives back home for advice on the latest London modes and cherished no gift more than a new cravat, a piece of lace, or even just a sketch of the latest fashions. Among them existed a firm belief that “any concession to the severest climate [would be] unworthy of English hardihood” (Kincaid 1938: 21). It was noted: “In 1658, a good cloth coat with large silver lace was all the fashion and was considered to be the badge of an Englishman. Without it, or something like it, a man got no esteem or regard” (Wilson & Carey 1968: 46). Of mid-seventeenth century Europeans in Calcutta, C.R. Wilson (1895: 206) recounts that while, “no doubt always a little behind the time, they did their best to keep up with the prevailing fashions… when they took their promenade on the green before the fort, [and] arrayed themselves in dresses which recalled those worn by Belinda and Sir Plume at Hampton Court five years previously.”2 Bernard Cohn (1996: 111), in a similar vein, states that already in the seventeenth century, in “their dress and demeanor [Europeans] constantly symbolized their separateness from their Indian superiors, equals, and inferiors.” It is thus important to acknowledge that even during the earliest Indo-European encounters, there existed a self-conscious commitment to publicly maintaining national sartorial codes and keeping up to date with the latest European fashions. Importantly, such efforts reveal more than a vain love of superficial finery: as early as the seventeenth century, that is long before European status came to be conceived and expressed primarily in terms of a race, it was dress, appearance, behaviour, and lifestyle that served as the critical indices of European identity in the orient. In other words, in an age commonly thought to pre-date modern notions of national and racial consciousness, Europeans in India took pride not in their ability to assimilate but rather in their public displays of difference.

11By the eighteenth century, India was no longer a remote dream-land accessible only to a few select travelers, merchants, and adventurers. P. J. Marshall (1990: 46) notes that by 1800, thousands of Englishmen had been to India and a “belief in the fabulous gave way on a broad front to what was taken to be precise knowledge about the land and peoples of India. India was mapped and described. Indians were provided their ‘history’… What was left of the exotic was tamed by bringing most of its substance into the pale of the knowable and the mundane, while enclosing what was left within European canons of taste.” Unlike other locations in the Orientalist tableau that remained alien or exotic to Europeans well into the eighteenth century, India quickly became familiar to the British public. As European commercial interests expanded in India, so did the number of Europeans residing there. A concurrent shift took place in British attitudes toward the Mughal dynasty and the already well-established trope of Indian societal stagnation was increasingly projected unto Indian material culture. By the eighteenth century, it was no longer just variation in form and material that was seen to distinguish European from Indian dress, but the very notion of fashion itself. Adam Smith asserted that in western European court culture, fashionable objects and articles were esteemed because of their association with the high ranking:

Fig. 4. Sir David Ochterlony in Indian Dress and smoking a hookah and watchinga nautch in his house in Delhi.

Fig. 4. Sir David Ochterlony in Indian Dress and smoking a hookah and watchinga nautch in his house in Delhi.

© The British Library Board. All rights reserved.

The graceful, the easy and commanding manners of the great, joined to the usual richness and magnificence of their dress, give a grace to the very form which they happen to bestow upon it. As long as they continue to use this form, it is connected in our imagination with the idea of something that is genteel and magnificent… As soon as they drop it, it loses all the grace, which it had appeared to possess before, and being now used only by the inferior ranks of people, seems to have something of their meanness and awkwardness [Smith 1896 cited in Berg 2005: 36-37].

12Smith (ibid.) noted that even in the early eighteenth century, European fashions changed continuously and clothes were outmoded within a year. Indeed, Western conceptions of fashion are based, in principle, on the notion of “out with the old, in with the new”—a forward looking (albeit inherently orouboric) process of invention and reinvention, and the interpretation (rather than mere imitation) of the past. In contrast, eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century discourses on Indian material culture make repeated reference to the perceived stagnation of Indian modes. James Forbes (1834: I, 163-164), for example, observed in his Oriental Memoirs:

The art of embroidery is of great antiquity, as we learn from sacred and profane history: the dress of the princes and nobles in Homer’s time resembled the jama, girdle, and kincob drawers flowered with gold and silver, now worn by the Moguls. Such is the analogy between ancient and modern usages in the oriental world, where things are much less liable to change than in Europe.

