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Indian Traditional Dress

Despite globalization, India has managed to preserve its traditional dresses, a fundamental part of its culture. Even if there are dozens of traditional dresses worn both by women and men, there are some items that are widely recognized everywhere: everybody knows about the saree, dhot, and dastar.

The saree, worn by women, is a long dress that covers the right shoulder and leaves the midriff bare, while the dhoti is worn mostly by men, is a long piece of cloth wrapped around the legs and knotted to the waist. Last but not least, and maybe one of the most recognizable items of Indian attires, is the dastar, the turban mostly worn by Sikh.

Keep reading our article to learn more about India traditional dresses.

Highlights

  • The Indian textile industry is incredibly old, and some of its ancient techniques are still used today
  • There are many different traditional clothes worn by men and women
  • For women, the most famous traditional dress is undoubtedly the saree
  • For men, instead, the national dress is dhoti
  • Another characteristic Indian item, widely recognized all over the world, is the dastar, the turban worn by Sikhs

History of Indian Dress

The history of Indian dress dates back to the 5th millennium BC, with the Indus Valley civilization that used to spin, weave and dye cotton. The cotton industry was extremely advanced, and some of the techniques used in the past still survive today.

During the Maurya and the Gupta period, people used to wear both stitched and non-stitched clothes, and the main item was the anariya made of white cotton and tied to the waist by a sash. With time, the new trade routes expanded the textile industry of the subcontinent. The Romans bought indigo for dyeing, and trades with China introduced silk textiles.

In ancient times – and still today – silk and cotton were woven into various designs peculiar to each different region. The Mughal greatly helped India to develop its textile techniques, and dyeing of clothes became a sort of art, and mordant dyeing, resist dyeing and Kalamkari techniques became predominant.

Textiles have always been an important part of Indian trading. India used to trade with China, Southeast Asia, the Roman Empire, the Arabs, and, during the 17th century, also Europe, in a lucrative exchange of spices and clothing. Printed calicos, chintz, muslins, and patterned silk invaded the English market, and, later on, became a source of pride for the nationalist movement.

Indian traditional female clothing

There are many different kinds of clothing traditionally worn by Indian women, and all of them are associated with the local culture, religion, and the climate. Mumbai is nowadays the fashion capital of India, but in a lot of rural areas, women continue to wear traditional clothes.

Mekhela Sador

The traditional dress of Assamese people is worn by women of all ages. There are 3 main pieces:

  • The bottom portion, draped from the waist downwards, is called mekhela. It is shaped like a wide cylinder that is folded into pleats (to the right) and tucked in.
  • There are many different traditional clothes worn by men and women
  • The third piece is called riha, which is covered by the sador. It is quite narrow, and women wear them during important ceremonial occasions.

Salwar Kameez

Salwar is a word used to indicate a lower garment, such as the one used for the Punjabi salwar and Dogri pajama.

The salwar kameez is traditionally worn by the women of Punjab and is also called Punjabi suit. The dress consists of a pair of trousers that narrows at the ankles (the salwar), paired with a tunic top (the kameez). Women usually also wear a veil to cover the head or the shoulders.

This dress is worn by almost every teenage girl and a huge number of actresses in Bollywood movies.

dress This dress is worn by a huge number of actresses in Bollywood movies

Churidaar

Churidaar is a variation of the salwar. It is loose around the knees and tight around the calf. It can be worn with any kind of upper garment or as a part of the anarkali suit (see below).

Anarkali suit

This Indian style consists of a long dress-like shirt with slim-fitting bottoms. It is mainly worn by women in North India, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Indian women often wear anarkali suits on occasions like traditional festivals, annual celebrations, and formal dinners. Such occasions are what keeps traditional customs and attire alive in India.

Anarkali suits can vary in length and some of them touch the floor. During weddings and events, many women like to wear a heavier embroidered anarkali suit. The tops of these suits can be sleeveless or have long sleeves.

Lehenga Choli

This is the traditional dress of women in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and it is also worn during some folk dances. It is a combination of three pieces: a lehenga, a long skirt; a choli, which is a blouse shell garment; and an odhani, a shawl-like scarf.

Saree – A symbol of India

The saree (also sari or shari) is the most representative traditional clothing of the Indian subcontinent. It consists of a drape that can be from 4.5 meters to 8 meters long, and about 1 meter wide.

It is usually wrapped around the waist, with one end covering one shoulder and baring the midriff.

As you can read below, there are many different styles, but in most cases, the saree is worn along with a choli and a petticoat, called parkar.

Origins of Saree

The origins of the saree date back to the Indus Valley Civilization, around 2000 BC. The word saree is an evolution of the world sattika, that in earliest Buddhist literature indicate women’s attire.

Originally, it was a three-piece ensemble – a lower garment, a veil, and a chest-band – known as poshak. With time, these three pieces merged to form a single garment, the saree.

