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Fashioning Identities: Convict Dress in Colonial South and Southeast Asia

by Clare Anderson

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As the British made inroads into the Indian subcontinent during the late eighteenth century, they were faced with a society which seemed both complex and elusive. They used various mechanisms in the attempt to foster an understanding of socio-economic structures and hierarchies. The type of clothing worn by individuals, and by groups of individuals, was one of these. Through dress, the British could divide the South-Asian population into decipherable units, and those units, in turn, could be distinguished from Europeans. Photographers involved in the compilation of ethnographic dictionaries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for instance, dressed their subjects in what they believed to be ‘typical’ garments. These became visual signifiers of collective religious, caste or tribal (adivasi) status. Attempts to capture the essence of ‘timeless’ India, before the modernizing colonial project transformed it beyond all recognition, even extended to clothing photographic subjects in garments long since abandoned.

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