Idiotic Pride: The Uniforms of the East India Company

Clothing designers never prepare you for the slow death of a season. Sure, every six months they fill stores with clothes of various lengths and thicknesses, but when their customers are riding the mechanical bull that is transitional weather, designers are hiding behind their mood boards working on the next batch. All the strategizing then falls upon us shoppers as we struggle to match garment to weather condition. How do you dress for a day that starts at 40 degrees and rises to 70? The industry shrugs.

But standing at my closet, one eye on its contents and the other on the weather report, I wonder if it’s possible to dodge this conundrum entirely. Not through ingenuity, but endurance. What if we gave up on adapting to the whims of transitional weather and wore heavy woolen fabrics all day long? Even better, we could cede the outfit selection to someone else, say, someone thousands of miles away, and they could ship over the clothes via a literal ship. Thinking about early spring really takes me back, you know, to the East India Company.

When the Company’s troops plundered the subcontinent between the 18th and 19th centuries, they had better things to do than stare at an open closet. They had one outfit. It was tight and stifling and made them sick. Before the Indian Rebellion of 1857 prompted the English government to step in and, as one of many changes, make lightweight cotton the uniform of Indian subjugation, soldiers dressed “as warmly, and even more so, than in England at this season,” as WSR Hodson described in a letter in 1848.

Garnet Wolseley, who fought in Burma in 1852, was less polite. ”Our clothing was entirely unsuited for campaigning in a tropical climate,” he wrote. “The Queen’s Army took an idiotic pride in dressing in India as nearly as possible in the same clothing they wore at home… We wore our ordinary cloth shell jackets buttoned up to the chin, and the usual white buckskin gloves. Could any costume short of steel armour be more absurd in such a latitude?”

You can imagine how this worked out. Heat exhaustion is just as much a character in Hodson's letters as New York City is in romantic comedies. And as historian Edward Henry Nolan wrote, “the mortality of British soldiers both in peace and war arises from long marches in the heavy clothing with which, under so hot a climate, they are encumbered. Under the burning sun… many incur death, or disease by which they are permanently invalidated.”

It’s refreshing, in a perverse sort of way, that Company leadership would discard weather concerns for the sake of national pride. Somewhere amid their creeping lightheadedness, the soldiers must have felt at least a dash of esprit de corps, the sort that DC government employees must feel as they hobble home in their suits underneath the August sun, passing throngs of cargo-shorted tourists along the way. Except when the DC folk get home, they can slip into cargo shorts of their own.

If there is one reason to envy the Company troops, however, it is this: when I choose the wrong outfit and end up baking on my walk to lunch, I blame myself and the parade of poor decisions that must have led to this point. But when you suffer at the pleasure of a distant authority, you can direct your ire-beams to an unseen place thousands of miles away. Resentment is healthier than self-loathing, at least until the permanent invalidation comes.

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