Colonialism and imperialism

The term “empire” covers a range of ways of incorporating and managing different populations under the rule of a single dominant state or polity, as for example in the Roman Empire, the Carolingan Empire, and the British Empire. A more detailed categorization might distinguish between colonialism as the ruling by an external power over subject populations and imperialism as intervention in or dominating influence over another polity without actually governing it. The two processes differ largely in terms of the extent to which they transform the institutions and organization of life in the societies subject to their intrusion; the transformations of colonialism tend to be more direct than those of imperialism.

Many European nations, the United States, China, and Japan have at one time or another exerted colonial rule over subject populations as part of regionally shifting geopolitical strategies combined with economic motives for gain. Although they applied diverse approaches to governing local societies, most colonial powers considered the people they ruled to be alien and different. Entering into the affairs of other societies, differentiating between groups and individuals in racial, ethnic, and gender terms, colonial rule reorganized local life, affecting colonized people’s access to land, property, and resources, authority structures and institutions, family life and marriage, among many others. These vast transformations of livelihoods had numerous cultural ramifications, including on dress.

Colonial powers have tended in recent centuries to be developed countries with strong agricultural and manufacturing economies and powerful urban centers. Their populations, and especially individuals directly involved in the colonial enterprise, have often regarded colonized indigenous peoples as “backward,” both culturally and socioeconomically. Appearance was a strongly contested area in the relations between colonizers and colonized. Indigenous people in many colonized societies adorned their bodies with cosmetics, tattooing, or scarification, wore feathers and other forms of ornament, and habitually went naked or dressed in animal skins or other non-woven materials. When they did wear woven cloth, it was often in the form of clothing that was draped, wrapped, or folded rather than cut, stitched, and shaped to the contours of the body. Dress and textiles conveyed information about gender and rank in terms different from those familar to the colonizers. Such vastly different dress practices, especially nakedness, struck colonizers as evidence of the inferiority of subject populations. Because colonizers considered their own norms and lifestyles to be proof of their superior status, dress became an important boundary-marking mechanism.

Clothing Encounters

The cultural norms that guided the West’s colonial encounters were shaped importantly by Christian notions of morality and translated into action across the colonial world by missionary societies from numerous denominations. The colonial conquest by Spain and Portugal of today’s Latin America developed caste-like socioeconomic and political systems in which indigenous people and African slaves were forced to convert to Christianity and to wear Western styles of dress. Yet the rich weaving traditions of the Maya and Andean regions did not disappear but developed creative designs combining local and Christian symbols. When the Dutch colonized Indonesia in the seventeenth century and introduced Christianity, Islam was already long established. Subsequent interactions encompassed three distinct cultural spheres: Dutch and European, Muslim, and non-Muslim indigenous. The Dutch initially reserved Western-style dress for Europeans and for Christian converts.

Clothing “the natives” was a central focus of the missionary project in the early encounters between the West and the non-West, for example in Africa. In Bechuanaland, a frontier region between colonial Botswana and South Africa, the struggle for souls entailed dressing African bodies in European clothes to cover their nakedness and managing those bodies through new hygiene regimes. Missionaries were pleased when indigenous peoples accepted their clothing proposals, seeing it as a sign of religious conversion in the new moral economy of mind and body. In the Pacific, the encounter between missionary and indigenous clothing preferences sometimes produced striking results, as in the cultural synthesis in Samoan Christians’ bark cloth “ponchos” that not only expressed new ideas of modesty but also in fact made modesty possible by providing new ways to cover bodies. In a number of island societies, Pacific Islanders’ innovations and transformations of clothing resulted in new styles and designs.

In Melanesia, missionaries saw the eager adoption of printed calico as an outward sign of conversion, or at least openness to conversion, while Melanesians interpreted these patterns with reference to ideas about empowered bodies. Native peoples in North America also found floral designs on European printed cloth to be very attractive, incorporating them in embroidery on garments and crafts objects in increasingly stylized and abstract forms. Throughout the colonial world, missionary-inspired dress, often with links to traditional dress, developed in many directions. European styles and fabrics were incorporated in many places, such as in the smocked Sotho dress and the Herero long dress that serve as visible markers for “traditional” dress in southern Africa. Following independence from colonial rule, many such dress practices have come close to being considered national dress and are associated with notions of proper womanhood.

