A woman goes to her wardrobe, flings open the door and gazing in utter despair at the racks of clothes inside exclaims: "I haven't a thing to wear." Whether this scene takes place in downtown Manhattan or uptown Madras, the problem is the same: what to wear? This is a conundrum to which Emma Tarlo returns with relentless inquisitiveness in Clothing Matters. The lightness of touch in her analysis and the depth of scholarship in her research perfectly complement the triviality and the profundity of the question.
Tarlo documents the changing attitudes towards clothes in India from the early colonial period through to the present. She set out to study the significance of women's embroidery in a Gujarati village in 1988, and found herself in a farcical situation: "There was I, showing inordinate interest in embroidery, when the women who actually made it were largely uninspired. Some had given up wearing it altogether, while others, who still did, confessed that they were embarrassed by its backward connotations and were keen to be rid of it."
Other anthropologists might have stuck to their guns (or needles) at this point. Tarlo is made of sterner stuff: she rises to the challenge, abandons her original quest and sets out on a whole new journey. So instead of a dry tome on the transition from cross-stitch to running, we have a colourful, fascinating and entertaining book whose repercussions resonate well beyond her chosen country, and well beyond the complex matter of clothing.
A large part of the book is devoted to Mahatma Gandhi whose ability to deploy the politics of dress remains unsurpassed. His transition from smart dhoti and kurta-wearing lad, to full western dress as a law student in London, and then to the bare body and khadi loincloth - or, more accurately, short dhoti - in which he is most often iconised, is literally the material evidence of his evolution as a political and spiritual actor. Gandhi's khadi crusade to combat the stranglehold of the textile mills of Manchester on the Indian economy by encouraging the use, and production, solely of swadeshi (Indian-made) cloth, shifted the emphasis from style to actual material. It was no longer enough to reject western styles of dress in order to demonstrate one's nationalism: the cloth itself was politicised. For Gandhi, khadi was an economic and moral solution to India's poverty: it was an idea that he pursued with a single-mindedness that resulted in blindness to other strategies.
However, even this grandmaster in the matter of clothing could not control its meaning, and Tarlo unpicks his sartorial message deftly. How could a businessman make his way in the corporate world dressed "as a villager"? The great social leveller, which Gandhi had championed, quickly became nuanced with a subtle distinctions: the finer "silk khadi" weaves sported by the upper classes contrasting sharply with the coarse cloth worn by those whose choices were dictated more by lack of money than by political choice. White khadi kurtas are now associated more with hypocritical and manipulative politicians than with moral purity.
Notions of backwardness and progress are key components in dictating clothing choices of women in the Gujarati village where Tarlo stayed. In each of the caste groups there is a story: the problem of Hansaben's cardigan, or of Liliben's skirts and "the embarrassing case of the Bharwad groom in trousers" read like parables, each crystallising the vital social, gendered and cultural problems for the villagers, be they Brahmins or Harijans.
Unlike many western academics whose views of third world problems are entirely cast in the frame of the West vs. the Rest (a common critique of postcolonial theories), Tarlo manages to hold back her own perspectives to let others come through. Hansaben's cardigan, for example, sparked off a major family row not because her father-in-law thought it too westernised but because it was of a "city style" inappropriate for a village wife. While the overriding concern of the pastoralist group (the Bharwads) was to maintain their "Bharwadness" through conformity of dress, the Harijans ("Untouchables") are keen to shed any badges of clothing, as it is associated with their past histories of discrimination.
Tarlo also analyses the different stitches and patterns which the villagers traditionally use. Far from being a purely "academic" exercise, this highlights their changing attitudes towards the home and the world and amply demonstrates that her own attempts at traditional Gujarati embroidery has not turned her brain to yoghurt, as her native informants had feared.
One of the most fascinating stories is that of Hauz Khas, an urban village in Delhi which was transformed in the late 1980s into a fashionable haven for the city's upper classes in search of exclusive boutiques peddling ethnic chic. The very skirts which Tarlo's village women are embarrassed to be seen in for their "backwardness" are sold for more than their original wearer could earn in a year in the moneyed houses of the metropolitan elite. And yet, even now, this situation is coming full circle as the meaning of the skirts shifts from "backward" to "fashionable" for the villagers themselves.
The commodification of ethnicity, as Robert Young puts it, is big business in India. The crafts museums, the melas (fairs), government emporia, and the tourist and textile industries rely heavily on selling the "Indianness" of India. This is a far cry from Gandhi's hopes for a more egalitarian, and self-sufficient economy, and the "Fashion Fable of an Urban Village", as Tarlo frames the story of Hauz Khas, tells us more about the destructive dynamics of late capitalism than anything else.
One comes away from this well-illustrated, and intelligently constructed book convinced that clothing matters. Our "second skin" is as intimate as our first; it is an expression of togetherness as well as individuality; the flexible boundary between our selves and our social world; a way to conceal as well as reveal; a way of speaking without words. As Alison Lurie sums up neatly in her Language of Clothes, "We can lie in the language of dress, or try to tell the truth; but unless we are naked and bald it is impossible to be silent." What gets said and what you mean to say may be two different things; but Tarlo brilliantly demonstrates that in either case it is worth listening to.
Anita Roy is a commissioning editor, Oxford University Press, India.
Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India
Author - Emma Tarlo
ISBN - 1 85065 176 0
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £19.95
Pages - 360