In planning for a visit to India in November 2016 and on the recommendation of a friend, I ordered a copy of Emma Tarlo’s book, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. What strikes me are the similarities between Mexico and India and the politics of cloth as a statement of belonging, assimilation and independence.
Emma Tarlo is a British cultural anthropologist and the book is based on research for her doctoral degree. Identity is tied to the quality of cloth, where it’s made, how it’s made and by whom, style (is it westernized or indigenous) and how a person feels about him/herself in their chosen attire.
Clothes are symbols for who we are, where we come from and who we aspire to be. They are also symbols for keeping people in their place by banning attire or requiring that people maintain a dress code based on their ethnic identity.
Indigenous dress can convey a strong sense of pride or shame. Handmade cloth is more costly than machine woven textiles and often unaffordable to most.Handmade can be code for poverty, class and rough quality. In Chiapas, metallic, synthetic thread is all the rage by Chamula women. It is difficult to find natural dyes there now.
The first section of the book addresses the politics of cloth, India’s M.K. Ghandi social movement to eradicate manufactured and imported cloth and reinstate khadi cotton as part of a national independence movement.
It was curious to me to read this because Khadi is also the name of a Oaxaca cooperative that hand-spins and hand weaves native cotton using the type of spinning wheel used in India. The textile is soft, airy, comfortable and easy to wear in Oaxaca’s climate. Yet, I had no idea until reading Tarlo’s book how closely tied this identity of cloth is between the two countries.
I’ll be writing more about as I re-enter Oaxaca. It’s important to look at indigenous clothing not only as beautiful textiles but as significant for supporting local economic development. Cloth has value. It is a root of identity.