In short, colonialism, slavery and the industrial revolution. In length:
Cotton doesn't grow in Europe so before the Modern Era, cotton was rare and used in small quantities for specific purposes (lining doublets for example). The thing with cotton is, that's it can be printed with dye very easily. The colors are bright and they don't fade easily. With wool and silk fabrics, which were the more traditional fabrics for outer wear in Europe (silk for upper classes of course), patterns usually needed to be embroidered or woven to the cloth to last, which was very expensive. Wool is extremely hard to print to anything detailed that would stay even with modern technology. Silk can be printed easily today with screen printing, but before late 18th century the technique wasn't known in western world (it was invented in China a millenium ago) and the available methods didn't yeld good results.
So when in the late 17th century European trading companies were establishing trading posts in India, a huge producer of cotton fabrics, suddenly cotton was much more available in Europe. Indian calico cotton, which was sturdy and cheap and was painted or printed with colorful and intricate floral patters, chintz, especially caught on and became very fashionable. The popular Orientalism of the time also contributed to it becoming fasionable, chintz was seen as "exotic" and therefore appealing.
Here's a typical calico jacket from late 18th century. The ones in European markets often had white background, but red background was also fairly common.
The problem with this was that this was not great for the business of the European fabric producers, especially silk producers in France and wool producers in England, who before were dominating the European textile market and didn't like that they now had competition. So European countries imposed trade restrictions for Indian cotton, England banning cotton almost fully in 1721. Since the introduction of Indian cottons, there had been attempts to recreate it in Europe with little success. They didn't have nearly advanced enough fabric printing and cotton weaving techniques to match the level of Indian calico. Cotton trade with India didn't end though. The European trading companies would export Indian cottons to West African market to fund the trans-Atlantic slave trade that was growing quickly. European cottons were also imported to Africa. At first they didn't have great demand as they were so lacking compared to Indian cotton, but by the mid 1700s quality of English cotton had improved enough to be competitive.
Inventions in industrial textile machinery, specifically spinning jenny in 1780s and water frame in 1770s, would finally give England the advantages they needed to conquer the cotton market. These inventions allowed producing very cheap but good quality cotton and fabric printing, which would finally produce decent imitations of Indian calico in large quantities. Around the same time in mid 1700s, The East Indian Company had taken over Bengal and soon following most of the Indian sub-continent, effectively putting it under British colonial rule (but with a corporate rule dystopian twist). So when industrialized English cotton took over the market, The East India Company would suppress Indian textile industry to utilize Indian raw cotton production for English textile industry and then import cotton textiles back to India. In 1750s India's exports were mainly fine cotton and silk, but during the next century Indian export would become mostly raw materials. They effectively de-industrialized India to industrialize England further.
India, most notably Bengal area, had been an international textile hub for millennia, producing the finest cottons and silks with extremely advance techniques. Loosing cotton textile industry devastated Indian local economies and eradicated many traditional textile craft skills. Perhaps the most glaring example is that of Dhaka muslin. Named after the city in Bengal it was produced in, it was extremely fine and thin cotton requiring very complicated and time consuming spinning process, painstakingly meticulous hand-weaving process and a very specific breed of cotton. It was basically transparent as seen depicted in this Mughal painting from early 17th century.
It was used by e.g. the ancient Greeks, Mughal emperors and, while the methods and it's production was systematically being destroyed by the British to squash competition, it became super fashionable in Europe. It was extremely expensive, even more so than silk, which is probably why it became so popular among the rich. In 1780s Marie Antoinette famously and scandalously wore chemise a la reine made from multiple layers of Dhaka muslin. In 1790s, when the empire silhouette took over, it became even more popular, continuing to the very early 1800s, till Dhaka muslin production fully collapsed and the knowledge and skill to produce it were lost. But earlier this year, after years lasting research to revive the Dhaka muslin funded by Bangladeshi government, they actually recreated it after finding the right right cotton plant and gathering spinners and weavers skilled in traditional craft to train with it. (It's super cool and I'm making a whole post about it (it has been in the making for months now) so I won't extend this post more.)
Marie Antoinette in the famous painting with wearing Dhaka muslin in 1783, and empress Joséphine Bonaparte in 1801 also wearing Dhaka muslin.
While the trans-Atlantic slave trade was partly funded by the cotton trade and industrial English cotton, the slave trade would also be used to bolster the emerging English cotton industry by forcing African slaves to work in the cotton plantations of Southern US. This produced even more (and cheaper (again slave labor)) raw material, which allowed the quick upward scaling of the cotton factories in Britain. Cotton was what really kicked off the industrial revolution, and it started in England, because they colonized their biggest competitor India and therefore were able to take hold of the whole cotton market and fund rapid industrialization.
