How the World Lost Dhaka Muslin

Once Bengal’s pride, the translucent fabric vanished under the British. Centuries later, can Bangladesh now resurrect it?

GettyImages-1238909193 Dhaka muslin
Ayub Ali, a senior government official helping shepherd the Dhaka muslin revival project, displaying a piece of muslin cloth in his office in Dhaka, January 2022 (Munir uz zaman / AFP via Getty Images)

Mehr Singh


February 3, 2023


10 min

In 18th-century Europe, a new fashion trend descended upon the zeitgeist. And, across the subcontinent, members of the ruling social class stepped out in airlike, translucent garments. Entire English cities found themselves in the plot of The Emperor’s New Clothes, as the masses accused the nobility of indecency. They were wearing pale-colored, nearly transparent gowns — made with a unique cotton-like fabric called Dhaka muslin. Muslin’s waifish qualities even inspired a slew of satirical cartoons. 

Still, muslin denoted high class. Tastemakers of the time, such as Queen Marie Antoinette, Empress Joséphine Bonaparte, and even English writer Jane Austen were enraptured by muslin’s dainty weight. An infamous 1783 portrait seeped Antoinette in scandal: she posed in a muslin robe de gaulle. People accused her of posing in her chemise, the 18th-century equivalent of posting a thirst trap, but her look ultimately inspired others to do the same. Less, as it turned out, was more. 

Muslin has been around for millennia. It draped the statues of goddesses in Greece as early as the 1st century A.D. Yet, by the end of the 18th century, the coveted fabric had all but disappeared. Bangladesh is now trying to bring back the cloth that once draped gods, kings, and queens alike. But will it work?

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