The Sari Closet of Cornelia Sohrabji, India’s First Female Lawyer


June 19, 2019

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How the self-chosen dress codes of Cornelia Sorabji gave her a distinguished persona like no other

Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was India’s first woman lawyer. Beyond that, she doesn’t fit easily into any one box. She was a tumble of cultures and ethnicities. “Controversial” is the label most often applied to her, but “woven” might be better. Always acutely aware of identity, Cornelia Sorabji saw clothing as a cultural marker par excellence.

Article by Cynthia Green | The Voice of Fashion

Clothing restrictions did not apply to Sorabji in the way it did for women belonging to a single cultural heritage. Her father was a Parsi who converted from Zoroastrianism to Christianity. Her mother was Hindu, from the Toda tribe in Tamil Nadu who’d been adopted at the age of 12 by an aristocratic English couple living in India. In addition, Sorabji and her sisters were educated. Being a bit of so many things meant that she never fit into any one group in late colonial India. In current terms, we could call her Third Culture.

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A young Cornelia Sorabji as a lawyer.

Sorabji knew that she had more choice than most of her contemporaries regarding what to wear. This allowed her to choose the silent but visual message of each outfit.

Her 1934 autobiography India Calling begins and ends with cloth. Though she was only half- Parsi, she started with the “clothing clause” of the 7th-century treaty that allowed Parsis from Persia to settle in India. Since dressing differently was “visible apartness,” she wrote, Persian dress was forbidden. Parsi women therefore started to wear saris. They draped it differently (“over the right ear, behind the left”), though, in order to maintain “apartness.” Wearing her sari like that 1200 years later was one of Sorabji’s self-imposed dress codes. It was an identity marker.

According to Dr Antoinette Burton, specialist in colonial India and professor at the University of Illinois (Chicago, the US), Sorabji’s “letters and diaries are filled with struggles over what to wear.” Should she embrace being different and wear saris in London or a Western dress in India? Should she try to dress like those around her in the hope of fitting in?

Her litany of “female firsts” (first girl to attend Deccan College, first woman to graduate from Bombay University {Mumbai University}, first woman to practice law in India and Britain, first woman barrister in India…) includes being the first woman to study law at The University of Oxford (England) .

While Sorabji remembered the Oxford years fondly in her writings, she didn’t hesitate to show exasperation at chosen dress codes. One of the reasons she avoided feminists, despite struggling herself for female equality, was their tendency to masculinise their appearance. “What comes of trying to appropriate a sex not one’s own?” she wrote home in a letter.

Another letter from those years described a female student encountered at the library. “Her hair was matted and ragged, on her head she wore a black monstrosity meant for a hat. Her garb was what had once been a brocaded silk black robe—but was now green with dirt and age. The shape of it, how can I describe? . . . It was moreover short, and to remedy this, from underneath it peeped a rusty black ragged frill—she’d tacked that on her petticoat no doubt . . .” The idea that female students should create a warped identity through filthiness and bad dress because “they think it is literary to do so” repulsed her.

Her dress code commentary was not only reserved for the English. Rukhmabai (famous for taking her forced marriage at the age of 11 to court in the 1880s), was studying medicine in England at the same time. She became one of India’s first women doctors, but the two never got along. What’s interesting is that Sorabji used dress to regularly dismiss Rukhmabai. In 1889, she wrote that Rukhmabai “put aside her brown saree and wears red like me now.” In 1890, she complained that Rukhmabai had taken up with a man who “dresses and talks [like a] “masher” … and wears his hair in furbelows.”

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Sorabji dressed in a sari and a ruffled blouse

Photo: Pinterest


Sorabji dressed in a sari.

Photo: Pinterest


Sorabji dressed in a sari and an ornate blouse.

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When remembering travelling to Italy in the early 1890s, she gave more details about clothing confusion at the border than with the sights. Despite her standing before them wearing a sari, Customs Officials thought her saris were “silks being taken to Italy for sale.” They refused to let her baggage pass unless she “undress and dress before them…We went into the Customs shed—one pull and my draperies were at my feet … how we laughed at their faces ! …everything was free, and they were most apologetic.”

Sorabji knew that wherever she went she was the “other.” In England, she was Indian. In India, she was a minority. She was a mixture that floated across colonial boundaries without belonging to either side. Considering this, it’s not surprising that Sorabji became known for her work representing Hindu and Muslim segregated women (zenani and purdahnashins or women restricted to the inner chambers of their homes), or that she returned so frequently to England, or that she chose to dress in saris and long, dangling necklaces.

India Calling was published when Sorabji was in her late ’60 s. She ended it with the metaphor of life as woven cloth. “Scraps of silk and wool and cotton—bits of colour, glowing or dull, snipped off too soon, or never taken into use…But there is no re-weaving it now.”


Banner image: Courtesy © National Portrait Gallery, London

Cynthia Green is a historian and writer with a particular interest in cultural identity. She has an M.A. from Emory University and has written for NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), JSTOR Daily, and Mode & Tendances, among others.

Clothing is such a strong ‘packaging tool,’ that people have been writing laws to tell us what we can and cannot wear for thousands of years. This column is a weekly expedition into wearable messages from famous wardrobes.