From Versailles to the Ganges, Dress as a Form of Sartorial Nationalism

From Versailles to the Ganges, Dress as a Form of Sartorial Nationalism, Mark O’Connell@2015 No Reproduction without permission

“We should not ask ‘what is a nation’ but rather […] How does nation work as a practical category, as classificatory scheme, as cognitive frame? What makes the use of that category by or against states more or less resonant or effective? What makes the nation-evoking, nation-invoking efforts of political entrepreneurs more or less likely to proceed” Rogers Brubaker quoted in: Patriots Against Fashion: Clothing and Nationalism in Europe’s Age of Revolutions (Maxwell 2014:2).


Many diverse groups have been affected by the unspoken governance of dress throughout history; historically, dress has been used as a hegemonic force both for the purposes of inclusion as well as exclusion. What was initially a fundamentally internal cultural practice of self-definition was ultimately used to create boundaries that then needed to be defended. This process of sartorial nationalism speaks to the power that clothing has as a tool for mobilization, unification, essentialization and radicalization. Enforcing societal homogenizations and sub-divisions even as it created them. The dichotomy between a nationalist “costume” and the traditional dress of a region, point to the need for an external force to imbue meaning to a recognizable mode of dress. In France, the process of denunciation of the excessive fashions of the elite can be identified as symptom of the populist proto-bourgeois groundswell; one that echoed growing anti-elitist sentiment in society that would lead to the French revolution. In India, Mahatma Gandhi fostered nationalist consciousness through the use of the homespun textile “Khadi”, employing it as a means of subverting British economic and cultural dominance. This concept of nationalist consciousness-building through dress has been utilized even when there wasn’t a national dress to draw upon, such as the nascent years of the formation of the country that we now know of as Italy. Sartorial nationalism has the power to endow modes of dress that were originally shaped by social dynamics and stratification within a community, with the xenophobic power of a unifying political purpose, which can then be exploited for much larger nation building purposes.

(Full paper upon request)



Fig. 1. 1778 fashion plate of French court dress with wide panniers.



Fig. 2. The Mahatma Gandhi


Breward, Christopher. The culture of fashion. Vol. 1. Manchester University Press, 1995.


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Maxwell, Alexander. 2014. Patriots Against Fashion : Clothing and Nationalism in Europe’s Age of Revolutions. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed October 5, 2015).

Paulicelli, Eugenia. “Mapping the world: The political geography of dress in Cesare Vecellio’s costume books.” The Italianist 28, no. 1 (2008): 24-53.

Roche, Daniel, and Jean Birrell. The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the Ancien Régime. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Roche, Daniel. A History of Everyday Things: the Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Trentmann, Frank. “Materiality in the future of history: things, practices, and politics.” The Journal of British Studies 48, no. 02 (2009): 283-307.

Vecellio, Cesare. “Degli Habiti Antichi et Moderni di Diverse Parti del Mondo.” Libri Due, presso Damian Zenaro 1590: 113.

Cover image: “Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français. 36e Cahier des Costumes Français, 28e Suite d’Habillemens à la mode en 1781. 1er Cahier pour le 3e Volume. mm.210 “Duchesse occupant une des premieres place chez la Reine…”

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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