Report on the talk ‘Self-made and World Aware: Clothing Styles of Okakura Kakuzō and M.K. Gandhi’

Image (left): Okakura at The Museum of Fine Art, Boston (c.1905), Tenshin Memorial Museum of Art, Ibaraki; Image (right): Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, National Gandhi Museum.

At the last Thursday Lecture on the 16 June, Dr Maumita Banerjee, current Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow, shared with us comparative stories of Okakura Kakuzō (1862–1913) and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948). Based on her ongoing book project, she discussed the clothing of the two essential figures in modern Asian history as an issue of representing and contending national identities.

Dr Banerjee began her talk with drawing the similarities between Okakura and Gandhi. Both of them manipulated excellent English and published influential books in English. They were familiar with cultural diversities, growing up in international port cities Yokohama and Gujarat. Just three years after Yokohama was opened as a treaty port, Okakura was born to a family dealing in silk. Surrounded by a diverse population, attending a mission school, and learning Chinese classics at a temple, he was exposed to various dressing styles that expressed the wearers’ identities. Gandhi, also born to a merchant family, was aware of dress politics, but differently from Okakura. His mother captured in a photograph wore no shoes as a woman from a wealthy family who did not go out. Through his acquaintances, he observed different religious identities represented by their clothing. On the western coast of British India, there was a racial hierarchy between the British and the Indians, in which clothing marked the differences.

The talk explored Okakura and Gandhi’s dressing while they developed international networks. Receiving western-style education and communicating with Westerners, Okakura wore western clothes in Japan. However, his first trip to Europe and U.S. in 1886 was a turning point. Okakura traveled mostly in Japanese clothes. According to Dr Banerjee, there were Indian passengers in Indian clothes on the same ship. When Okakura stayed in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, he consciously wore hakama and haori for formal occasions. Gandhi also made his first trip abroad in 1888. He wore a black suit on board but changed to white flannels when he landed. However, he felt embarrassed because he was the only person in white clothes. Gandhi’s struggle as a young Indian man living in English society was directly reflected in his clothing choice. To be seen as civilized and make his voice heard, Gandhi carefully dressed like an English man. As a member of the Vegetarian Society, London, he was confidently photographed in Western clothes. Yet, his style eventually became simpler, in which Dr Banerjee observed the influence of John Ruskin (1819–1900), Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), and Edward Carpenter (1844–1924).

Dr Banerjee contrasted the approaches of Okakura and Gandhi in the search for their national identities. When Okakura introduced a school uniform for the Tokyo Art School, the dressing style was neither kimono nor western clothes but inspired by that of the Nara period (710–784). She analysed that this particular cosmopolitan past represented the nostalgia of Japan as well as the treasure of the East and the World. On the other hand, Gandhi rejected the idea of a glorious past. For him, the history was ‘a record of an interruption of the course of nature’. Like his contemporary Carpenter criticized civilization as a disease, Gandhi was concerned about the Darwinian idea of ‘civilization’ measured by the proximity to European dress and manners, which was placed in the highest civilization mode.

Both men tried to find solutions to convey their intellectual idea by dressing, Dr Banerjee argued. In India, Okakura wore Japanese and Chinese clothes. The people of Calcutta saw him as a bridge between India and Japan. He kept his style in the United States too, but there was an occasion when he was not allowed to a reception party due to the dress code. Encountering the idea of Tolstoy, Gandhi began to wear kathiawadi clothing with turban and dhoti. Adorning the rural Indian clothes, the foreign-educated lawyer again felt out of place among rich Indians wearing Western-style clothing. The talk illustrated what it meant by wearing Asian clothing, showing two men’s contrasting experiences.

Dr Banerjee’s inspirational lecture evoked a wide range of questions. Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, who chaired this event, was interested to learn more about the relationship between the Okakura and Gandhi’s dressing choices and the economy of the materials. A member of the audience also asked if Okakura encouraged the Japanese clothes as Gandhi promoted Indian khadi through the swadeshi movement that asked Indian citizens to boycott British cloth. Dr Banerjee answered that she would continue to work on the interesting questions that she received.

Dr Ai Fukunaga

Ishibashi Foundation Assistant Curator for Japanese Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston