Dresses and their role in women empowerment

Dresses and their role in women empowerment

Throughout history, changing patterns of female attire mark the freedom that women started to claim in society. It is a trend that hasn’t stopped till date 

We will not dwell upon the recent comment made by the new chief minister of Uttarakhand on women wearing ripped jeans. He obviously spoke for certain sections that are yet to come to terms with the newer dress preferences of Indian women. We will not even discuss individual tastes and freedoms here, because history is really not bothered about our opinions. It moves relentlessly on its own as mankind creates more mindless catastrophes, tackles newer problems and also factors in astonishing inventions and technological shifts within its steadier value systems.

Almost each creation, natural or man-made, has some role to play or else it would not exist. Let us go through a few examples of how lesser-noticed inventions and technologies often led to the consequential adaptations and alterations of the female attire, even as they drew more strength from them. These ‘little histories’ are usually smothered by more dominating events like the suffragette movement, legal rights and remedies, landmark judgments and the battles for economic independence.

In India, the stitched garment was really popularised after Muslim rule was established in the 13th century. Though the needle was known, flowing unstitched clothes were the norm in India. After the practical advantages of the stitched salwar and pyjama were appreciated, they were adopted by people in the Northwest and the northern parts. The salwar-kameez, however, spread to most corners of India in modern times. It is quite a decent alternative to the sari. As education and job opportunities for women opened up, its functionality became an important factor in its popularity among students, working women and as attire for travel.

Let us now travel to the West, where the 1880s was rocked by the recently invented bicycle. Within a decade, women took to it and the crossbar or top-tube had to be lowered considerably to permit them to pedal along in their swishing gowns. It was surely the first major breakthrough in women’s mobility and they could finally ride something and travel unescorted. The cycle’s skirt guards covered the moving cycle-chains so that hemlines did not get entangled, but more and more women realised that corsets and gowns must go. This is when a few bold women started wearing shorter skirts and introduced pyjama-type leggings called ‘bloomers’. They cycled around conveniently, but as expected, society was shocked.

India imported its first 35,000 bicycles for men in 1910 but the demand kept soaring more and more. The early talkie films considered it very romantic for a woman to be seated on the cycle’s crossbar, between the two extended arms of a man holding the handlebar and cycling quite merrily. Soon after Independence, Indian companies like BSA, Atlas, Avon, Raleigh, TI and Hero produced cycles in plenty. Models like the ‘Ladybird’ were to cater to the new Indian woman who was not willing to be taken for a ride all the time. Though the ladies’ cycles permitted sari-clad women to drive them, it became clear that legging dresses like the salwar offered better control.

In the West, patriarchy kept discouraging women from wearing pants and countries like the US and France actually had laws enforcing the ban. But when women’s participation was needed during the two World Wars, Western nations had no option but to accept women in pants. But it was still not a ‘feminine’ dress. By the 1960s, some women started rebelling and began wearing pants in public. Fashion historian Lisa Santandrea, however, feels that it was really a decade later “that pants become a symbol of freedom that women hadn’t had before”. In 1934, jeans maker Levi Strauss had introduced its Lady Levi’s jeans to better fit the female form, but these were worn within the family and with peers. The post-war hippie generation brought it out as a public statement of freedom, but society in India was not ready. Indians were charmed to see movies where young women in tight salwars and body-hugging kameez cycled together singing or were chased around trees by heroes.

By the time well-educated middle class girls went out to work in large numbers, several inventions had lined up to help them. The huge tin trunks were discarded by the 1970s, and even leather and other suitcases that had replaced them were swept away by lighter ones of polyester. Women could lift the lighter polycarbonate and styrene ones to luggage racks in trains and planes. In the 90s, wheeled strolleys arrived—which meant no help was required to roll along one’s luggage.

Then, in the 21st century, light backpacks were reinvented with comfortable padded straps and better design. Women could easily sling them on their backs, freeing both their arms. These backpacks were certainly more commodious than ladies handbags, fashionable or otherwise. It was clear that saris were rather difficult to manoeuvre when one travelled in public transport with backpacks or had to traverse long distances. This is when jeans and leggings joined the salwar-kameez in liberating women and enforcing gender equality, not just talking about it.We need not grudge it if the young feel that wearing frayed or ripped jeans seals their camaraderie and oneness with the global youth. After all, they have to work together to mend the world we have messed up and will leave behind.


Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati

(sircar.j@gmail.com, tweets @jawharsircar)

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express