This article was first published in the June 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine
Mohandas Gandhi is presented as the most spiritual of men, who discarded all the things of this world, even clothes. In fact his relationship with dress was part of the calculated moulding of his public image, enacted over decades. It was not until he was over 50 that Gandhi created the winning combination that was to make him the icon of nationalist India, forever known as Mahatma, ‘father of the nation’.
As a boy, the son of a government officer, Gandhi wore the turban, long shirt and loose fitting trousers common to his home province of Gujarat. Even as a child, Gandhi was an Indian nationalist, wanting home rule for his country, but in his early decades he went with the prevailing view that Indians should become like Europeans in order to achieve independence. When he went to London to study at the Inner Temple in 1888 he needed to dress as a trainee barrister. A picture shows him with slicked-down hair and a clear parting, wearing a three-piece suit with a wing collar and a bow tie, looking very much the middle-class Englishman.
Still feeling out of place, however, Gandhi decided to become more ‘refined’. He started taking dancing and elocution lessons and became the dandy about town. An Indian colleague described him at the time as: “wearing a high silk top-hat brushed ‘burnish bright’, a stiff and starched collar, a flashy tie displaying all the colours of the rainbow, under which there was a fine striped shirt. Gandhi wore a morning coat, a double-breasted vest, dark striped trousers to match, patent leather boots and spats. He carried leather gloves, and a silver mounted stick.”
He continued wearing European dress when working as a lawyer in South Africa after 1893. In order to identify with the Indian merchants who were his clients, he maintained an Indian flavour, wearing a turban with his business suit, collar and tie.
Gandhi’s work took him further into the field of civil rights when the South African state tried to curtail the freedom of Indian immigrants. It was then, in 1913, that he adopted another costume – following the example of his hero, Tolstoy, who had decided not only to live but to dress like a peasant.
Gandhi had led Indian labourers in a national strike against punitive taxation and other racially motivated oppressions imposed by the South African state. Now he identified fully with the poor by wearing the plain, knee-length white cotton tunic and the skirt-like ‘lungi’ worn by labourers. He was barefoot and his head was almost completely shaven.
Gandhi was thus dressed when he waited outside Pieter Maritzburg prison on 22 December 1913 to meet released women prisoners, including his wife, Kasturba. Imprisonment was an ordeal suffered by some 2,500 Indians, or nearly one-fifth of the resident Indian population of the Transvaal, but the unfair tax was abolished, Gandhi was triumphant, and in a position now to return to India to take on the British.
On a boat on the way back to India at the end of 1914, after almost 20 years in South Africa, not for the first time he was on the one hand pondering a challenge to empire, and on the other fussing about his wardrobe. Eventually he decided to “wear only our customary dress”. This meant the clothes of his class in Gujarat: a turban, shirt, dhoti (loincloth), cloak and scarf.
Thrown on bonfires
A nationalist campaign was already under way in India encompassing ‘swadeshi’, which was the use of homegrown goods rather than imports. In terms of clothing this meant cotton milled in India rather than imported from Lancashire. Endorsing this principle, soon Gandhi took it further, saying true nationalists should wear only ‘khadi’ or coarse hand-woven cloth from Indian village weavers. Imported cloth was burned on huge bonfires.
Gandhi took to wearing a white khadi outfit of a long dhoti, sleeveless jacket and cap, encouraging others too to don this as a uniform of nationalist activism. Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah was booed when he appeared at a meeting of Congress, the main nationalist party, in his customary Saville Row suit. He would soon leave the party, starting a process that would end in the partition of India.
In 1921, with the swadeshi movement at its height, when he was 51, Gandhi decided to go one better. On 23 September that year he went clad only in a loincloth to a meeting of weavers. He represented this as an act of solidarity with the poor who could not afford enough khadi to replace the foreign cloth that he was insisting they burn. He also argued that there was currently too little khadi to go round, so “if most of the men could do with as little cloth as he, then there would be enough khadi for the women” – though he never urged others to dress as skimpily as he did.
In going almost naked, he was imitating the clothing – or lack of it – of the sadhus, the mendicant holy men who populate India begging for alms and offering such spiritual boons as the impregnation of barren women. In future, Gandhi would go bare-chested, with naked legs, covered only by a loincloth – plus a shawl, or not, as the temperature dictated.
When Sonja Schlesin, one of his first supporters, challenged him that taking to this state of undress was all show and no spiritual substance, he countered that it was a natural progression of the way his thinking had been taking him: “Believe me there is nothing spectacular in the loincloth”. He later said the loincloth, “came naturally, without effort, without premeditation”.
Spiritual or not, it did his campaign no harm at all. His enemies fumed at the very appearance of him. Churchill said when Gandhi had an interview with the viceroy of India that this seditious lawyer was: “now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organising and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor”.
It was in this dress that Time magazine made ‘Saint Gandhi’ their man of the year in 1930. That year he led the Salt March against the British tax on salt in India, and the following year attended the Round Table Conference on Indian constitutional reform in London. There was no progress on reform, but it was a huge success for Gandhi who made of it a world showcase for himself.
The Gandhi brand of ascetic living and devout, defiant speech, laced with a hint of mischief, was summed up in the image of Gandhi the loinclothed sage. For every newspaper reader, political cartoons made him an instantly identifiable figure; he stole the show in cinema newsreels, becoming one of the most easily recognisable men in the world. Perhaps only Charlie Chaplin was so well known.
Gandhi had finally hit the right note, as an almost naked holy man challenging an empire. But it was his image – others were not expected, or invited, to follow his dress code. It was to be Gandhi’s dress for the rest of his life, until he was assassinated in 1948.
Jad Adams is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society who has written a composite biography of the Nehru family.