Like Moonlight over Water
We knew what she would wear. The white pantsuit was waiting for Kamala Harris to take the stage in Wilmington on Saturday night as the United States’ first female vice president elect. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a white pantsuit when she was sworn into Congress in 2019; Hillary Clinton wore one when she accepted the Democratic nomination in 2016; Geraldine Ferraro wore a white suit when she joined Walter Mondale as his running mate in 1984; Shirley Chisholm wore white when she became the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, in 1968. The Democratic women in Congress dressed in white as a protest at Trump’s State of the Union addresses in 2019 and 2020. The tradition is usually traced to the suffragettes, in particular the 1908 Women’s Sunday march to Hyde Park, whose organisers urged women to dress in white to convey the high-minded purity of their intentions. But earlier than that, all-white clothing had been adopted as a political statement by the feminist, socialist, trade unionist and anticolonial activist Annie Besant.
Besant was already famous – for being the first woman, in 1877, to make a public statement advocating contraception; for leading tens of thousands of unemployed workers in protest in Trafalgar Square – when, in 1889, she had a religious conversion brought on by a book review assignment. After reviewing Helena Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine for the Pall Mall Gazette,Besant abandoned her atheism and joined the Theosophical Society.
The society’s headquarters were in India. Moving between occult and anticolonial networks in the cities of Benares and Madras, Besant began to dress in white saris draped over white lace dresses, with echoes of a Roman statesman’s toga, in what she saw as a sartorial union of Occident and Orient, white sandals on her feet. She came to believe she was an Indian soul only briefly lodged in a British body. ‘I went to the West to take up this white body,’ she remarked in a speech at Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, ‘because it is more useful to India, because it gives me strength to plead, and because it gives more weight to what I say’ – words that didn’t necessarily go down well with her Indian audiences.
White was the colour of holiness, and for Besant, political power was inextricable from the sacred. As she rose to the most powerful leadership role in the Indian nationalist movement, elected president of the Congress party in 1917, many activists found it difficult to collaborate with her. She took her ‘marching orders’ on the battlefield of liberation from a cabinet of ghostly advisers known as the masters, or the Great White Brotherhood. This nebulous bureaucracy of ancient, deified men in many ways paralleled the British colonial administration. Their physical bodies were too desiccated to make the journey, but they could meet their Theosophist contacts on the astral plane, travelling like moonlight over water. The masters might also send bossy letters, often written in crayon on rice paper. Among the cabal was Rishi Agastya, who was said to have been born out of a pitcher that several gods ejaculated into, and wrote some of the hymns in the Rig Veda. ‘Do not let opposition become angry. Be firm, but not provocative,’ the rishi urged Besant. ‘The end will be a great triumph.’
After the British government made several failed efforts to deport her, Besant was imprisoned for sedition in a hill station, causing a sensation in the press. The photographs show her wearing white as she languishes on a rattan settee.
Gandhi had taken an early interest in Theosophy, inspired by Besant, but he came to see occultism as profoundly undemocratic. ‘Any secrecy hinders the real spirit of democracy,’ he said. But for Besant, the celestial would determine the form that politics on earth would take. ‘The heavenly world works out the facts; the shadows are thrown down here, and we call those shadows history,’ she said, as she was making it. White was what you wore as you awaited a messiah, or when you became one yourself.
‘We must become as the white light in which all colours are present,’ Besant declared, ‘which distorts none because it rejects none.’ It was the colour worn by Jain monks and nuns, who would do no harm to any creature. But the white sari was also an ominous look, as it was what Hindu widows wore in mourning. Besant’s choice of dress was interpreted as funereal, a gesture of mourning for the damage British imperialism had wrought: from widescale ‘mismanagement’, violent suppression and cultural destruction, to the psychic toll of unfreedom, not only in India, but in Ireland (her mother was Irish) and across the colonised earth. (The widow’s white may also have been a sly comment on her own dissolved marriage, to the dour vicar Frank Besant, who had their children taken away from her in court.)
After the First World War and the 1918 flu pandemic, membership in the Theosophical Society rapidly expanded, as people worldwide looked for ways to contend with the magnitude of loss. A seaside neighbourhood in Madras, Besant Nagar, was named in Besant’s honour; Kamala Harris’s grandfather, the civil servant P.V. Gopalan, moved there and would take long walks with Kamala along the shore.