Eventually the availability of cotton, increase in ready-made clothing and the luxurious reputation of cotton lead to cotton underwear replacing linen underwear (and eventually sheets) (the far superior option for the reasons I talked about here) in early Victorian Era. Before Victorian era underwear was very practical, just simple rectangles and triangles sewn together. It was just meant to protect the outer clothing and the skin, and it wasn't seen anyway, so why put the relatively scarce resources into making it pretty? Well, by the mid 1800s England was basically fully industrialized and resource were not scarce anymore. Middle class was increasing during the Victorian Era and, after the hard won battles of the workers movement, the conditions of workers was improving a bit. That combined with decrease in prices of clothing, most people were able to partake in fashion. This of course led to the upper classes finding new ways to separate themselves from lower classes. One of these things was getting fancy underwear. Fine cotton kept the fancy reputation it had gained first as an exotic new commodity in late 17th century and then in Regency Era as the extremely expensive fabric of queens and empresses. Cotton also is softer than linen, and therefore was seen as more luxurious against skin. So cotton shifts became the fancier shifts. At the same time cotton drawers were becoming common additional underwear for women.
It wouldn't stay as an upper class thing, because as said cotton was cheap and available. Ready-made clothing also helped spread the fancier cotton underwear, as then you could buy fairly cheaply pretty underwear and you didn't even have to put extra effort into it's decoration. At the same time cotton industry was massive and powerful and very much eager to promote cotton underwear as it would make a very steady and long lasting demand for cotton.
In conclusion, cotton has a dark and bloody history and it didn't become the standard underwear fabric for very good reasons.
Here's couple of excellent sources regarding the history of cotton industry:
The European Response to Indian Cottons, Prasannan Parthasarathi
INDIAN COTTON MILLS AND THE BRITISH ECONOMIC POLICY, 1854-1894, Rajib Lochan Sahoo
Gota patti or gota work is a type of embroidery originating from Rajasthan, India. Small pieces of zari ribbon are applied onto the fabric with the edges sewn down to create elaborate patterns. The dresses with gota work are used for special occasions or religious occasions. Gota is crafted using an appliqué technique with a strip of gold or silver or various other coloured ribbons of different widths woven in a satin or twill weave. It involves placing woven gold cloth onto fabrics such as georgette or bandhini to create different surface textures. Originally real gold and silver metals were used to embroider, but these were eventually replaced cheaper and more durable options.
The process is rigorous and time-consuming. The first step is to trace the design on the fabric. This is done by placing a tracing paper with the design on it on the fabric and spreading a paste of chalk powder over it. Depending on the design, the gota is cut and folded into various shapes. It is then appliquéd by hemming or back-stitching it on the fabric. The motifs are usually inspired by nature and may consist of flowers, leaves and birds or animals such as peacocks, parrots and elephants. Gota creates a rich and heavy look but is light to wear. It is generally done on dupattas, turban edges and ghagras. Garments with gota work are worn at weddings or special occasions.
Jaipur the famed Pink City of Rajasthan conjures up images of a bygone era in the mind's eye of royalty and stories of gallantry and battlefield valour; of a desert landscape poised against vivid shades of colour; of art and aesthetics and above all its vibrant people Built in ad 1727 the splendour of its palaces and forts and the breathtaking array of its traditional crafts continue to attract tourists and connoisseurs of history and art from all corners of the world The Jaipur textile industry has for long inspired countless artists and designers to create exquisite products of both beauty and utility The Jaipuri razai is a perfect example of this exclusive trend in its display of excellent traditional craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty as well as its high utility value
Washington DC has soooooo many museums, that sometimes people don’t realize there are some smaller themed museums including this one which I always try to visit when I am in town.
In addition to the special exhibition on Indian textiles which the Washington Post offers several pictures of in that link, there is a textiles 101 where you can learn what weaving is with enormous warp and weft to use by hand.
For more info, go here: https://museum.gwu.edu/exhibitions
“EARTH PROVIDES ENOUGH TO SATISFY EVERY MAN'S NEED BUT NOT ANY MAN'S GREED.” – MAHATMA GANDHI
I’m Gargi Gosavi a student at NIFT, Gandhinagar. Fashion is something that has always fascinated me since I was a teenager. I made sure I had the trendiest outfits. Back then buying things from H&M, Zara and other fast fashion brands didn’t matter as much as it does now after knowing the back story of the fast fashion brands. Coming to NIFT was like a dream come true. While doing my research for the course I want to apply for textile design was something which caught my attention. After high school, I gave my entrance exam and here I'm today in Gandhinagar. Learning the subject of Fashion Basic has changed my perspective towards fashion.