13The account by Judge Frederick John Shore (1837: II, 347), himself a known aficionado of Indian material culture, similarly speaks of a perception common among his compatriots that Indian tailors lacked innovation, instead working within a mode of “blind imitation”: “I have heard an anecdote related of a lady, who having given a dress and some muslin to a tailor to make her a gown exactly like the pattern, was so literally obeyed, that the new gown was brought with a darn in it, because the old one chanced to have one!” Emma Roberts (1835: III, 210) likewise commented that “the fashions of India are unchangeable.”

Few things surprise the natives of India more than the changes in European fashions; no sooner has an unfortunate dirzee (tailor) mastered the intricacies of a folded body, than he has to exert his bewildered faculties upon the production of another, without plait or pucker; some ladies, who are unable to afford any instructions to their work-people, exhibit prints of fashions to the wondering eyes of those poor men, who gaze upon them with amazed and hopeless countenances, honestly acknowledging their inability to follow such a guide (ibid.: I: 176).

14Here, fashion serves as a metaphor for Western technical progress. The “unfortunate” Indian worker lags behind, unable to keep up with the forward momentum and unceasing evolution of Western fashion. He remains “bewildered”, “wondering”, “amazed”, and ultimately “hopeless” in the face of rapidly changing European sartorial innovation. These attitudes were reflected by an increasingly rigid preference for European material culture. The same anonymous author cited earlier, who reminisced about the exotic visual splendours once encountered by seventeenth-century Europeans in India, described (in 1824) the starkly different material reality of the present:

“In the wide range of our Indian dominions… the courts of all the Indian princes these include, have changed into quiet and monotonous civil stations, where the object is to introduce European, and discard Native habits” (Anonymous 1824: 57).

15Importantly, some contemporary observers attributed this perceived lack of change in Indian forms of material culture not just to a cultural preference, but to an innate quality. William Macintosh (1782: I, 301), for instance, identified a “certain disposition that prevails in India not towards invention of design, but to imitation”:

In arts of this last kind, the Hindoos are so dexterous, that the original model is not to be distinguished from the new production, in any kind of cloth, earth, metal, wood, or stone. For works of imitation, their nature seems particularly fitted, by that patient perseverance which so eminently distinguishes them.

16In this view, a talent for reproduction takes the place of the capacity for innovation, confining Indians, for all their natural dexterity, to slavish replication and consequently a state of timeless immutability. In this way, European descriptions of Indian material culture became implicated in emerging discourses on the so-called passive Oriental and the increasingly racialised terminology used to define this category.

Fears of Physical and Moral Degeneration: European Sartorial Responses to India’s Environmental Threat

  • 3 In the Indian context, specifications for clothing related to occupation and marital status are ext (...)

17In Indian society clothing has long been seen as a sign of affiliation to a particular religious or social group. In European society, by contrast, clothing has traditionally been seen to indicate class, wealth, and level of civilisation.3 Out of this discrepancy in the symbolic function of clothing, sartorial codes acquired a particular salience to the identity politics of Indo-European interaction during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This tension was further heightened by the fact that together with a strong sense of their own superiority vis-à-vis the peoples with whom travel and trade was bringing them into contact, Europeans also held the notion that the very traits by which they defined this superiority were mutable and subject to change over time. Accordingly, European identity in non-European settings was regarded as potentially vulnerable. In India in particular, the sanctity of the European body was seen to be threatened not only by the risk of physical and sexual metissage, but also through the degeneration or even loss of other, more fluid and subjective criteria that were thought to compose their essential European identity. In reaction to this perceived threat, there developed a range of complex theories detailing regimes of hygiene, diet, and dress best suited for guarding and preserving the European body against the potentially corruptive effects of the Indian environment.

18Despite the important symbolic role allotted to clothing as a marker of European identity, dress, like identity itself, was known to undergo a necessary process of adaptation in the colonial context. Mark Harrison (1999: 60), in his Climates and Constitutions, writes that “throughout the eighteenth century, and well into the nineteenth, many Europeans continued to believe that the human character (and even physical appearance) could be shaped by the environment, so that Europeans might eventually become ‘Indianized’ by long residence in the subcontinent.” Interestingly, during the early to mid-eighteenth century, this potential for acclimatisation was looked upon with a degree of optimism by certain Europeans. This can be explained by the often menacing environmental and climatic conditions in India: everything from the extreme heat on the open plains to the “unwholesome” air around the swamps of Calcutta posed a mortal threat to Europeans whose dress, diet, and lifestyle remained painfully unsuited to the tropical environment. During this earlier period, the idea that “Indianisation” would eventually reduce the harmful effects of the native environment upon the European constitution was thus seen as a potential boon to the future of European enterprise on the subcontinent.

