Recycling Indian Clothing: Global Contexts of Reuse and Value

By Sethi, Cristin McKnight | Cultural Analysis, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Recycling Indian Clothing: Global Contexts of Reuse and Value


Sethi, Cristin McKnight, Cultural Analysis


Recycling Indian Clothing: Global Contexts of Reuse and Value. By Lucy Norris. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. Pp. ix + 226, notes, bibliography, index, 7 illustrations, 16 color plates.

In Recycling Indian Clothing, Lucy Norris maps the reuse and transformation of second-hand clothing in India as it moves across broad spectrums of society. Divested from middle class and elite Indian wardrobes, and picked up by local Waghri traders (Gujarati merchants that buy and sell used cloth), these garments recirculate--often in dramatically new forms--in markets both in India and abroad. Norris highlights the social relationships deeply embedded in the collecting and repurposing of cloth, and the unique cultural value that fabric has on the subcontinent. Working through Indian notions of purity/pollution and traditional beliefs that attach personal, and often sacred, associations to cloth, Norris reveals that the circulation of used clothing from India is highly complex and multi-tiered in its movement and engages both men and women from all social strata and religious backgrounds. By shedding light on this understudied aspect of South Asian material culture, Norris seeks to show that the remaking of old clothing is, in fact, a process of remaking selves.

Pulling from Igor Kopytoff's theories about the biography of objects and Arjun Appadurai's notion of the social life of things, Norris attempts to move away from strictly anthropological and historical studies of Indian clothing that closely document "traditional" textiles; she instead places emphasis on the shifting meaning and value of garments in their disposal and subsequent reuse. Her book joins other scholarly studies that explore the highly personal roles that clothing fulfills in peoples' lives, notably Emma Tarlo's Clothing Matters (1996), Joanne Eicher, Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, and Kim K.P. Johnson's Dress and Identity (1995), and Jane Schneider and Annette Weiner's Cloth and Human Experience (1989).

And yet, Norris's study differs in important ways: by focusing on the circulation and repurposing of used clothing, an understudied topic in general, she is able to highlight several global contexts in which Indian cloth finds new life and meaning, a departure from earlier texts that center on the role of cloth solely within a South Asian context. Her fieldwork begins by looking closely at the domestic market in which old clothing (e.g., worn-out silk saris, cotton dhotis and salwaar suits, jeans, sweaters) from the wardrobes of well-off urban residents is exchanged for money or other goods by Waghri traders. She engages in a form of "wardrobe archaeology" (34), documenting the personal connections associated with cloth as she sifts through the closets of female neighbors in the Trans-Yamuna district of New Delhi where she lived for one year. Norris then traces these old garments as they leave the homes of middle class women and are dispersed by Waghri traders into a highly segregated network of merchants, designers, and entrepreneurs, who in turn sell these old garments as-is to the poor or use them as raw material for "new" products to be sold on a global stage.

Key to Norris's study is the significant cultural value attached to cloth in India, a notion that emerges from Tarlo in particular. Fabric is rarely thrown out when no longer wanted or needed, but instead is most often given new life as hand-me-downs and gifts to servants or relatives, or used as currency to barter for new and desirable home products (most often stainless steel pots). Both historically and in the present-day, cloth in India is a "bio-moral substance" (7) that transmits ideas of holiness, purity, and pollution to the wearer. It also confers status, and, when gifted, it retains something of the spirit of the giver, imbued with his/her power or essence. Cloth in India also has connotations with political struggles for independence in the first half of the 20th century, made most famous by Gandhi's swadeshi campaign and championing of hand-spun, hand-woven khadi cloth. …

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