It was my first time when I was presenting. My anxiety had reached the peak. I was not very confident about myself that time. My first presentation was on “fashion according to you” my topic for this presentation was the Nike Air Jordans and Air Force which we all know are trendy. In my presentation I talked about their history, price, different types of Jordans, Air Force and how people take care of them like their own babies. On the very first day, we were told about our mid term assignment, which was to dress up reflecting our traditions and state we belong to. Coming from Maharashtra and being a Maharashtrian I was wearing a Nauvari saree(nine yard saree) which I sourced from my sister in law. I was wearing all the traditional Maharashtrian accessories from head to toe.In my presentation I spoke about the history of nauvari saree ,textiles, food, culture and festivals of Maharashtra. These presentations helped me become confident about myself.
Fashion changed my perspective
It’s tempting to turn a blind eye in front of such flashy offers, but the planet can’t take it anymore!
If you’re used to buying clothes without questioning how they were made, acknowledging these fast fashion facts can be the first step towards making an actual change.
I now have realised that fashion is not only about clothes and looking fashionable. It may look very glamorous from the outside but it has a dark side that very few people are aware of. We had a debate in our class on slow fashion and fast fashion which changed my perspective. Buying clothes from fast fashion brands will make you look fashionable but how about the damage it’s creating to the environment? We don't even know that the people working for these brands are even safe. Are they paid well? We all are aware of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh where around 1136 people lost their lives and 3120 people were injured. The conditions where the people are working for these brands are unsafe and promote child labour. Millions of children are forced to work in terrible conditions for the clothing we wear. We don’t even know that the women working for the clothes are even safe. We all wear clothes even if we’re not necessarily lovers of fashion but we all are responsible for the transition to this flourishing fashion industry. The materials these brands use are harmful to the environment.Fast fashion is responsible for 20-35% of ocean microplastics Another problem with polyester and synthetic fabrics is that every time you wash them, they’ll release between 700 to 4000 plastic polyester per gram.These end up in the ocean, fish bellies, and… yep, yours too if you eat seafood. Polyester now has been found in breast milk as well. Can you imagine how much worse the situation is? Fast fashion clothing relies upon planned obsolescence unlike durable vintage or ethical clothes. These items are designed to fall so that the consumers like us will keep buying new items regularly.
Can we bring change as Gandhiji did?
Let me take you back to the time when Gandhiji started a Swadeshi Movement a movement designed to boycott imported goods and production. The citizens of India burnt all the clothes which came from the UK and started to make their clothes using the charkha. Khadi cloth became the heart of this strategy when Gandhi asked every man and woman to plant and harvest their materials for the yarn needed to create Khadi fabric. He also asked everyone, whether rich or poor, to spend time each day spinning Khadi. People of all classes came together to do as Gandhi asked, and their efforts helped the country in its bid to become self-sufficient. Entire villages adopted the movement, weaving their way to economic freedom through fashion. Let’s support our artisans and our culture by following slow fashion.
Do slow-fashion items last longer?
Items from my grandmother and even my mother when she was young are still in pristine shape. I can not say the same for the items I bought some years ago from fast fashion brands. Why? Have you ever heard of planned obsolescence? If the stitching is not good, if the materials are not great, the piece will not stand washing and wearing. And so, eventually will not be good to be worn. Now, you need to buy a new piece, and here we go again. This is easy math, high quality = longer-lasting item. Slow fashion items are long-lasting so you can wear them as long as your heart desires. In the end, it is cheaper to purchase a more expensive item. It is a win-win for you and the environment.After the debate, I was thrilled after knowing the damage fast fashion brands are creating in the environment and that the people working for these brands are miserable and unsafe.
How You Can Make Sustainability Stylish
One of the biggest drivers of fast fashion – and its associated waste – is the consumer. After all, no one wants to be stuck wearing outdated outfits. But if you extend the life of your clothes by just nine months, you can reduce the environmental impact by as much as 30 per cent. By getting creative with your closet, you can make a difference just like I did in lockdown I had nothing to do so I used to experiment with my brother's clothes. He had a black old t-shirt which he wasn’t using anymore so I decided to make a top for myself by cutting and splitting the tshirt into two halves, folding &twisting it around my neck and chest and creating a pattern in itself. The other top was a normal top where I stitched straps of the remaining fabric and made it a tie-around crop top.
Know what would trend in future
As a beginner in the design industry the fact that we can predict what will trend in future surprised me. I didn’t know something like this existed until I learnt about fashion forecasting.