19From the middle of the eighteenth century, the European population in India grew steadily as more and more soldiers and administrators made their way to the subcontinent. The medical men charged with their safety made the preservation of European health in India a priority and sought to identify the modes of life best suited to European survival in a tropical climate. India’s first European medical periodical, The Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta, first published in 1825, served as the written culmination of these careful studies and covered the effects of dress, food, climate, and exercise on the European body in India. Parts of this work deals with methods of European acculturation to the Indian environment. The argument for physical adaptation owes much to Doctor James Johnson, surgeon in the Royal Navy, who in 1813 published The Influence of Tropical Climates, More Especially the Climate of India, on European Constitutions. In this work, Johnson describes in detail the various threats and dangers to European health posed by the Indian climate and environment, including maladies such as prickly heat, dysentery, cholera, malaria, yellow fever, bilious fever, hepatitis, marsh miasma, and heat exhaustion. William Hickey (Spencer 1923: III, 139) describes a case of such illness in his famous Memoirs, recalling a dreadful attack of prickly heat, which claimed the life of a friend’s wife. He described the fragile woman, newly arrived from England, being “greatly annoyed by what is called prickly heat, a sort of rash or eruption upon the skin very prevalent in hot countries, especially Asia.” The woman was seemingly so irritated by the sensation of heat and itching on her skin that she requested a large quantity of cold water to drink. Moments after drinking the cold water, she broke into a terrible fever and died within the hour. Such sudden death, due to illness or exposure, was not uncommon among the European population in India. Indeed, the frequency of such instances led Reverend William Tennant (1803: I, 73) to write: “The climate of India proves a severe trial to every European constitution; many fall a sacrifice to its first attacks; many more linger on in a state of increased debility, and painful disease, which reduces them to a state more resembling ghosts than men.”

20Doctor Johnson saw at first hand the consequences of unsuitable European dress, diet and exercise and wrote extensively on the advantages of adapting the European lifestyle to India’s climatic conditions. He advocated, for example, the moderate use of alcohol and meat as well as the use of punkahs (large native house fans) and chattahs (travelling umbrellas). He also recommended the imitation of certain native forms of dress to protect against the inhospitable climate:

The turban and cummerbund, meet our eye at every step: the former, to defend the head from the direct rays of a powerful sun; the latter apparently, for the purpose of preserving the important viscera of the abdomen from the deleterious impressions of cold. This [cummerbund] is certainly a most valuable part of their dress; and one that is highly deserving imitation (Johnson 1813: 422).

21Johnson also argued that the ubiquitous red flannel of European uniforms should be exchanged for a cooler material in a lighter colour. Johnson’s theories on uniforms and clothing reveal that the obvious vulnerability of European health in India led some to deem certain forms of material and sartorial acculturation an absolute necessity. Yet, as Harrison (1999: 60) has aptly noted: “There was an obvious tension between such views and the self-image of a self-consciously ‘imperial race, ’ which increasingly sought to emphasise its difference from subject peoples.” Indeed, in addition to the fear of death itself, there existed a parallel fear of what might happen to the “European constitution” if it did survive in India. As Elizabeth Collingham (2001: 1) puts it: “All Europeans, even if they escaped serious disease or death, were believed to undergo a subtle constitutional transformation. Even early Europeans in India had feared the effects of the tropical climate, believing that the climate had the power to corrupt and degenerate the European body, blurring the essential differences between Europeans and native inhabitants. Describing Indians in the seventeenth century, Francois Bernier (1972: 253) noted: “There is less vigour among the people than in our colder climates; and the feebleness and languor both of body and mind, consequent upon excessive heat, may be considered a species of unremitting malady, which attacks all persons indiscriminately.” Similarly, in 1713, East India Company surgeon John Clark (1773: 269) observed that “a warm climate relaxes the solids, dissolves the blood, and predisposes [the body] to putrefaction.” In 1777, Mrs. Kindersley speculated about the cumulative effect of exposure to the tropical environment:

It is a common and just observation that the nature of this climate is such as to enervate every person who resides in it, and to render the most active after a time indolent; this disposition increases, and every generation becomes more and more slothful, which seems to account for the present degeneracy of the Mahomedans of Hindostan (Kindersley 1777: 165).

