Colonial Dress, 1850-1860

£5.00

History of Costume I 1800-1899

Availability: In stock

The vast wealth of Great Britain in the 19th century came not only from the sweat and tears of the mill-worker or miner but from the natural resources of the overseas dependencies it had been busily and enterprisingly annexing for the past two hundred years. As these dependencies embraced the four corners of the globe the resources were many and various and in great demand in the highly civilized countries of Europe. These riches naturally enticed the adventurous, or the unsuccessful, to endure difficulties of climate or loneliness in the safe garnering of fortunes for themselves and the Mother country. The tiresome natives, in a great many instances being most uncooperative, needed the army, law and church to keep them in order and to turn them from their nasty heathen ways; this created a heaven-sent opportunity for employment of the superfluous in a growing community, thus neatly killing two fat birds with one stone. India, the most glittering jewel in the diadem of colonial dominion, with its own ancient civilization and culture was no virgin land to conquer and so invited the more sophisticated types from the home country as guardians of the outposts of Empire. From the 18th century they had braved the climate and pests with as much of their own way of life as could be supplied from England with the addition of some of the luxury and grandeur of the local potentates, and by the middle of the 19th century they had established a highly complicated society in the larger towns of the sub-continent. In the early days, service in India meant enduring many years of exile before returning home, if one was lucky enough to salvage one’s liver from the rigours of tropical diseases and unsuitable high living; but with the coming of the Overland Route it became possible to refresh body and spirit with more frequent visits home and, most important of all, accelerated the transport of news and commodities so necessary to sustaining the ‘county’ living of the exiles. The English man, with sublime assurance, has always taken his way of life with him, firmly convinced that it could not bettered despite a few minor set-backs such as gout and apoplexy due to transplanting set habits of drink and dress. It is a mystery how quickly the news of fashion managed to filter through to the depths of Africa or the Indian jungle yet get there it always did and with the aid of a clever local craftsman the Memsahib could appear at social gatherings as well upholstered as in Kensington or Manchester. The one drawback was that not only had one to suffer the dis­ comfort of the mode but the mode plus climate. One advantage the Memsahib had over her home sisters was that India provided the most delightful materials that were enchanting to look at and comfortable to wear and, to those less accustomed to seeing them, had such novelty that a home market was assured. Fashion became a two-way traffic – the latest ideas and luxuries from Europe, and, in return, materials that enlarged the variety of styles, in dress and surroundings, in the western world. The passion for things oriental, in the late 18th century and early 19th, and the happy coincidence of a cultivated choice, brought to either country commodities that enriched both cultures. Architecture, in England, blossomed with a lighter, gayer impetus (even if Carlton House or the Royal Pavilion did rather overdo the theme) and added graceful pavilions and verandahs to the houses of home-coming colonials in a style nostalgically reminiscent of a life so desirable in retrospect. We must be thankful that so much of the concrete evidence of our presence in our colonies dates from these gracious days; pseudo-Classic blends more becomingly with palms than pseudo-Gothic. It was in the realm of costume that England gained so much from her dependencies -materials, dyestuffs and patterns that have become so associated with certain accessories of dress that, even if copies and in artificial fabric, they are still in use today. The soft Cashmeres embroidered Madras muslins, Benares gauzes glittering with metal thread, hand painted or printed cottons and Surat silks were all used in their pristine beauty and, very soon reproduced in the mills of Lancashire. The modern silk tie owes its origin to the ‘tabby’ woven silk of the Indian weaver, diagonally stretching and often patterned with the familiar Paisley design (a typical Indian motif) in the same way that the silk dressing-gown – that veteran of fashion – started its career as a garment for the lounging colonial in the privacy of the verandah. White ducks or suits made of heavy ribbed silk might also be worn in the country districts as was the headgear of those who went out in the midday sun. Wide-brimmed fine straw hats and, later, the famous pith helmet, were gracefully draped with a ‘pugree’, a long scarf, to cover the back of the neck, which the Victorian was firmly convinced was the vital spot most susceptible to the vile sun; judges sweltering under their wigs, and civilians and military stifled by high collars, had comparative peace of mind if that danger spot was covered while in the open. Habit dies hard and it took another hundred years and the nonchalant British O.R. in the Second World War to prove that a white man did not get sun-stroke through the back of the neck. Etiquette at home and the prestige of the ruling race abroad was so strong that strict observance of ‘correct’ dress was necessary for all formal occasions. The Governor and his entourage, his Lady and the guests, might all have been attending a Royal Garden Party in London, during a chilly July, at the many social function necessary to keeping up the morale in alien surroundings. Even in the laxer 20th century, at least a part of male evening dress had to conform. For a little variety, the burra-sahib of Bombay could wear a white coat with his black trousers while his opposite, in Calcutta, sported the reverse. Women with more privacy and leisure could relax on the verandah corsetless, or unlaced, in cool matinees – short full jackets of embroidered muslin, frilled and ample-sleeved, over the full skirt and innumerable petticoats fashion still demanded even in the tropics. She could keep an eagle eye on the durzee, the local tailor, while he faithfully copied the heavy fringed and frilled garment from home that had become too familiar at the Club to be worn with prestige. So adaptable were these craftsmen and so observant of detail that a hundred years later a dress would be produced with the inherited skill and the exact finish of the haute-couture of the 1840’s, and in the market street of some isolated hill station the not-too-untruthful sign of ‘Paris Dressmaker’ can still be seen. So forceful was the British character, and so capable and eager the native craftsman to supply its requirements, that the surroundings of the home-sick rulers soon became as familiar as climate would allow. Unfortunately, the echo of England in the mid-19th century, infused with the more obvious decoration of orientalism (whose intricacies suited the mid-Victorian down to the ground), was a tasteless and unhappy union, leaving curious traces in both countries. The Great Exhibition of 1851 magnificently presented the art of the Anglo-Indian to the receptive British public, resulting in the myriads of carved brass-trayed tables precariously supporting family photos, screens whose delicate carved open-work was intended to obscure but only let through the draught in their alien environment, and the bead curtains cluttering the drawing rooms of suburbia and collecting the dust of generations. Birmingham was soon repeating the brass-work and papier-maché furniture with even more lamentable results but to the obvious satisfaction of the home market, while the rich Indian ruler repaid the compliment by over-loading his palaces with the gimcrackery of Victorian taste. It is curious that neither national had any lasting influence on the other in actual appearance, merely borrowing motifs or materials to use in its own individual way. Mercifully the Indian character withstood the many assaults on its culture, conservatively sticking to its own style of personal adornment. The western-educated Indian has not adopted European dress; he wears it in its entirety when in that chilly country, but wisely relaxes in his comfortable muslin when at home. The Indian woman has stubbornly refused to change her way of dress, and although a few society belles may adopt Parisian hair styles, her only concession to modernity has been to adopt one of her own national styles, that of Punjabi trousers, to suit her more active life. The people who gave such skill and faithful service to the alien race remain timeless, and the ayah, bearer and sweeper look the same today as when they tended the children, or the houses, in the style of the British upper class of the 1850’s.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm