How Colonial History Contributed to the Socio-Economic Marginalisation of Indian Tailors

Tailors are part of our intimate lives and yet we know very little about their histories and practices, perhaps because the profession contributed marginally to the national economy and was viewed with contempt historically.

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This article is the second in a series on the history of labour in India. The first part dealt with carpenters in Colonial India.

Following our first essay on carpenters, we wish to draw your attention to tailors — skilled workers who often remain on the socio-economic margins but contribute to both elite and popular fashions. We all have given our body measurements to one or many tailors in our lifetime, which seems less daunting than giving biometrics to the state apparatus!

Tailors are part of our intimate lives and yet we know very little about their histories and practices, perhaps because the profession contributed marginally to the national economy and was viewed with contempt historically.

Despite this marginalisation, trade has been a source of employment and community life, integral to local economies. The emergence of high fashion tied to cinema and the arts has brought attention to a few prominent tailors. But along with the rise of “fast fashion” and popular demand for mass-produced clothes, it has also pushed many tailors into the background, forcing some to work in unhealthy workshops at the expense of designers and merchants.

While a small number of urban tailors have earned recognition and rich clients, the heart of the trade remains with the neighbourhood, street, and small-town tailors, who regularly create new techniques and designs. Though often overlooked, they keep the trade vital in the age of readymade clothes, thanks to Indian marriages, female clients, and the affordability of tailored clothes in small towns and villages.

Except for fine suiting, independent tailors have largely disappeared in rich Western countries. Big clothing brands have moved their workshops and factories to countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and China where relatively lower wages for labourers allow them to keep prices low, especially for Western consumers. In these ‘developing’ Asian economies, tailors are pushed into factory workshops where they become wage labourers who work on pre-fixed designs and patterns. Tailors marked historically by their ingenuity and independence have been reduced to followers of command in these factories.

Usually, fashion retailers facilitate the supply of clothes manufactured in Asian countries to global brands like Zara, Mango and Primark. This absolves these profit-making companies from responsibility for labour welfare, accidental deaths, and unpaid wages. In 2017, news from Istanbul shocked many, when workers producing clothes for Zara through a retailer company, stitched notes inside clothes, stating that they had not been remunerated for their labour.

This international division of labour and capital parallels another shift in the trade: the feminisation of the labour process in small-town tailoring shops. Tailors pass on the semi-skilled tasks of simple lace stitching on sarees, blouse stitching, buttoning to women of the household — who are often unpaid — or to female neighbours at low piece-based wages to cheapen the cost of production and generate a profit margin.

Also read: What the Colonial History of Indian Carpentry Tells Us About the State’s Role in Nurturing Professions

This “proletarianisation”, or the process of wage labour creation, among tailors in a globalised economy sits on a larger historical process of socio-economic marginalisation, visible in colonial records and vernacular writings.

Tailoring under colonial administration 

When the East India Company established itself in the presidency and port towns in the 18th century, it relied on Indian tailors who could design climate-appropriate clothes, while also importing British tailors to satisfy colonial fashions. By the late 19th century, colonial ethnographers and educationalists often portrayed Indian tailors as unable to adapt to the challenges of technological change. This narrative gained prominence after the popularisation of the hand-held sewing machine in the mid-19th century and was especially powerful after the invention of the electric sewing machine in 1889.

However, as David Arnold has shown, its roots lay in earlier colonial imaginations of the Indian darzi as unadaptable in the face of changing European fashions, an imagination that allowed administrators to contrast supposed European vitality with perceived Indian rigidity. This belief led colonial administrators to introduce sewing to new educational contexts, as they imagined they might create alternative classes of technologically flexible tailors.

A tailor shop in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. The picture dates back to British India. Photo: Periodpaper.com.

But colonial narratives about tailors were not based only on a racialised idea that Indian artisans were resistant to technological change, they were also based on colonial ethnographic projects, which categorised tailors as members of intrinsically marginal caste and social groups. Colonial official and ethnographer William Crooke, who informed the colonial state’s understanding of North Indian castes and tribes, noted down a few proverbs prevalent in north India about tailors. One of the folk proverbs ran: Darji ka put jab tak jita ta tak sita (the tailor’s brat will do nothing, but sew all his life long).

Crooke understood caste as defined by occupation, and he described darzis as a composite caste group that incorporated both Hindus and Muslims. In both cases, he saw tailors as marginal and unorthodox members of their religious communities, claiming for instance that the majority of darzis in present-day Uttar Pradesh “profess to be Sunni Muslims… but still cling to many Hindu usages”.

Likewise, he dismissed Hindu darzis for their attachment to Muslim Sufi shrines. Colonial officials saw the mixing of religious elements as evidence that tailors occupied—and deserved to remain in— marginal positions in social and caste hierarchies. The syncretic religious beliefs and rituals of various darzi castes bewildered British officials who looked for fixed and rigid social categories that would ease their governance.