22This interpretation became a common trope through which the perceived laxity and sensuality of the native peoples of India was explained. In a typical expression of this sentiment, William Falconer, writing in 1781 and drawing on the comments of the seventeenth-century traveller Tavernier, claimed:

The great perspiration to which they [Indians] are subject is extremely weakening to the body and when it becomes excessive, nearly deprives it of all its vigour… This languor is naturally communicated to the mind, and debilitates that in a familiar manner… The cowardly disposition of the inhabitants of the East is well known. A hundred Europeans would without difficulty beat a thousand Indian soldiers (Falconer 1781: 9).

23European medical men such as Doctor Johnson incorporated these notions into their own theory of the gradual erosion of the European constitution—and, by extension, the inherent traits of European identity that it bestowed—by prolonged exposure to the Indian environment. Drawing a parallel between the risk of direct fatality to this theory of steady deterioration, he wrote:

Of those Europeans who arrive on the banks of the Ganges, many fall early victim to the climate… That others droop, and are forced, in a very few years, to seek their native air, is also well known. And, that the successors of all would gradually degenerate, if they remained permanently in the country, cannot easily be disproved (Johnson 1813: 3).

24Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, European medical theory held that the Indian climate over-stimulated the vital organs, producing excess bile, sluggishness, congestion, and stagnation in the body. The effects of climate and the tropical environment were held responsible for the lethargy, effeminacy, and decay which soon became synonymous with India’s native population. Conversely, vigour, dynamism, strength, and scientific progress were soon deemed the natural fruits of Europe’s colder, northern climate. As Harrison (1999: 59) asserts, “the medico-climatic discourse which began to crystallize in this period was commonly invoked in order to account for the dynamism of European culture and the increasing dominance of European over Asian states.” Europe’s increasing commercial and military dominance over non-European peoples led many Europeans to search for a scientific justification for their success.

Our Portuguese Predecessors: British Fears of Moral Degeneracy

25Many European writers on climate and its effects on the European body also made foreboding references to the perceived degeneracy of the Portuguese in India, noting that they had lost the very qualities thought to constitute their Europeanness. Reverend Tennant (1803: I, 56-57) wrote of the Portuguese: “no people in Europe seem to have assimilated so closely to the manners of the country… with every vice of the nation they possess few of their virtues… with a complexion darker than that of the Hindoos, with habits so familiar, and with full possession of the language”. He also warned that, “in the records of the Portuguese we may perhaps read our fate; or at least behold a picture of their manners, which at some future period may prove too exact a resemblance to our own” (ibid.: I, 385). Tennant described in detail the perceived connection between Indian modes of living, dressing, eating and thinking with subsequent (and inevitable) debauchery, cruelty, and avarice. He wrote of the Portuguese:

Fig. 5. Mahadaji Sindhia entertaining a British Naval Officer and military officerwith a nautch. A watercolour, circa 1820.

Fig. 5. Mahadaji Sindhia entertaining a British Naval Officer and military officerwith a nautch. A watercolour, circa 1820.

© The British Library Board. All rights reserved.

The chiefs and principal officers, retained a multitude of those singing and dancing women, with which India abounds. Effeminacy, introduced itself into their houses and armies. The officers marched to meet their enemy in palanquins. The brilliant courage which had subdued so many nations, existed no longer amongst them (ibid.: I, 385-386).

26Similarly, James Forbes (1834: I, 85) observed in his memoirs:

The Portuguese have left numerous descendants there, who live under the protection of the English laws, and enjoy the free exercise of their religion. They are generally styled Portuguese, retain their European names and dress and speak their original language, although greatly corrupted; but from their intermarriages with the natives of inferior tribes, their complexion is darker than the high castes of Hindoos, and their education is very contracted.

27Doctor Johnson, in his above-mentioned work on tropical climate, cites the poem of an anonymous contemporary who rhapsodised about the perceived degeneration of the Portuguese in dramatic and foreboding tones:

‘Twas not the sires of such as these,
Who dared the elements and pathless seas;
Who made proud Asian monarchs feel
How weak their gold was against Europe’s steel.
But beings of another mould, —
Rough, hardy, vigorous, manly, bold!
(Johnson 1813: 3)

28In 1829, shortly after his arrival in Calcutta, Victor Jacquemont wrote to a fellow Frenchman in Pondicherry about a recent Act of Parliament that allowed the English in India to formally own land. Jacquemont (1939: 29) noted that many Englishmen had a negative reaction to this new property law, fearing that long residence in India would have the same effect on Englishmen as it had on the Portuguese, whom he wrote “are all black, blacker than the natives, and they linger on in low debauchery and poverty, despised even by the natives.” Jacquemont further observed that many around him expressed fears that in time the English would meet the same fate as the Portuguese:

Well I have seen a number of people who are convinced that after three or four generations in India, or at least in this part of India, their proud and stalwart race would become equally degraded. Their pride is hurt by the thought that one day, in a century or two’s time, Englishmen, men of English race, speaking the language and professing the religion of England, should be burnt black by the climate, enfeebled, emasculated and reduced to inferior employments among the Indians (ibid.).

