Since the early 19th century, photography has been a crucial means of communication for citizens, governments, writers and artists. With the rise of photography during periods of colonial rule, however, came a new racial ideology (Ball-Phillips, Lecture). By examining photographs from similar periods in India and Mexico, cross-cultural connections about women, gender and historic dress become evident. The female portrayal in 19th century photography in India and Mexico depicts the status and regional perceptions of women at the time.
“Photography was also used by Western travellers in anthropological studies – and to fundraise for missionary work, by showing the folks back home the ‘improvements’ wrought in the lives of the ‘natives,’” Nadia Hijab writes in her 1988 review of Sarah Graham-Brown’s Images of Women the portrayal of women in photography of the Middle East 1860-1950 (1673).
Women’s costume is made more prominent by the introduction of photography. No longer do people paint the ideal image of a woman, but rather showcase her in all her glory or degradation, with no way to mask the imperfections that may be present, whether in her clothes, location or actions.
Photography without an accompanying text, not only allows, but really forces the viewer to determine his or her own explanation and background for the image. Because of this and the fact that all of these photos were taken by male photographers, these female subjects are often left without a voice. Thus these photos, which were often used to depict life in these colonial regions, were often taken out of context and used to project different images and ideas of Indian and Mexican women.
One example of this is the emergence of “orientalism,” and the western obsession with mystery, sexuality and the harem, of the Middle East.
“Within the confines of the palace, the only men who were allowed to visit a woman were her husband and direct blood relatives. Because of this, portraits of royal women were idealized, as court artists typically were not given access to these subjects. However idealized their facial features may be, South Asian women depicted in paintings still provide evidence of the costume elements and accessories that they wore” (What People Wore When, 202).
With the rise of “orientalism,” the mystery around an Indian woman’s dress was heralded and examined through a western lens. Hijab writes about prevalence of photography as a means to emphasize this phenomenon, much like previous paintings did. Photography acted as a medium for furthering the idea of “orientalism.”
“For many decades, Western photographs of Middle Eastern subjects (people and places) carried on the Orientalist themes present in paintings. European travellers continued to be fascinated by the women of the Middle East, and especially by the images of indolence and sensuality conjured up by the concept of the harem, women waited in seclusion to do their master’s bidding,” Hijab writes (1673)
What people wear has a significant impact on how they are perceived. Historic dress and costume played a role in the concept of “orientalism.” In this case, there is a stark contrast among the subjects in these four photographs. Beginning with the photograph, Banian Women, by William Johnson (ca. 1855-1862), the subjects of this photograph are two women, set in the middle of the frame, who appear to be standing in front of a temple or other important building. These women seem to be of similar age and could be related as sisters or sisters-in-law.
In the 2008 book, What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume from Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society, it is explained how women of Western India in the 19th century, such as in the photograph, Banian Women, often wore “a bandhani skirt and head covering” (205).
With both the sari and the bandhani, women traditionally wore a veil or other head covering. In the photo, Banian Women, the women appear to be wearing long bandhanis and pieces of cloth wrapped around their heads and torsos. The women are barefoot, but wear jewelry, and there appears to be a motif on the head covering of the woman on the left. Because of their long skirts (which required more fabric and more money), these women seem to be of a higher station. The women in the photo, Bhundaree Women, also by William Johnson (ca. 1855-1862), are dressed vastly different in comparison to the women in Banian Women. These women do not wear head coverings; rather they have their hair tightly pulled back. They wear short cloth pants, gathered at the knees, and short-sleeve shirts underneath pieces of cloth wrapped around the torso and draped over one shoulder, much like a sari is tied. Although they do wear jewelry, in contrast to the women in Banian Women, the short and much more simple garments worn by these women suggest that they are working-class. In fact, in the image, the three women lean against a tree trunk as they sort fruits and vegetables into baskets.
The head covering, worn by the women in Banian Women is an example of the kind of image that suggests the mystery of the harem or “orientalism,” from the western perspective. In many different cultures veils or head coverings allude to mysterious things, simply because they block the viewer from knowing what lies beneath.
“The emancipation of women in the Middle East is tied up with the national liberation movements, and this has led the people of the region to adhere to traditions they might have changed more rapidly left to their own devices. For instance, the Western obsession with veiling – and colonialist attempts to ‘liberate’ women by doing away with the veil – were seen by people as attempts to subvert society by subverting the family, as is the case to this day,” Hijab says (1674).
In 19th century India, the common garment worn by women is the sari. The sari is one long strip of fabric that is wrapped around the body and tied so that it has the effect of a dress. Falguni A. Sheth writes in a 2009 article entitled, “The Hijab and the Sari: The Strange and Sexy between Colonialism and Global Capitalism,” about the underlying mystery of sexuality that follows certain types of Middle Eastern dress, particularly the sari.
