Trade Routes: The History of Business via the Dress Code

Trade Routes: The History of Business via the Dress Code is an artwork and permanent installation at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Mohali.

Through this artwork, which was specially commissioned by the Indian School of Business, we have showcased a slice of history though merchants, traders and businessmen. This installation, which was painstakingly researched and conceptualized — involved searching for appropriate artisans from across the country, as well as paying attention to detail in every aspect of the project — from the creation of the dolls to the artwork and installation — was created over the period of a year.

This artwork was created using two distinct handicrafts of India — The Channapatna wooden toys from Karnataka and miniature painting from Rajasthan (with artist Anup Sharma). Our research for this project is based on references from photographs, lithographs, oil paintings and figurines found online or in books. The representation is not exhaustive but an imaginative rendition using traditional crafts.

Trade has been an essential human activity ever since the dawn of our existence. Trade brings civilizations together — it connects the myths, languages, customs and culture of one people with another. During the Silk Route, goods and ideas traveled vast distances, and friendship between East and West were experienced for the first time on an unprecedented level.

Trade in the ancient Spice Route brought Romans in contact with the people of Kerala which was facilitated by the political control of Egypt by Augustus. This gave rise to a very profitable sea trade which utilized the Red Sea to provide passage to India to acquire luxury goods that had become fashionable within the Empire. Roman ships left Egypt in July to reach the Gulf of Aden and, from there, they exploited the south-west monsoon to sail to the ports of Barygaza (Broach in Gujarat) or Muziris (in Kerala), on the west coast of India.

The concept of this artwork is to depict the History of Business and Trade — through the dress codes of traders, merchants and businessmen — across time and place . The figures depict the Parsis, the Marwaris, the Banias and Chinese merchants. We have included the seafaring traders such as the Flemish and Dutch merchants, as well as traders from the British and Dutch East India Companies respectively. British and French bankers from the 16th to 18th centuries have also been depicted. A major aspect of business in the west — both today and in the past — is associated with Jewish people. We have included both their traditional and contemporary dress codes.

As societies developed and work became more specialized — each section of social class — whether royalty, the army, traders etc, developed their own unique dress code which was an indicator of their status and position in society. Dress codes indicates the person’s gender, income, occupation and social class, political, ethnic and religious affiliation, attitude, traditions, gender expression, marital status, sexual availability, and sexual orientation, etc.

In Europe, there were laws such as the Sumptory Laws that regulated and reinforced social hierarchies and morals through restrictions, often depending upon a person’s social rank, on permitted clothing and food. These were also an easy way to identify social rank and privilege and sometimes used for social discrimination.

In India, the dress code via the turban or paghri, have given men their identity — the way the turban is tied, the color and pattern it displays — acts as an indicator of belonging to a certain caste, tribe, region and profession. This is similar to sari in women's clothing which acts as an identifier and gives a woman a place in society. It also allows men to know if certain women are unmarried and in some cases vice-versa.

In today’s world, like in previous times, dress codes play such a major role in terms of corporate code and what constitutes formal and presentable. Similarly in Europe, businessmen up until modern times, wore the dress that was in vogue at the time such as wigs and elaborate clothing. However, with time the work clothes all over the world became less decorative and more functional.

In the early 20th century, the business suit with pin stripes and the bowler hat came into prominence. Since then, the business suit has never looked back. It has managed to transcend race, religion, caste, gender and nationality and has become the uniform of choice for businesspeople and corporates across the world. While the business suit is a unifier, it is a garment which however makes one’s culture anonymous.

Note: images used in Research are used for reference only.

This project was featured on the cover of Pool Magazine, issue 55 in January 2015