29The Indian environment (and the sexual miscegenation it was seen to invite) was thought to have sapped all recognisable markers of Europeanness from the Portuguese. They were no longer seen to be the embodiment of European strength and dynamism, but rather languished like their Asian counterparts under an oppressive and emasculating Indian sun.

30Europeans naturally dreaded the Indian climate for the potentially mortal danger it posed to their health. However, they also feared the Indian environment for its less obvious, insidious power to change, alter, corrupt, and ultimately degrade not only the European body, but the other traits thought to comprise European identity. Environmental determinism was paramount to eighteenth-century notions of human difference. Human beings, ultimately, were believed to change according to the climate and environment they were exposed to. It was widely maintained that even those Britons who did survive in India, were vulnerable to the same process of moral degeneration thought to have weakened the Portuguese, a process that had also resulted in the enfeebled state of the Indians themselves. Bernier (1972: 254) went as far as to classify the tropical climate as an ill in and of itself, describing it as “a species of unremitting malady, which attacks all persons indiscriminately”. An obvious tension existed between the acknowledgment of this fact and the desire for Europeans, as an increasingly self-conscious imperial race, to maintain and make visible the boundaries between themselves and their colonial subjects. Thus, the optimistic hope for the benefits of acclimatisation by early European travellers to India, was increasingly tempered by a desire to protect and preserve those qualities thought to be uniquely European.

31Not surprisingly, the adaptive measures advocated by Johnson and his medical contemporaries raised significant controversy amongst the European population. Newcomers scoffed at what they deemed “effeminate” Eastern luxuries and even seasoned Anglo-Indians adapted their material culture and consumption in highly circumscribed ways. Indeed, profound tensions existed between the physical need to adapt materially to the Indian environment, out of common sense and self-preservation, and the fear of losing those valuable qualities thought to comprise their Europeanness. Captain Williamson (1810: II, ii), in his famous East India Made Vecum, described what he regarded as the stubborn foolishness of newly-arrived Europeans:

… nothing can be more preposterous than the significant sneers of Gentlemen on their first arrival in India; meaning thereby to ridicule, or despise what they consider effeminacy or luxury. Thus, several may be seen walking about without chattahs (umbrellas) during the greatest heats. They affect to be ashamed of requiring aid, and endeavour to uphold, by such a display of indifference, the great reliance placed on strength of constitution. This unhappy infatuation rarely exceeds a few days: at the end of that time, we are too often called to attend the funeral of the self-deluded victim.

32Similarly, it was often remarked by observers of Calcutta social life, that Europeans newcomers refused to make sartorial concessions to the tropical climate and often dined, despite the sweltering heat, attired in full formal European dinner dress. Such “griffinish sticklers for decorum”, as Johnson called them (1813: 426), sought to maintain the customs of their native land regardless of India’s tropical climate. The questions which plagued early Europeans in India were obvious: was acculturation, as advocated by certain medical men, the most sensible way to safeguard European health and survive the dangers of the Indian climate? If so, how were Europeans to avoid the same fate as their Portuguese predecessors? How were they to protect, maintain, and make visible the outward and aesthetic signs of their physical and cultural superiority to the native population? In short, if adaptation was necessary, how were boundaries to be maintained? Coupled with their belief in the inherent superiority of their own material culture, these fears help to explain why many Europeans were reluctant to abandon European sartorial codes in favour of Indian adaptation and assimilation. In an age when clothing made the man, the abandonment of one’s sartorial identity was seen to signify a profound and worrying loss of self.