Fashion forecasting is something that focuses on upcoming trends. Prediction of the colours, textures, fabrics, style, beauty, etc that will be presented on the runways and in upcoming seasons.
Is polyester the new Khadi?
During the pre-independence period people started to use the hand-spun cloth that remains warm in winters and cool in summers. We visited Reliance Trends to see their winter collection and overall clothes. One thing which we noticed was that none of the sweaters had wool as their material. 90-95 per cent polyester was used in sweater. Polyester is a performance textile, used in activewear, athleisure, etc. Polyester is used everywhere and is recyclable. We all know how harmful this fabric is and when I saw the amount of polyester each and every clothing item contained I was stunned! The traditional wear and the kids section clothing was mainly made using cotton. They also had the sustainable denim.
Reviving our handloom heritage
An exhibition of the artist weaver Rajen Chaudhari was organised by CEPT University in Ahmedabad. He was a student at JJ School of Arts, Mumbai. Having interest in textiles, he went to different places in India where he could learn how to use a handloom weave. He practised hand spinning and hand weaving for a very long time. His work was stunning which had patterns using the weave, very intricate and each one of them was unique in its own way. He transformed his paintings and sketches into weaves. There was a handloom weave and a spinning wheel kept where a lady showed us how it is functioned. The process involves entwining a set of vertical threads, the wrap with a set of horizontal threads, the weft.
The second visit was to Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum. Kasturbhai Lalbhai was one of the pioneering Industrialists of pre and post-independent sage of India. One can see the vast panorama of Indian art history ie. Mughal, Rajput, Pahari, Bengal school – early modern and contemporary art, all under one roof is unique. Inside the house, which is now the museum there was a beautiful collection of old paintings using natural paints, betels used for the emerald colour on the gold foil, watercolours, etc. The artist back then made every painting/artwork meticulously. I was speechless after seeing those paintings which were done so thoughtfully and with intricacy. The furniture on which the exhibition was displayed was designed by the students of NID.
The next place was the White on White exhibition of Mr Asif Shaikh who is one of India’s most accomplished and acclaimed embroidery and textile artist. He’s on a 5 yr project which he started back in 2020 in which he is making 100 textiles out of which 37 are done with the help of Indian artisans. These 37 textiles were an introduction to his new collection. We could see the efforts he had put into fabricating those textiles. All the designs were very unique and were from different regions of India. His work astonished and inspired me.
The next exhibition was of Arvind Indigo museum where it has opened a world of possibilities for unexplored surfaces such as metal, stone, paper, leather, polyester fibre, glass, and wood, among others.
Knowing the bitter reality of the fast fashion industry I’ll make sure to follow sustainable fashion as much as I can. And lastly I would like to conclude by extending my heartiest gratitude to Miss Neha Kedia and NIFT Gandhinagar for providing us this opportunity and opening windows of exportation through this educational visits and giving us a glimpse of industry life.
Shruti Chawan of Team IAnD speaks to Dilip and Bhavesh Chitara, artists who continues to propagate the art of Mata ne pachedi – commonly popular as the Kalamkari of Gujarat. https://bit.ly/Kalamkari-of-Gujarat_IAnD
The amazing textiles from India influenced not only the development of fashion, but fueled the industrial revolution – stimulating the production in Britain of attractive, more affordable textiles on a large scale for customers in the expanding middle classes who wanted that India-influenced look. – Jenny Lister, V&A The emergence of a middle class around the close of the 18th century coincided with the technological advances that made printed cottons more accessible. Soon cotton became an everyday favorite for many in England, France, Switzerland and Germany, throughout the Georgian era and beyond.
Shikargah refers to a specific type of printing or weaving motif originating from North India, depicting hunting scenes that depict the royal hunting hobby of the medieval kings. The word Shikargah is derived from the Hindi word shikar, meaning 'to hunt'. Plant, animal and other natural motifs are the most commonly used. Darker blues and greens are the common colours used, although lighter fabrics can also be found. The weaving is very intricate and dense creating a very glamorous and festive look.
For centuries, the ruling dynasties of India promoted the skills of spinners, weavers, dyers, printers and embroiderers, commissioning textiles from renowned centres of excellence across the subcontinent. Delicate muslins from Dacca, fine silk brocades from Varanasi, complex woollen weaves from Kashmir, intricate gold embroideries from Lahore - all were transformed into costumes fit for kings and courtiers. After years spent searching for the last surviving examples of traditional court clothing, designer Ritu Kumar has uncovered a wealth of costumes. Her book is a celebration of thousands of years of craft tradition and a testimony to the survival of the world's richest textile repertoire.