The men the women both of the upper classes experimented to define India’s national dress that expressed the unity of the nation. Rabindranath Tagore suggested that the national dress should combine elements of Hindu and Muslim dress. The chapkan, which is a long, buttoned coat, was considered a suitable dress for men.
It was Jnanadanandini Devi, wife of Satyendranath Tagore, who first adopted the Parsi style of wearing a saree in the late 1870s. This saree was pinned to the left shoulder with a brooch, and worn with a blouse and shoes. This style was later adopted by Brahmo Samaji women, and came to be known as the Brahmika saree.
While some upper classes were experimenting with dresses, the Swadeshi Movement brought in political aspect to dressing. After the Industrial Revolution, Britain started manufacturing cheap mill cloth which greatly affected the Indian cotton industry.
In 1905, Lord Curzon decided to partition Bengal to control the growing opposition to the British rule. This gave rise to the Swadeshi Movement. The Indian masses boycotted British goods and adopted goods manufactured in India. The use of khadi over British-manufactured clothes became a patriotic duty.
As khadhi was expensive, it appealed more to the upper classes. Those who found khadi unaffordable continued using British mill-made cloth.
Mahatma Gandhi decided to use Swadeshi cloth as a symbolic weapon against the British rule. Many people rallied for Swadeshi goods, it was impossible to compete with the cheap British goods. Gandhiji later decided that dressing ‘unsuitably’ was a more powerful political statement. A year after the non-cooperation movement in 1921, he started wearing only a short khadi dhoti.
The white, coarse Khadi signified purity, simplicity and poverty. Also, wearing it became a symbol of nationalism, a rejection of western mill-made cloth.
Gandhiji wore this short dhoti without a shirt when he went to England for the Round Table Conference in 1931. He wore the same dress when he met King George V at the Buckingham Palace. Although Gandhiji dreamed that the entire nation should wear khadi, there were some who felt differently. These included the rich nationalist Motilal Nehru, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Nehru who wore finer Indian clothes.