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by Archaeology Newsroom

What’s in a Loincloth?: Gandhi, Clothing and Indian Nationalism

No public figure of the twentieth century exploited the communicative potential of dress more thoroughly than the Indian nationalist leader, Mahatma Gandhi, whose simple white cotton loincloth became a key symbol of India’s struggle against British colonial rule. Like many elite Indian men of his day, Gandhi begun his adult life impressed by European clothing. However, years of struggle as a human rights barrister in South Africa taught him that racism went beyond clothes, and he became convinced that India could never attain political or economic freedom in the clothing of the colonizer. When he abandoned his European apparel and called on all Indians to boycott or burn their foreign cloth, it was a public dismissal of what he called “the tinsel splendours of Western civilization” – a civilization he chose to challenge, not with luscious elite Indian garb, but with the simple coarse cotton garments of the Indian peasantry. The white cotton khadi (hand-spun and hand-woven cloth) he promoted as national dress was intended to unite all Indians -whether rural or urban, male or female- providing a powerful symbol of national unity whilst at the same time ensuring the revival of the threatened industries of hand-spinning and weaving. But although Gandhi was highly successful at exploiting the communicative potential of clothes, the subtlety of his message was often misunderstood. This becomes particularly clear, when exploring the symbolism of the loincloth which he originally adopted as a temporary and drastic measure in 1921, but which he ended up wearing till the end of his life.