In a Manner of Dressing: At the Intersection of Clothing, Colonisation, and Christianity

By Gonzales, Ava Vivian | Women in Action, December 2002 | Go to article overview

In a Manner of Dressing: At the Intersection of Clothing, Colonisation, and Christianity


Gonzales, Ava Vivian, Women in Action


The bare-bellied and silicone-breasted young woman looms large in today's globalised world where Britney is both the penultimate object of desire and a powerful consumer force. The media-savvy Britney sells herself and her lifestyle through a prolific output of music, videos, movie appearances, endorsements, and with a new restaurant, even her choice of cuisine. The multibillion dollar Britney Spears phenomenon leads one to think that perhaps the pronouncements of fashion designers and editors control women's bodies just as the capitalist employer or landlord wields its power over the worker. In drawing the connection between knowledge and power, Foucault's theory of discourse links particular social attitudes and practices to legitimised sets of understandings, or truths. This notion of discursive truth can be used to reveal how clothing and historical religious texts not only construct women as targets of social control but also condone male-inflicted violence done to them.

Clothing and Civilisation

Representations of bare-bosomed native women reinforce the myth of virginal lands ripe for the conquering. Historically, it was for the sake of men's sanities that the parts of a woman's body--especially those that symbolised her power to bear and nourish children--were kept from view. For instance, India's 5,000 year old epic the Mahabharat depicts the Lord Krishna eternally lengthening the diaphanous sari that demurely yet seductively draped Draupadi in order to protect her virtue from captors. Upon Spanish colonisation, the native Filipino or indio (1) came to regard the naked female body as evil. The indies' refusal to wear clothes was just one of the many reasons that made the Spaniards consider them as inferior. To prevent men from committing sin, native Filipino women were taught to cover their bodies with an intricate layer of under and overgarments. Such a layered manner of Spanish dress became known as the Maria Clara, (2) after the style the writer Jose Rizal chose to dress his popular heroine in. The silk copinos (3) covering the Filipina's breasts under her bare, and the delicately embroidered enaguas (4) she wore beneath her saya (5) were the pieces of fabric closest to her skin. These undergarments can be likened to the Japanese silk Nagajuban (6) and cotton Momen-no-juban slips young Japanese women wore in addition to the knee-length Haori to complement their kimonos. These undergarments beneath the Japanese kimono are held together using either a silk or brocade sash (12) inches wide and 12 feet long called Obi. (7) The Obi is wrapped a little higher than the waist to cover the woman's ribs. It is intricately fastened and kept in place with the aid of girdles--sometimes as many as 15--made from silk and brocade. The sari, (8) meanwhile, is tucked away beneath two undergarments: first, a waist-to-floor length petticoat tied tightly at the waist by a drawstring and second, a tight fitting blouse that ends just below the bust.

Though seemingly different, through subtle variations in style and materials, the sari, kimono, and Maria Clara all communicate personal and social messages of gender, age, and status and aesthetics. Through Maria Clara's character and manner of dress, Jose Rizal inscribed the colonised male's fascination with the female, just as tales of kimono-clad women were part of Western lore long before the Portuguese landed on the Japanese archipelago in 1543. Likewise, the traditional six-yard sari Indian women have been generously pleating, tucking, and draping around their bodies for centuries exudes a beauty, grace, and sensuality that continues to mystify travellers. According to folktale, the floor length, midriff-baring attire:

   ... was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver. He
   dreamt of Woman. The shimmer of her tears. The
   drape of her tumbling hair. The colours of her many
   moods. The softness of her touch. All these he wove
   together. … 

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