Also read: The Hand-Made’s Tale: What Does a Hindu Rashtra Mean for the Indian Fashion Industry?

Although colonial ethnographers highlighted only the social aspect, the contempt attached to their trade had also an economic basis. William Hoey, the License Tax Officer of Lucknow, noted in 1880 that ordinary tailors were paid as little as 1 ½ annas (16 annas = 1 Rs) for a day’s work in a tailor’s shop while a skilled carpenter could fetch up to 8 annas a day. The master-tailor appropriated the majority of profits which were equal to the total wage paid to all its apprentices, journeymen, and ordinary tailor. A journeyman tailor would make 2 pairs of male pyjamas for 4 annas in a day while his wage was just 1 ½ annas. On the other hand, the master-tailor provided needles, thread, workspace for workers and designed/stitched intricate dresses of females, dancing girls, elites.

Tailors’ resistance against their marginalisation 

Through vernacular writings, we come to know that tailors began to resist forms of social and economic marginalisation, attempting to improve their community’s social status, both in the eyes of the colonial state and those of their neighbours. Some published trade handbooks highlighting their engagement with sewing machines and other markers of technological modernity, or advertised their adeptness with emerging styles. Others sought to assert status within their religion.

For instance, in the early 20th century, Muslim darzis in both Lucknow and Allahabad published community histories that gave laudatory accounts of their contributions to Muslim history, and portrayed the community as comprised of religiously upstanding individuals. Given titles like the Idrisnamah, or “Book of Idris”, the community histories traced the practices of Muslim darzis to the third prophet, Idris, arguing that practices of cutting and sewing had been revealed to him by God.

They also claimed that the “holy tunic” that the Prophet Muḥammad wore on the night of his ascension to heaven was made following the principles revealed to Idris. They portrayed Muslim darzis as orthodox, pious Muslims with a long, prestigious tradition in the faith, seeking to undercut colonial narratives that portrayed members of their trade as marginal within their religious tradition.

A painting of a tailor from British India. Photo: Kitāb-i tashrīḥ al-aqvām of James Skinner.

Hindu tailor communities also claimed a socially superior status based on their lineage to Kshatriya status in the early decades of the 20th century.

One example of these were Wayakwanshi tailors who traced their Kshatriya lineage to the Yadavs of Mathura at the time of Krishna. The Genealogies of the Vayakwanshi Tailors by Mahashay Bholanath (1918, Badaun in present-day Uttar Pradesh) narrates this history of community formation in the light of print culture, caste assertion, and communal mobilisation. Bholanath appeals to Wayakwanshi tailors to organise themselves as a community, follow just one god, respect Brahmans and Hindu religious scripture, educate children and marry daughters within the community. While communities’ efforts to keep themselves together were noted, Bholanath interpreted the decline of Hindu tailors as a direct result of Islamic rule and the infiltration of non-Wayaks as tailors, which possibly included Hindus and especially Muslims.

Embedded hierarchies among tailors

Even as tailors resisted the social marginalisation of their trade within colonial north Indian society, they also maintained certain hierarchies themselves. Crooke noted the presence of various classes of tailors who had their own professional sub-identities: Rafugars (darners of old clothes), Khaimadoz (tent-makers), Dastarband (makers of elaborate turbans worn by clerks and native servants). Moreover, darzis were almost always male, and the most prestigious prided themselves on focusing on the “arts” of measuring, designing, and cutting, while less senior tailors did most of the sewing.

A manual for seamstresses, published in Lucknow, 1907. Photo: Rekhta.

Female seamstresses, by contrast, often sewed regardless of how long they had practised the trade. The colonial state, as well as some missionary and religious charitable schools, saw sewing as an appropriate trade for young women. And while women did manage to secure livelihoods through sewing, they received lower wages, and retained a lower social positionality, than their male counterparts.

The embedded hierarchies of tailoring — both the frequent social marginalisation of tailors, and the economic and gendered hierarchies within the trade itself — continued to prevent many tailors from securing economic stability in post-colonial India.

Moreover, the economic challenges that tailors face have only deepened in the age of fast fashion and mass production. While we have noted instances of tailors securing wealth or prominence as a result of high fashion, many others face a contracting market, with some forced to transition to factory labour. Neighbourhood and small-town tailors have nonetheless shown remarkable resilience and creativity in the face of new forms of competition. Their histories, experiences and skills deserve greater popular attention, particularly in this period, when many of their economic futures remain uncertain or insecure.

Dr Amanda Lanzillo is a postdoctoral fellow with the Princeton University Society of Fellows, and a lecturer in the Princeton department of history, where she writes and teaches South Asian history. Follow her on Twitter @lanzilloamanda

Dr Arun Kumar is an assistant professor of British Imperial, Colonial & Post-colonial History at Nottingham University. He writes on the modern history of India. Follow him on Twitter @arun_historian.