The Question of European Assimilation: Sartorial Codes in Historiographical Perspective

33The themes explored here respond to the recent historiographical tendency to claim that eighteenth-century Europeans were more likely to become Indianised, or to “go-native”, than their nineteenth-century successors. Recent scholarship on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century has sought to provide a counter-narrative to traditional imperial histories as well as to post-colonial accounts which often portray Indo-European relations in terms of a “clash of civilisations”. William Dalrymple (2002: xl-xli) writes that early Europeans “inhabited a world that was far more hybrid, and with far less clearly defined ethnic, national and religious borders, than we have been conditioned to expect.” He suggests that this more complex and hybrid story of inter-cultural mingling contradicts the agenda of imperial as well as postcolonial historians, who have conveniently glazed over this “early promiscuous mingling of races and ideas, modes of dress and ways of living” (ibid.: xli). In a similar vein, Maya Jasanoff (2005: 7) writes of the “tendency in post-colonial scholarship to portray Europe’s imperial collision with the rest of the world as a fundamentally oppositional, one-sided affair: a sad, sordid tale of how Western powers imposed hegemony—technological, economic, military, and cultural— over non-Western societies.” Crucial to both arguments is the notion that real colonial encounters took place between individuals, rather than entities. As Jasanoff puts it, “real people in the real world do not necessarily experience other cultures in a confrontational or monolithic way” (ibid.: 7).

34This otherwise welcome corrective may, however, be over-stating the case. It is clear that Enlightenment notions of human difference were less rigidly articulated than racial theories of the later nineteenth century that pivoted on fixed categories such as blood, skin-colour, and genetics. However, it is essential to recognise that even the more fluid and subjective definitions of human difference current during the eighteenth century do not disguise an already flourishing notion of European superiority. P. J. Marshall (1990: 49) writes that “suppositions about an amiable inter-racial sociability before the arrival of Victorian values or of white memsahibs seem to be almost entirely mythological.” Accordingly, European clothing, as a visual as well as symbolic extension of the European body, was not readily surrendered in eighteenth century India—Europeans in India carefully negotiated, rather than abandoned their sartorial identity. A careful balance existed between the need to communicate European authority to the Indian population using indigenous aesthetic codes, all the while maintaining the very elements of European identity thought to qualify Europeans for rule in the first place. The strategic adoption of certain forms of Indian dress represented not a straying away from European modes, but a way of constructing (and re-constructing) European identity using Indian idioms. This article demonstrates that the body served as the primary site where ideals of Enlightenment universalism conflicted with anxieties stemming from a persistent belief in the permeability of physical bodies to their environment. This ideological conflict would remain central to the development of European attitudes and practices in India well into the era of high colonialism.



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1 The khil‘at refers here both to a garment itself as well as the ceremonial ritual of exchange.

2 Belinda and Sir Plume are characters in Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic narrative poem, The Rape of the Lock (1717).

3 In the Indian context, specifications for clothing related to occupation and marital status are extant in texts dating from the early Vedic and Upanishadic eras. In Europe, clothing was primarily seen as an indication of economic income, but sumptuary laws, which appeared in England for the first time during the reign of Edward III, suggest that clothing also became a symbol of social status and civility during the medieval period.


Titel Fig. 1. Company officer receives noblemen on a terrace, Murshidabad 1760-1765.
Impressum © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Datei image/jpeg, 27k
Titel Fig. 2. Jean Chardin, 1739.
Impressum Source: Chevalier Chardin en Perse, in Sur les routes d’Europe et d’Asie.
Datei image/jpeg, 83k
Titel Fig. 3. Portrait oriental de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Nicolas de Largillière, circa 1700.
Datei image/jpeg, 38k
Titel Fig. 4. Sir David Ochterlony in Indian Dress and smoking a hookah and watchinga nautch in his house in Delhi.
Impressum © The British Library Board. All rights reserved.
Datei image/jpeg, 28k
Titel Fig. 5. Mahadaji Sindhia entertaining a British Naval Officer and military officerwith a nautch. A watercolour, circa 1820.
Impressum © The British Library Board. All rights reserved.
Datei image/jpeg, 27k


Historian, she currently holds a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). She is studying relationships between material culture — especially clothing — and the construction of European identities in colonial India. Her research explores the tension between Enlightenmnet ideas and the praxis of empire in the construction and contestation of gendered and racial identities. Working with visual and textual sources that connect the metropole to the colony, her research reveals the deeply reciprocal processes of influence, assimilation, and appropriation that took place at the intersection of European and Asian material culture.
– forthcoming, Clothing the Imperial Image : European Dress, Identity, and Authority in Colonial India.
– 2012 “Cultural Cross-Dressing : Posing and Performance in Orientalist portraiture”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 22 (2), pp. 281-298.

© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2013


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