Colonial Behavior

Western civilization set the standards of dress for colonizers in foreign outposts in a way that stereotyped the differences between colonizer and subject populations. For example, Westerners often made a point of dressing in full European attire (woolen suits for men, corseted dresses for women) when touring up-country in the African bush or the jungles ofJava; they wished their willingness to endure discomfort for the sake of dressing “properly” to be viewed as evidence of moral and cultural superiority. Although some Europeans in early encounter situations adopted local elements of dress, for example loose-stitched gowns of cotton and silk in India, colonial dress practice became increasingly rigid and formal. As time went by, colonial dress codes regarded cultural cross-dressing (a sign of “going native”) to be an affront to the standards of the ruling group. Obsessions over dress extended to climate and disease. The British in India and Africa wore special underwear to guard themselves against sudden weather changes. They wore sola topis, flannel-lined solar helmets, to protect themselves against the dangerous rays of the sun. The fears associated with the physical environment provoked a form of a sometimes suicidal depression that contemporary medical doctors in east and southern Africa decribed as tropical neurasthenia.

British soldiers in naval uniforms attack Malay villagers. Indigenous peoples were often considered inferior by colonizers, in part because of their different dress practices, causing dress to become a status-defining mechanism.

British soldiers in naval uniforms attack Malay villagers. Indigenous peoples were often considered inferior by colonizers, in part because of their different dress practices, causing dress to become a status-defining mechanism.

Oppression and Resistance

In cases where colonial rulers regarded indigenous dress as a potential focus of resistance to the occupying power, suppression of local dress might be rigidly enforced. For example, when Korea was a Japanese colony (1910 – 1945), all markers of Korean cultural identity, including the use of the spoken and written Korean language and the wearing of the national hanbok costume, were ruthlessly suppressed. In contrast, in the Japanese colony of Taiwan (ruled 1895-1945), there was no readily identifiable national dress, and so the Japanese authorities did not pay particular attention to what Taiwanese people wore.

Colonizers often could not fully control how subjected people dressed. Migrant labor, urban life, and education introduced new consumption practices and desires, among them factory-produced textiles and European-styled fashions. Local people sometimes wore the new garments as they saw fit. They were highly selective about which items of foreign dress they absorbed into their local dress repertoires. With new clothes also came new etiquettes that might be at variance with local ways, such as the practice in India and Indonesia of removing one’s shoes when entering a building and covering one’s head as signs of respect.

Indigenous persons of high rank, the new elite, and men were among the first to incorporate items of Western clothing into their wardrobes. Because the suit was a hallmark of colonial authority, jackets and trousers signified status, education, and colonial employment. In India, some men who adopted Western fabrics retained Indian dress styles while others had Indian garments tailored to take on a European look. New combination garments consisted of both Indian and European clothes— for example, shoes and trousers worn with coats in local styles and distinctive hats, a Western-style jacket on top of locally styled trousers or a sarong. In parts of Africa, highly decorated military uniforms were worn by kings and paramount chiefs on special occasions in combination with other styles of dress and accessories such as animal skins. The big robes, boubous, worn by Muslim men in West Africa, were not widely abandoned in favor of Western suits and are today worn with pride as evidence of a different dress aesthetic than the strong linear form of the Western suit.

Except for the elite, women in many parts of the colonial world were more resistant to adopt the new dress styles. Adopting European fabrics while retaining regional styles was popular among Indian women, who might add new accessories such as shoes, petticoats, and jackets to their Indian dress. Their saris might incorporate the latest trends in color and design from Europe. European suit jackets, often acquired in the used-clothing trade, are combined with indigenous garments in hybrid styles of men’s clothing from Africa to Afghanistan. Across most of Africa, women eagerly appropriated factory-produced cloth, much of it manufactured in Europe incorporating “African” designs, into their everyday dress style of wrapper and headtie, tailored and highly constructed dresses, alongside a variety of Western-style garments.

Exoticizing Dress Practices

In early colonial encounters, the British in India and the Dutch in Indonesia mapped and organized the diversity of the peoples they ruled in terms of dress. In late nine-tenth- and early-twentieth-century Paris, Brussels, London, and Chicago, among other places, preoccupations with the racial attributes of dress were showcased at expositions displaying colonial subjects in “traditional” clothes. The contemporary desire to catalog the world by parading exotic people in “traditional” dress as ethnographic specimens helped to accentuate the difference between the familiar and exotic in highly stereotypical ways. Postcards, produced for example in Algeria and Indonesia, displaying women in erotic stances and exotic clothing, made women’s dress central to the marking of cultural difference. With the West as voyeur, such postcards projected invidious images of the exotic onto women’s dressed bodies.

