Wickramasinghe, N. “Dressing the Colonised Body” (2003)

Wickramasinghe, Nira, Dressing the Colonised Body. Politics, Clothing and Identity in Colonial Sri Lanka, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2003.

 .        It is not every day that I have the opportunity to review of a book whose author was a supervisor for my research thesis at Leiden University: Dr. Wickramasinghe. Nevertheless, and regarding our common interest, I feel the need of overcoming my respectful silence and praise this book, adding my own academic efforts in achieving the aim of this text: the return the study of material culture to the core of cultural and political history. In the 150-some pages, Nira delineates the importance of the politics of identity and clothing for the construction of “modern Sri Lanka”. In the process, she exposes the relations between material culture and socio-political modernisation, including nationalism and industrialisation.dressing book
.          It is obvious at first sight that Foucauldian ideas about the fashioning of the individual, and consequently the collective, through the reshaping of the body are a major driver of this book. Dress is only the most evident bodily element of material culture. However, as expressed by the author, this text also grows from the disappointment with Subaltern Studies which fails to bring attention to material culture as a relevant issue for the study of nationalism and political discourses. Complementary, the school of Lieux de memoire, although recognising the importance of the material for the preservation of memory, fails to recognise the flexible nature of memory and its changeable relation with the object under discussion. Lastly, I would also underline her continuous efforts in retrieving historical examples of other former colonised regions as central ingredients for global social theory in an attempt to “provincialize Europe”.

.         The first chapter is dedicated to the evolving political structures and their representation through symbolic means. Accordingly, Nira argues that although part of the elite praised the use of the national dress as means of rebellion against colonialism, they adopted an imperial etiquette symbolised by Scotch Whisky and honours bestowed by the British administration. Hence, in Ceylon “[t]he national dress was an exception in a transfer of power which was essentially characterised by continuity with the colonial state and its emblems.” (20) Despite the imagination of a national dress, the political elite failed to transform this patriotism into a anti-colonial struggle, preventing in the long run the formation of unified massive political movements.
.          “Although the colonial census played a crucial role in drawing discrete boundaries between communities and gelling identities which were until then flexible and contextual, conflicts and resistances to these classifications constantly transformed a seemingly ordered picture.” (78) Nevertheless “[e]thniticy imposed itself as a viable strategy to secure more advantages in the new constitution. The authenticity of their own ethnic group or race was claimed by many elite leaders who used the imagery of purity, linage and distinctiveness to ascertain their place in society.” (85) In sum “[i]t was indeed within the social framework sketched by the colonial minds that communities reinvented signs of identity and difference.” (86)
.          However, the British were fine with the nativization of dress as long as it remained within native social interaction. Hence, while farmers were investing pride in the traditional clothes, these were banned from schools, legal courts or official meeting unless persons were specifically summoned as representatives of identified collectives. In such case, there was an officially designed uniformed and a strict patterns of behaviour that responded to imperial and Victorian etiquette. Interestingly, at the end of the book, the author included a number of tables describing the elements of the official uniforms for the different ranks of the administrative hierarchy sorted by religion.


Dr. Nira Wickramasinghe

.          In the second chapter, modernity is veiled under the idea of industralisation and incorporation of Ceylon to the imperial economic structure. This process of “integration” had an impact on migration patterns as well as in the growth of urban areas. In the textile industry, the most important transformation was the virtual eradication of locally cultivated cotton and its substitution by exportable coconut plantations.
.       The case of the sewing machine is very revealing as it spread very fast into remotes rural areas. “It was epitomised modernity. It was easy to work, faster than humankind and an instrument of standardisation. (…) The machine was sold less as a useful item and more as a status symbol (…) The sewing machine would gradually become one of the main items in the dowry of a middle-class women in Ceylon.” (55-7)
.          The widespread growth of population and the loss of personal interaction brought about two interrelated processes: first, the spread of a culture of consumption that was accommodating and reinterpreting clothing styles brought by such “integrated” imperial context; and second, as a reaction, a critical religious discourse tried to differentiate the ‘real needs’ of the Ceylonese people in opposition to a culture of wastage that was, in their opinion, undermining their contemporary social ethics of patriarchal authority.


D.A.L. Perera in Muhandiram costume.

.          Perhaps the more interesting chapter, and probably what triggered all the rest of the research, is the part dedicated Wahala Tantrige Don Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri Ranaweerasinghe Perera (DAL). This chapter also serves as a platform to recreate an individualised story as a means to understand the larger historical context. DAL was a draughtsman who dedicated his life to research under the auspices of the Archaeological Department. His own personal ascendency located him in a space between native lower society and British administrators. Nira develops this interesting situation in a beautiful analysis of three pictures where DAL appears in three costumes according to different moments during his life.
.          First, he was immortalise while reproducing the famous Sigiriya frescoes, an excellent work for which he received very little credit. Then, he posed together with the rest of the archaeological workforce symbolically occupying the position of a Burgher, in between the British director of operations and the rest of the “coolies”, as DAL himself called the native workforce. During his long career, he became the best professional in archaeological matters in Ceylon, assuming directive power at times; however, he was never officially invested with any title of such responsibility. The last picture offers the image of a high civil servant in the appropriate official dress at the moment of his honourable retirement that put an end to a long career that exemplifies the ambiguity of individual identities in this colonised context.

.          The comparison between Sri Lanka and India is unavoidable. Summarising the multiple observations of Nira, I would conclude that in India, the nationalist movement was much broader and got a greater unity in the struggle for independence materialising in the politics of identity and the cultivation of a strong symbolism invested in clothing. In Ceylon “[t]he main object of the nationalists was indeed to make Sinhalese people proud of their own products, culture and habits. They did not seek to rally crowds or fight for independence.” (61-2) Hence, although peasants’ dress was wrapped in patriotic feeling, it never was an instrument of mobilisation. In fact the symbolic differences between the sewn and wrapped clothes was eroded much earlier in Sri Lanka than in India.
.          However, the theoretical horizon does not end in South Asia and Nira brings about examples of African post-colonialism and other process of identity construction that took place in other parts of the British empire. For instance, in the rituals at the time of attaining independence in Nigeria, native culture was not displayed because modernity was still materialised in the western suit. But only a little later, during the independence of Kenya, native culture played a more important role in the celebrations and symbolic elements of the newly created state.

.          In sum, the economic and social process of modernisation -including industralisation, global interaction, redrawing of consumption behaviours- underpinned by colonising structures had a direct impact on the understanding of the politics of identity.

“The national dress constitutes an important component of the symbolic fetishes of the nationalist ideologies.”(17) What is more “[n]ew nations-states grow as much from shared histories, fantasies and myths as from flags, songs and national costumes reinvented. (…) [B]efore the censure that comes with independence, a number of voluntary and contingent forces work in concert to weave an authentic self for the various communities which constitute the nation-state. Authenticity can be linked to a collective dream which calls for material proofs. Dress, which is visible, tangible and reproducible, plays and important role in the consolidation of nations.” (69)

.          Hence, an analysis of the material culture, its uses and its meanings, is essential for the understanding of the processes of construction of new states that attempt to embody geographical limits of a specific identified collective or attempt to construct that collective through process of identification. Furthermore, this analysis of material culture is not only valuable for the production of knowledge about former colonised regions, but also to understand the global system of nation-states upon which the contemporary world politics are based. The scrutiny of the procedures through which the concept of officialdom is represented by flags, anthems and clothes, is necessary in order to explain the embodiment of an essentially immaterial idea: the nation-state.


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