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UNIT 21: Colonial Identities



Discussions of colonialism often fail to address the complex and varied experiences of what it meant to live under such a system. Yet by 1900, the vast majority of the world's population lived under colonial rule as either colonizers or colonized people. And while colonialism varied from place to place-in part because of each colonizing power and in part because of the ways each power was modified by local realities-all peoples living under colonialism shared a common experience of profound cultural and social change from the past.

This unit explores the ways the colonial experience affected both colonizers and the colonized through an examination of clothing and the body. How were the forces of colonialism reflected on the bodies of individuals through expressions of conformity and difference? In all cultures, the body and its dress or adornment conveys messages of personal identity, historical memory, and empowerment. At a glance, one's ethnic affiliation and gender are communicated, and one's socioeconomic status expressed for the world to see.

In the colonial period, clothing choices often signaled multiple-and sometimes conflicting-identities. Most middle-class Indian men, for example, had two types of clothing: a traditional type to be worn in the home, and British suits to be worn in public. Indeed, the seemingly simple act of choosing clothing could become a powerful statement of identity, expressing passive complicity, pragmatic adaptation, subtle defiance, or active rebellion.

Looking at clothing choices made by both colonizers and the colonized allows us to grasp some of the complexities of colonialism. In particular, these choices allow us to see how each group influenced the other. It shows us that the interaction of different peoples and cultures in colonial contexts was never simple and never unidirectional, and that power was modified by local and personal realities on a daily basis. These intimate realities, in turn, can reveal much about the wider world history of the colonial experience.


Time Period: 1750-1950

The two centuries between 1750 and 1950 were a period of intensive imperial expansion. By the nineteenth century, Europeans dominated this expansion, and by the end of the nineteenth century they were joined in empire building by both Americans and Japanese. Industrialization fueled this expansion because it gave rise to a demand for raw materials, and because it provided the means by which industrialized powers could dominate other societies-through technologies like the steam ship, rifle, railroad, and telegraph. Imperial expansion also generated deep rivalries and tensions between the imperial powers. Ultimately, these tensions contributed to the outbreak of both World Wars-wars that, ironically, helped to generate strong, successful independence movements within colonized regions.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economies and politics because colonization dramatically increased connections and interactions between colonizers and colonized.
  • Explores systems of social and gender structures because colonization frequently resulted in social changes. These changes included shifts in gender ideology, as a result of blending the beliefs and traditions of existing cultures with those of the colonizers' cultures.
  • Discusses cultural and intellectual developments by exploring the ways that colonization altered the cultures and traditions of both indigenous cultures and colonizing cultures.


  • Question 1: In what ways did the colonial experience affect both colonizers and the colonized?
  • Question 2: How did colonial subjects express new identities through clothing and the body?
  • Question 3: In what ways were clothing choices related to colonial resistance and to decolonization?
  • Question 4: How could clothing choices reflect or resist the process of economic globalization?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

Most of the world's population experienced colonialism-whether as colonizers or colonized-in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This common experience, although locally varied, helped integrate peoples of the world through trade, language, sports, food, music, and material culture.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Colonialism also resulted in the formation of unequal relationships based on class, race, gender, and ethnicity. The recognition of these differences was often consciously displayed on the bodies of both colonizers and colonized peoples.

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