Dress as Artifact and Cultural Revival

Not all segments of colonial society advocated the adoption of Western dress for their local subjects. Some, who were able to adopt an attitude of cultural pluralism, appreciated differences in dress without assuming the superiority of European styles, while others promoted the revival of local dress and adornment as a way of safeguarding threatened cultures and their aesthetics. In northeast Canada, French Ursuline nuns promoted pictorial and floral imagery among Native Americans in sewing and embroidery, stimulating a commodification of Indian curios. Over time, these depictions shifted from images of “noble savages” to colonial nostalgia scenes depicting the imminent disappearance of a way of life dependent on nature. Similar managed efforts in support of cultural survival were instituted in many places in Latin Americia, Africa, India, South and Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Products of these cultural revival movements often did not remain within the societies that produced them, but were acquired for private and public collections and museums of textile arts. Although they all have given rise to interpretations about authenticity, such artifacts were everywhere the products of complex interactions and influences that demonstrate continuous incorporation of new developments and inspirations into “tradition.”

The retention or revival of some of these clothing and textile traditions sometimes served to express rejection of colonialism, such as in Gandhi’s call on Indians to wear homespun cloth. Some dress and textile traditions are used to make claims for political representation in states where indigenous people are subordinated or threatenend, for example in the Amazon region of Brazil. Another development of the cultural revival of textiles and dress practices has turned the process into fashion, in which newly developed styles that are considered ethnically chic attract consumers in former colonies and the world beyond.

The Seductions of Imperialism

Imperialism, which in the modern usage of the term usually involves influence on another country or culture but not direct colonial control, can have a powerful effect on the clothing of the subject culture. The effect is usually voluntary (as opposed to the actual imposition of new forms of dress by missionaries and colonial administrators), but it can be seen as a form of cultural coercion in which voluntarism is compromised. The effects can take a wide range of forms.

In Japan during the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), the government energetically promoted modernization as a way of strengthening the country, with a twofold goal: to prevent Japan’s being taken over as a colony by any European power, and to prepare Japan to compete on equal terms with Europe as a colonial power itself. The effort to emulate the strength of the West included a promotion of beef-eating (formerly nearly unknown in Japan) and a wholesale adoption of Western-style clothing, at least by urban elites.

In China at the end of the nineteenth century, a deliberate effort was made to design a new-style military and school uniform that would be “modern” but not too “Western.” The result was an early version of the Sun Yatsen suit (later to be known in the West as the Mao Zedong suit), based on the Prussian military uniform but with a collar derived from that of the traditional Chinese long gown.

A third example, one so ubiquitous as to be part of the common wisdom about the modern world, has been the worldwide spread of sartorial markers of Western popular culture: the T-shirt, jeans, and running shoes. No one has forced any teenager in the Third World to wear these garments; almost no one (short of fanatical religious dictatorships such as the Taliban in Afghanistan) has succeeded in preventing them from doing so. Denounced by nationalists and cultural conservatives as “cultural imperialism,” the trend nevertheless seems irreversible.

Transformative Encounters and Contesting Clothes

Colonies and empires exerted a limited form of rule over subject populations both in relation to the exercise of power and the will and ability to transform society. The clothing practices colonialism inspired in many parts of the world demonstrate an important lesson about the relation between colonialism and dress. Colonialism was always a transformative encounter in which subject people were active participants rather then passive respondents to sartorial impositions from the outside. When dress served as a boundary-making mechanism, it did so in ways that were contested. Because the meanings of the dressed body everywhere are ambiguous, the colonial encounter enabled local people to take pride in long-held aesthetics expressed in new dress media and forms. It enabled the creation of styles of “national dress” that as invented traditions have served as cultural assertions for shifting claims to political voice and representation between the late colonial period and the present. Last but not least, colonial dress practices from Latin America, to India, to Japan have become part of everyday wardrobes everywhere, opening a world of dress for which everyone is the richer.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alloula, Malek. “The Colonial Harem.” In Theory and History of Literatures. Manchester University Press, 1986.

Colchester, Cloe, ed. Clothing the Pacific. Oxford: Berg, 2003.

Nordholt, Henk Schulte, ed. Outward Appearances: Dressing State and Society in Indonesia. Leiden, Netherlands: KITLV Press, 1997.

Phillips, Ruth B. Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700 – 1900. Hong Kong: University of Washington Press, 1998.

Steele, Valerie, and John Major, eds. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

Tarlo, Emma. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. London: Hurst and Company, 1996.

READ ALSO: All articles