While fashion insiders debate the morals of ‘designer’ face masks, many calling them offensive, privileged, insensitive, most of us have already embraced the fashionable face mask featuring handwoven khadi, or cartoon characters. After all, stuck with the need to wear these masks for the foreseeable future, we may as well make them a stylish part of our ensembles:
This was expected, because in the initial days of the pandemic, the mask only represented the horrible reality that has now come to be accepted as the ‘new normal.’ In the same way, many items of clothing have fascinating back stories. From India to Europe to America to ancient China, here they are.
1. The payal (anklet)
The story behind its misuse by men
Famous fashion designers create beautiful bridal campaigns featuring brides dripping in jewellery from head to toe, subtly reinforcing many outdated patriarchal mores. And the beautiful paijeb, or payal – anklet in English – is but one humble representation of the power Indian men hold over the women of their families.
Payals (anklets) broadcast the wearer’s whereabouts through the house
But how can the sweet-sounding anklet be accused in this manner? The paijeb’s delicate design hides a sinister purpose: constant surveillance. The sound of its minuscule ghungroos is a location tag that never stops pinging. It broadcasts the wearer’s whereabouts through the house at all times with her slightest movement. And years of beautification, romancing, poetry, depiction in art, movies, ad campaigns, and jewellery stores has normalised it. So much so, that women themselves choose their precious shackles.
This is nothing new. Sringaar and beautification are legitimate choices that anyone – women and men and non-binary folks – can make. But I share this in the hope that knowing the history of the payal will help everyone make an informed choice when buying a pair.
The payal is a representation of the power men hold over women
2. Heels and foot-binding
Created to show class
The high heel, till the late 15th century, was restricted to men of the upper classes in Europe, and trickled into women’s wardrobes in the form of ‘chopines:’ towering ‘platform’ shoes that sometimes went as high as 54 centimetres. As they were always completely covered by the dress, taller shoes required more fabric, representing the wearer’s ‘higher’ status. In stories like Cinderella, the ‘slipper test’ (itself taken from an older Egyptian myth) makes the shoe the marker of the protagonist’s virtue. And then we have the horrific practice of Chinese foot-binding that actually continued till the early 20th century, where young girls’ feet were bound and shaped into a pointed and ‘desirable’ lotus-bud shape that was a constant source of excruciating pain for her entire lifetime.
In stories like Cinderella, the ʻslipper test’ is borrowed from an Egyptian myth and is a marker of the protagonist’s virtue
Today’s high heels carry this mixed and sometimes terrible cultural legacy, and are designed and glamourised by fashion’s biggest and most creative names, and loved by their wearers. Over time, we all have become accustomed to looking at women’s legs in an elongated, taut state that’s considered ‘sexy’ and alluring. Perhaps in the future we may come to unlearn it?
3. The trenchcoat
Invented during war
Necessity is the mother of retail. Invention supports it. When Thomas Burberry submitted his designs for his new ‘trench coat’ to the UK War Office in 1901, he had no idea that he would be creating a style that would become a fashion staple and remain in demand well over a century after it was first conceived.
Does this make contemporary trench coat wearers insensitive to the atrocities of WWI? These moral questions are difficult to answer, let alone ask.
When Thomas Burberry submitted his designs for his new ‘trench coat’ to the UK War Office in 1901, he had no idea that the style would become a fashion staple
For Thomas Burberry, the simple fact was that he had helped in the war effort by inventing gabardine, a heavy-duty, waterproof, cotton alternative to serge, a heavy and space-taking woollen fabric that soldiers on the frontlines wore in the form of ‘greatcoats.’ The ‘trench’ coat, named after the narrow trenches that soldiers moved through during combat, was lighter, easier to pack and carry, waterproof, and weathered well. After the war, it was picked up by the British and European upper class style set, who were the role models for their societies. Today, the Burberry trench coat is a staple from the brand and their signature bestselling style.
The ‘trench’ coat, named after the narrow trenches soldiers moved through during combat, is now a fashion must-have
Created for the working class
From miners’ overalls to essential clothing items, the 147-year history of jeans includes being banned for being provocative, being seen as a sign of rebellion, and eventually being celebrated for what they truly are: a sturdy item that has transcended fads and trends ever since they came into being. The first jeans came from Levi Strauss, we all know that. But from the original ones produced in 1873, it took over 50 years for them to make the first crossover to women’s wardrobes; American Vogue put their first fashion model wearing denims on the cover in the 1930s. But it was only after World War II that they gained popularity via Hollywood ‘bad boys’ Marlon Brando and James Dean.
Jeans have been banned for being provocative and seen as a sign of rebellion
For women’s jeans to truly arrive, it took another decade or so. And it was at the peak of hippie age in the 1960s and ’70s that young women claimed them as their own, sewing on decals, dyeing them, and painting them with messages of peace and love. Activism and counterculture aside, this had a very real economic after-effect for companies making jeans and other styles in denim, ramping up production and sowing the seeds of fast fashion, as we know and abhor it today.
The good old jeans transcended fads and trends, and are an integral part of fast fashion now
Its surprising role in ancient warfare
There is a reason the Chinese kept the secrets of silk production, well, secret for over 4,000 years. Simply put, it ensured the country’s monopoly over the global silk trade. Many attempts were made to smuggle silk worms out of China, leading to gruesome episodes. And at the time Chinese silk production and trade was at its peak, another worldwide phenomenon was sweeping through Asia and Eastern Europe: the Mongol invasions. Starting with Genghis Khan, the Mongol empire expanded to eventually include all of modern-day China. Finally, in the late 13th century, Genghis’ grandson Kublai became emperor of China after quelling the last of the Chinese kingdoms, starting his own ‘Yuan’ dynasty.
But where does silk come into the story? Did Kublai conquer China only to profit from the country’s silk trade? No.
The Mongols were warriors, and as profitable as the silk trade was, the silk itself was useful to Mongol soldiers and horsemen in a very particular manner. It helped stop arrows. Worn under layers of leather armour that could still be pierced by sharp projectiles, Chinese-woven silk acted as a dampener that stopped enemy arrows from penetrating too deep into the skin or reaching the vital organs. Over time, Kublai’s control over Chinese silk production paid off not just in terms of trade revenues, but also by saving many Mongol lives on various battlefields.
Chinese-woven silk acted as a dampener that stopped enemy arrows from penetrating too deep into the skin or reaching the vital organs of the Mongol soldiers
The act of making clothes and items of apparel is tied very closely to politics, economics and culture. For example, while leatherworking is considered close to an art in Europe, in India it is considered the work of so-called ‘outcastes’ because of rigid notions of purity as well as the caste system. This is why, historically, we never excelled in leatherworking at a global level, whereas numerous Indians (who can afford to) aspire to own at least one ‘designer’ handbag or pair of shoes from the likes of LV, Gucci, Fendi, and Prada.
Everything we wear tells a story. And it is important for us to listen to those stories. Knowing them gives us the power to make better choices. And as we go into the future, our choices will become all the more important to the survival of the planet as a whole.
The Chinese-woven silk was worn as armour by Mongol soldiers and horsemen
Varun Rana is a fashion commentator and Communications Director at the House of Angadi, a Bengaluru-based textile label. He pretends to learn the sitar at Sadhana School in Alaknanda, New Delhi.
The views expressed in this story are that of the writer.