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How European furniture changed the way India dressed

During the British rule, as Indians adopted the Western way of life, they began dressing and furnishing their homes like the foreigners

The Nath family from Simla during the early 20th century. In his 1916 book, The Kings Indian Allies: The Rajas And Their India, St Nihal Singh elaborates that coat and waistcoat of European style were adopted before Western style trousers. The latter were only worn once ‘the floor was abandoned in favour of chairs’. The reason being that with pyjamas sitting on the floor is easier. (Courtesy Jasvinder Kaur )

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What is the correlation between a piece of furniture and a dress? Can furniture bring in changes in people's attire? Would a chair and a table facilitate newer concepts of using household linen as was the norm in England? 

The answers to all these questions lie in the major lifestyle changes that took place during the British Raj.

Many early travellers have given accounts of people in India sitting on the floor, as was the norm at the time (and continues to be so in parts of the country), and using the space for different activities, from eating to sleeping. When the Portuguese arrived in India, in the late 15th century, they did not find any Western style furniture or any trained carpenters to make it. 

Also read: How the crinoline connects Scarlett O’Hara and women in Punjab

With time, as India's interest in the West increased, elevated furniture started entering Indian homes, changing the manner of dressing and lifestyle. The British were also trying hard to influence the Indian way of life.

British politician Thomas B. Macaulay (1800-1859), who wrote Minute To Education in 1835—responsible for the introduction of Western institutional education to India—thought European education would produce a class of Indians who would be Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, opinion, morals and intellect, and would act as interpreters between the British foreigners and the Indian residents. 

The British government and the Christian missionaries opened schools throughout India for the general public. Princely households had Government-approved English tutors.

This led to the creation of a small section of educated middle class. They learnt Western habits and started dressing like the English aristocracy, especially the . Slowly, people “modernised” their homes and started using furniture that was not Indian.  

Dress and furniture 

For Indians, the first step towards Westernization was wearing European garments along with their Indian clothes. In late 19th century paintings and early 20th century photographs, Indian men appear in Western-style coats, waistcoats, greatcoats or overcoats—sometimes an assortment of these garments worn by different men in the same photograph. Beneath the various coats would be a kurta-pyjama or a shirt and a tie worn with a pyjama. It's still not clear whether people dressed so for style, warmth, or were such combinations merely a stepping stone to wearing full Western attire. However, the practice of mixing Western and Indian garments was being followed in bigger towns like Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai), since the mid-19th century. 

The process of change in the way of dressing is explained by St Nihal Singh in his 1916 book, The Kings Indian Allies: The Rajas And Their India. He elaborates that coat and waistcoat of European style were adopted before Western style trousers. The latter were only worn once “the floor was abandoned in favour of chairs”. The reason being that with pyjamas sitting on the floor is easier.

Wearing of full Western dress was part of the whole Westernization process, which men only adopted after they wore trousers and started sitting on chairs. 

The use of household linen

When furniture entered Indian homes, objects similar to the ones used in European homes became the norm. Initially these were made only for Europeans. Forbes J. Watson in the 1866 book The Textile Manufactures And The Costumes Of The People Of India, mentions Western style articles like table napkins, doilies and pocket-handkerchiefs being used only by Europeans. 

In Art Manufactures Of India, published in 1888, T. N. Mukherji writes about embroidered mantel covers, table covers, chair covers, tea-cosies and cushions, purchased by the Europeans.

As the availability of household linen was limited, many women in India made their own linen. New embroidery styles evolved that were heavily influenced by European styles and design. Slowly, articles like the mezposh (tablecloth), tea cosies, tray covers, napkins, angeethiposh (mantel covers), sofa back covers, entered Punjabi homes. Women embroidered words like “goodnight” and “sweet dreams” on the pillow covers and sheets.   

Among the popular embroideries of the early 20th century Punjab were  dasooti and bharnvi. The name dasooti comes from the cloth on which embroidery was done. Cotton cloth of different thicknesses was woven in Punjab in the second half of 19th century. If woven with one thread, it was called eksuti; if it was with two threads together, it became dosooti. Similarly, tinsuti (three threads) and chausuti (four threads). Dasooti embroidery was essentially cross-stitch embroidery done on white material. 

Bharnvi, as the name suggests, was embroidery where prominent stitch was the filling stitch. The most widely used material for it was white lattha, or black cotton velvet. 

Both these styles were taught in schools from the sixth standard onwards. Western motifs like a bunch of roses, a basket with flowers and tulips hollyhock, were a favourite among teachers, influenced by the “more sophisticated” Western style of living.

Another factor responsible for spread of the European styles was the availability of magazines, pattern books and iron-on transfers available in local city shops. They came with instructions for the colours of the threads to be used. Embroideries then became similar to those done in England or Europe.  

Embroidery transfers in Europe were invented in 1875. They were commercially available by the end of the 19th century. These designs had line drawings with low melting point ink on thin paper. By using a hot iron the design transferred on to the fabric. Briggs and Dighton transfers were popular and were used by women of Punjab.

By the time British rule ended, many homes in India had modern European-style furniture that brought in newer dressing style and use of household linen, which was not the norm earlier.  

Also read: How the ‘buta’ or ‘ambi’ became Scottish paisley

The Textile Trail is a limited series that attempts to document the evolution of better- and lesser-known textiles and prints.

Jasvinder Kaur is a textile historian, researcher and author of Influences Of The British Raj On The Attire And Textiles Of Punjab.











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