“The history of colonialism and the forced domestication of the sari help to facilitate its reception as an acceptably ‘sexy’ garment,” Sheth says (Sheth).
This sexuality is the premise of colonial “orientalism,” and serves as the underlying theme in how many of these photographs were perceived by western culture.
The photos from Mexico are also strikingly different. In the postcard, the woman is very dressed up, wearing a detailed dress with floral and plaid prints. The dress also features a ruffle design at the hem and an intricate lace collar. She wears her hair in a low bun with earrings hanging down to frame her face. Unlike the barefoot women in the photos from India, this woman is wearing shoes. She appears as if she is on her way to church or some other important gathering. She seems happy as she strikes a pose under the tree, with her intricately woven basket.
In a harsh comparison, the girl in the photograph, Otomie Indian Woman by C.B. Waite (ca. 1905), appears very upset. She is wearing a tattered skirt and short poncho made out of what appears to be a heavier material, such as canvas or wool. The only embellishment on her garment is the wide stripe toward the bottom of her skirt and the dirty, old fringe that hangs beneath. Her face is also dirty and her hair is messy. It appears that the photographer may have caught a photo of this girl amid the hustle and bustle of the street activities. She may have been playing with friends, who peak their faces out of the edge of the picture, or she may have been begging for food or other charity.
In “The Chicana in American History: The Mexican Women of El Paso, 1880-1920– A Case Study,” Mario T. Garcia writes about the lack of focus on Mexican women living in the southwestern United States at the turn of the 20th century.
“Although Mexican women have made significant contributions to the growth of a Chicano working class in the United States, their history has received little attention. Interpretive and historiographical pieces have been written, but no in-depth scholarship on the subject has emerged,” Garcia writes (315).
Although, as Garcia points out, there is a lack of written material on the Chicano woman and her household, there are a multitude of visual sources available, such as the photographs just discussed, which depict a moment in the lives of these women.
The life of the Chicano woman required her to care for the whole of the family unit, including her husband and children. This made her a crucial part of the family structure (Garcia 319).
The woman in the postcard appears to be old enough to have children. She may be on her way to the market or to church with her family. This family group was a common cultural phenomenon, at the time, and required the mother to be a primary caretaker of the family.
“In Mexico at the turn of the century, the urban working class and rural family appear to have constituted a strong social and economic institution,” Garcia writes (317).
This is a important statement on the status of Mexican women at this time. However, this fact about colonial Mexican culture is lost on the viewer of any of these images, because they require the viewer to determine their own background for the image, much like with the photographs from India and the phenomenon of “orientalism.”
Despite the differences between the photographs from each country, the regions and periods as a whole, in terms of their reflections of women, appear to be vastly similar. These photographs of women were seen, in the western world, as accurate depictions of life in these areas of colonial rule. But without the women’s voice or any other context, the viewer is forced to rely on his or her imagination and minimal knowledge about these cultures. The most poignant aspect of these images is the clothing that the subjects wear, and that cue is perceived in many different ways.
“The reading of the normative implications of a garment is intrinsically linked to the racial lens through which the population is read,” Sheth says (Sheth).
Ball-Phillips, Rachel. KNW2399. Southern Methodist University. Dallas. 2015. Lecture.
Foley, Neil. KNW2399. Southern Methodist University. Dallas. 2015. Lecture.
Garcia, Mario T. “The Chicana in American History: The Mexican Women of El Paso, 1880-1920: A Case Study.” Pacific Historical Review 49.2 (1980): 315-37. JSTOR. Web. 27 April 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3638904
Hijab, Nadia. Review of Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East 1860-1950, by Susan M. Hartman. Third World Quarterly 10.4 (1998): 1672-74. JSTOR. Web. 27 April 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3992524
Johnson, William. Banian Women. ca. 1855-1862. Photograph. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University. http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/eaa/id/715
Johnson, William. Bhundaree Women. ca. 1855-1862. Photograph. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University. http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/eaa/id/747/rec/52
Leventon, Melissa, ed. What People Wore When: A complete History of Costume from Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society. New York: Ivy Press, 2008.
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Sheth, Falguni A. “The Hijab and the Sari: The Strange and Sexy between Colonialism and Global Capitalism.” Contemporary Aesthetics 2 (2009): 1-20. Web. 30 April 2015. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/ca/7523862.spec.208/–hijab-and-the-sari-the-strange-and-sexy-between-colonialism?rgn=main;view=fulltext
Tharakan, Sophie M. and Michael Tharakan. “Status of Women in India: A Historical Perspective.” Social Scientist 4.4/5 (1975): 115-23. JSTOR. Web. 27 April 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3516124
Unknown. Unknown. n.d. Postcard. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.
Waite, C.B. Otomie Indian Woman. 1905. Photograph. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University. http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/mex/id/788/rec/121