PS: A short research paper written a few years ago by H.D.Goswami, on the change of Vaishnava dress according to historical circumstances.
Let us consider what the Bhāgavatam, our main Śāstra teaches about dress. Consider the use of deerskin.
No less than five avatāras use deerskin
1. Lord Vāmana appeared as a perfect brāhmaṇa and wore deerskin [ŚBh 8.18.25]
2. Lord Paraśurāma wore deerskin. [ŚBh 9.15.29]
3. Kṛṣṇa’s yugāvatāra for Satya-yuga wears deerskin. [ŚBh 11.5.21]
4. The avatāras Nara-Nārāyaṇa wore deerskin. [ŚBh 12.8.33]
5. Pṛthu Mahārāja used deerskin at a yajña. [ŚBh 4.21.18]
And Lord Kṛṣṇa’s own father, Vasudeva, wore deerskin at the time of his initiation. [ŚBh 10.84.48]
Yet despite all these historical examples, “Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu stopped Brahmānanda Bhāratī’s habit of wearing deerskin.” [CC 2.1.285] Similarly, “When Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu and His devotees approached him, they saw he was covered with a deerskin. Seeing this, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu became very unhappy.” [CC 2.10.154]
Amazingly, the Lord Himself stopped a devotee from dressing as the Lord did in at least five incarnations, and as Kṛṣṇa’s own father did! Clearly, the Lord saw that such dress was not appropriate for this age.
Let us consider the specific dress of different varṇas.
Brahmacārī: “Carrying pure kuśa grass in his hand, the brahmacārī should dress regularly with a belt of straw and with deerskin garments. He should wear matted hair, carry a rod and waterpot and be decorated with a sacred thread, as recommended in the śāstras.” [ŚB 7.12.4]
The Bhāgavatam repeats this teaching at 11.17.23. Yet neither Caitanya Himself, nor anyone in His line, follows this instruction because it is a detail, not a general principle, of bhakti-yoga, and is thus variable. Rūpa Gosvāmī explains this distinction between basic invariable principles and variable details in chapter six of the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu. Prabhupada explains Rūpa Gosvāmī’s teaching as follows. “Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī proposes to mention only basic principles, not details. For example, a basic principle is that one has to accept a spiritual master. Exactly how one follows the instructions of his spiritual master is considered a detail.” Clearly the brahmacārī dress code given above is a detail, and therefore neither Lord Caitanya Himself nor any Ācārya in His line, followed it.
Vānaprastha: The Bhāgavatam gives a non-binding detail regarding vānaprastha dress. “The vānaprastha should wear matted locks of hair on his head and let his body hair, nails and moustache grow…He should keep a waterpot, deerskin and rod, wear the tree bark as a covering, and use garments colored like fire.” [ŚBh 7.12.21] Similarly, “Having adopted the vānaprastha order of life, …one may dress with tree bark, grass, leaves or animal skins.” [ŚBh 11.18.2]
Sannyāsa: If we consider sannyāsa dress, we find clear evidence that the Lord Himself, and His pure devotees, adjust their dress according to time, place, and circumstances. The Bhāgavatam [7.13.2] states, “A person in the renounced order of life may try to avoid even a dress to cover himself. If he wears anything at all, it should be only a loincloth, and when there is no necessity, a sannyāsī should not even accept a daṇḍa. A sannyāsī should avoid carrying anything but a daṇḍa and kamaṇḍalu.” [SB 7.13.3] When Lord Kṛṣṇa sent Uddhava to Badarikā, He told him, “Dress yourself in tree bark…” [ŚBh 11.29.42]
However Lord Caitanya Himself, on taking sannyāsa, wore the standard simple sannyāsa dress of His time, and He enjoined this for His sannyāsi followers, headed by the six Gosvāmīs who dressed in loincloth and rags, kaupīna-kanthāśritaū. [Ṣad-gosvāmy-aṣṭakam 4] Later, two of His greatest Ācāryas, Bhaktisiddhānta Ṭhākura, and our Prabhupada, followed neither the Bhāgavatam nor Mahāprabhu’s example.
According to historians, Bhaktisiddhānta Ṭhākura adopted the sannyāsa dhoti of the unauthorized Rāma-Kṛṣṇa mission, which was popular at the time, and a Muslim shirt, the kurta. Clearly all these dress styles were mere details, to be adjusted according to time and place. Prabhupāda himself clearly makes this point: “Sannyasa does not mean a particular type of dress.” [SBh 7.6.1, Montreal, 6.12.68] In other words, dress is a detail, not a basic principle of bhakti-yoga.
Prabhupada also said: “Sadhu does not mean a kind of dress… No. Sadhu means a devotee, perfect devotee of Krishna. That is a sadhu.” [Sydney, 2.16.73]
Prabhupada even describes dress, which some see as a vital principle of spiritual life, a dead thing. “Dress you can have as you like. It doesn’t matter, because dress is a dead thing. Real thing is that we want a living being who can understand.” [Srila Prabhupada Welcomed by Governor at Hotel De Ville, Geneva, 5.30.74]
Finally, “From the instructions given to King Pratāparudra by Sārvabhauma Bhaṭṭācārya, we can understand that we may change our dress in any way to facilitate our service…” [CC 2.14.5 Purport]
Prabhupada confirms that of the three forms of evidence, “Śāstra is the center.” Śāstra teaches eternal principles that we can never change, but also details that we can and must change. I will show that Prabhupada himself, and other Ācāryas follow Śāstra’s example and teach both invariable fundamental principles, and variable details. Further great Ācāryas, including Prabhupada, actually urge us to adjust details.
For example, Lord Caitanya told Sanātana Gosvāmī to renounce his fancy shawl, and He told Raghunātha Dāsa, “You should not…dress very nicely.” [CC 3.6.237] Yet Prabhupada, Lord Caitanya’s pure devotee, did use fancy shawls and dressed in expensive silk clothes.
Why did Prabhupada do the opposite of what the Lord told great devotees? Because the historical circumstances changed and sadhus, once respected for their poverty, are now respected in India for their opulence. We again see not an eternal standard, but the agility to adjust to time and place. Śāstra itself makes a clear distinction between eternal principles — tattva and siddhānta — and variable details that must be adjusted to time and place.