The peculiar case of primitivism in the west and the rest

The peculiar case of primitivism in the west and the rest


White saviourism under the guise of empowering fashion has been at work since the beginning of time, erasing and transforming our culture until it’s unrecognisable

The peculiar case of primitivism in the west and the rest

The world began with the white man at its helm, daring to take a leap of servicial support in an effort to save people of colour from their own societies, cultures, and practices – or so the story is often weaved to the masses. Albeit, grossly misrepresented by omission and a certain bias, or rather ineptitude to see themselves as anything but under the light of saviourdom, westerners have time and time again painted a picture that depicts the majority of the eastern world as primitive and backwards, a concept that seeped into fashion and even more so in standards of beauty, primarily through the white gaze and to depict a certain self-gratifying justification on their colonial hold where optics were a crucial feature of domination.

Fashion has been and continues to be the main driver of promoting euro-centric beauty standards as the norm and the definition of beauty. Fashion, at its essence, is a representation of cultural identity. The premise that fashion is a phenomenon that could only emerge in the “civilised” West, draws on the same old yet ever so prevalent discourses of exoticism, the primitive, orientalism and authenticity.

In the sub-continental context, one has to go way back to about 150 years ago or so when the white women arrived. Take the example of when a woman named Annette Ackroyd stood under a lecturer who urged “well-trained, accomplished, English ladies” to come and educate their “Indian sisters.” Once in India, Ackroyd found herself shocked by the “sisters” she had come to educate and empower. Bengali women’s clothing, in her opinion, was just not appropriate. The saris, she thought, left Bengali women semi-nude and she found them vulgar and immodest. “There must be a decided change in their lower garments,” she wrote. “They cannot go into public in such costumes.” A well-to-do Bengali woman struck Ackroyd as a “savage who had never heard of dignity or modesty” for the way she sat and dressed, “in red silk, no shoes and no stockings.”

Commodified as “special and deserving objects” of feminist concern, brown women became the locus for the flag bearers that were white women, the very saviours who were ill-prepared to cope with the basic cultural differences they encountered in their new avocation. Caught between tradition and modernisation, culturalism and development, and a hold of a dominating power that continued to marginalise anything it deemed as the “other,” the sub-continental fashion went through an unbridled change.


While the men took on more conventional euro-centric garbs where extensive evidence exists of aristocratic Indian men wearing suits as early as the 1920s, the women’s attire was slowly introduced to elements like the long-sleeved blouse and the petticoat, which hail entirely from colonial rule. The textiles being manufactured in India were also anglicised, this can be seen by the drastic change in the motifs from Lotuses to Tulips, where the style of depiction transformed into something very Victorian, displaying exuberant Baroque Curves. Even embroideries traditionally associated with Punjab, today, find their existence from the Colonial Era. There are many types of embroideries existent even today, apart from ‘phulkari’, ‘khes’, and ‘dhurries’, which are influenced by British rule.

What started as a war against primitivism and an effort to “save” continues to this date, however under different circumstances. Fast forward to the new century when New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney stood on the house floor in a veiled blue Burqa stating how “The veil is so thick that it’s difficult to breathe.” The blue burqa, then, became one more focal point to justify yet another intervention into a foreign land, a hold that lasted for twenty years with an end result that had nothing to show for.

As Rafia Zakaria aptly worded in her book Against White Feminism: “If European feminists are terribly annoyed at Muslim women who insist on covering up their bodies today, they were equally annoyed by the lack of coverings worn by Hindu women then.”

Whether it is the covering of breasts in Southern India or the wearing of burqas in Afghanistan, women’s clothing has offered an emotionally powerful shorthand for all that is wrong with native culture and all that must be corrected by the empire. In the age-old battle of revealing versus covered, the common denominator is the very construct of an issued western-led prerogative rather than the commonality of choice. The question arises: which “costume” would deem us acceptable? And the answer may surprise you; it’s neither.

These stigmatised ideas of the ‘other’ are remains of Western imperialist rationale when colonised societies and cultures were defined as traditional, unchanging, and different, to emphasise their difference with European society and culture, believed to be ‘modern and cosmopolitan,’ as a means to justify oppressive and abusive colonial politics. In other words, if these people were ‘uncivilised,’ it was the west’s ‘moral duty’ to ‘civilise’ them through colonialism. At the end of the day, white feminism and its spillover onto fashion and attire only aims to erase cultural autonomy and history, replacing it with a visual that appeases the white gaze.

Take Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a political figure who was central to feminist activism in the early 1900s, considered the production of sub-continental fabrics like Khadi a political weapon against British imperialism. When she travelled to the U.S., she carefully clarified the terms of an alliance with Western feminists: “You are fighting the patriarchy, we are fighting imperialism.”


While the true definition of feminism may be built on the very aspect of choice and bodily autonomy, the rules get skewed when seen from a euro-lens, consistently looking down on the “third world lingers.” Not white enough, not ethnic enough, not covered enough, not revealing enough, all play into the idea of them and the rest, feeding ideas of orientalism and exoticism that exist to this day.

In the recent events between Russia and Ukraine, much light has been shed on the hypocritical media coverage that exonerates these new Ukrainian refugees simply for being European and White who belong to a “civilised” nation or colluding with white skin or the clothes they wear, whereas places like Iraq, Syria, or Palestine barely ever get the same olive branch.

Racism doesn’t only exist in the fairness and beauty industry but has its feet entrenched into the fashion industry. Media, ranging from fashion blogs to magazines, have become crucial in identifying narratives of euro-centrism and igniting discourses on identity and race – holding the potential for a decolonising transformation from within the fashion system. In the past fifteen years, the emergence of digital fashion media has put long-standing hierarchies of power into question, and it’s time we look at our wardrobe and assess; what is it we deem traditional or western, and how much of it is true?

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