Power Dressing

Like history painting, grand portraiture promoted Empire by depicting its principal actors. British sitters sat for large, fulllength portraits celebrating their roles on the imperial stage, suitably costumed and projecting an aura of power. In many other cultures, the European tradition of elite portraiture was alien, and arrived with colonisation. 

Large-scale, formal portraiture was introduced to India when the East India Company’s Governor-General in Bengal, Warren Hastings (1732–1818), promoted the exchange of portraits instead of gifts such as robes (khilat) from a ruler’s wardrobe, traditionally presented in return for tribute. Visiting painters adapted to the taste of their first Indian sitters, emphasising their dress and court rituals, while white Indophiles signalled Orientalist sympathies and their own status by wearing Indian court costume themselves. Native American costume was presented and worn by British soldiers, diplomats or administrators admitted into kinship with indigenous peoples. Colonised individuals adopted Western clothing, modified it, resisted it, or knowingly played to Western expectations by retaining their own.

Trans-cultural cross-dressing appears in many colonial and imperial portraits, embodying the sitters’ careers, travels and interests, and identification or confrontation with other cultures. Not fashion but self-fashioning, it represents the adaptive, hybrid aspects of its wearer’s experiences between homeland, colony and imperial centre.