Some Indian state that the midriff should never be left exposed, an ancient Indian tradition affirms that the navel of the Supreme Being is the source of life and creativity, and this is why the sari leaves the midriff bare.

For wedding sarees, red is the most common color. Women wear various types of regional handloom sarees made of silk, ikkat, cotton, block-print and tie-dye textiles.

Indian bride dress For wedding sarees, red is the most common color

Styles of draping

A saree can be worn in more than 80 different ways. As said, the most common style sees the saree wrapped around the waist, with the loose end worn over the shoulder, and baring the midriff. Some styles require a particular length or form.

Sari drapes can be categorized in the following principal families:

  • Nivi: the pleats are passed through the legs and tucked into the waist at the back. It is the style originally worn in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Bengali style: there are no pleats. The saree is wrapped anti-clockwise around the waist, and then another time from the other direction. The loose end is a lot longer than the one found in the traditional style, and it can also cover the head. This style originated in the family of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet laureate of India.
  • Gujarati: similar to nivi style, but with the loose end taken from the back and draped around the right shoulder.
  • Nauvari: similar to the Maharashtrian male dhoti but with regional and societal variations. To wrap this style of saree, the cloth is held lengthwise and placed at the center of the back. Then the two ends are wrapped around the legs and afterward tied in the front. When wearing nauvari style, women often require an extra nine yards of cloth to cover the upper body and the shoulders.
  • Assamese: also known as mekhela chador and consists of three main pieces, the top, skirt, and cloth that is draped around the other two.
  • Manipuri: from the northeast is similar to the mekhela chador and is a three-piece garment known as a innaphi viel.
  • Maharashtrian: the center of the saree is placed at the center back, the ends are brought forward and tied and, finally, the two ends are enfolded around the legs. This is the style used by Brahmin women.
  • Kodagu: a style used only by the women from the Kodagu district of Karnataka. The pleats, instead of the front, are created in the back. The loose end is draped back to front on the right shoulder.

Accessories

Sarees have one plain end, two long decorative borders, and a section (from one to three-foot) at the other end that elaborates the lengthwise decoration. This section is called pallu and, in the navi style of draping, it is draped over the shoulder.

In the past, silk or cotton was used to weave the saree. Rich people used to wear diaphanous sarees made of silk that could be passed through a ring. The poor, instead, used to wear cotton saree. However, all the sarees were handwoven.

The simplest sarees are decorated with stripes woven into the cloth, and the most inexpensive ones were decorated with block printing. More expensive sarees were ornated with elaborated floral ornaments or brocades created as a part of the fabric. Sometimes threads of different colors were woven to form an ornamented border.

women More expensive sarees were ornated with elaborated floral ornaments or brocades

Sarees could also be decorated after weaving, using colored silk thread or using gold and silver threads or precious stones.

Nowadays, most sarees are woven using mechanical looms and the fibers used are artificial (polyester, nylon, or rayon). The handwoven ones are of course way more expensive than the machine ones.

The market for handwoven sarees is not as prosperous as in the past, but this kind of sarees is still popular especially for weddings.

Indian Modern Female Attire

While the saree has long been the most popular dress for Indian women, it began to absorb elements from western clothes starting in the late 1970s. Today, women are opting for the more comfortable and less conservative salwar kameez that is now worn in cities all over India.

Nowadays, women living in urban areas wear more casual western garments like suits, skirts, T-shirts, and jeans in their free time and have a choice between both traditional and western clothes at work. Fashion designers have blended elements of Indian traditional dress with conventional western wear creating a new twist of sarees, salwar kameez, lehengas (large skirts), and other styles.

Traditional Indian attire such as the kurti, a cotton shirt than normally extends to the mid-thigh, now has a more stylish range of embroidered patterns and designer styles. Wearing a kurti with a dupatta, or shawl, draped over the neck and pants forms a modern and popular fusion of Western and Indian styles.

Most star-rated luxury hotels require their female staff to wear saree uniforms. While the male staff usually wears a Western suite with a turban to show the intrinsic culture of the land.

Indian traditional male clothing

There are many traditional clothes worn by Indian men, such as Achkan, Bandhgala, Lungi, Dhoti, and Sari jama. Recently, the government of India included pants and shirts among the traditional dress worn by Indian men.

Dhoti

Dhoti is the national dress of India. It is from four to six feet long and it made of cotton. It is the traditional attire mainly worn by men in villages, at it is held in place or by a style of wrapping or with a belt around the waist.

Men in India also wear long sarong known as mundu. Shirts are usually worn over the dhoti.

Panche (or Lungi)

A lungi (also called sarong) is another traditional Indian garment. A mundu is a lungi, but it is always white. It can be tucked in, up to the knee-length, or allowed to reach the ankles.

Usually, people tuck it in when they are working, and left open to show one’s respect, for example in worship places.

Tungi is mainly a male clothing but is also worn by elderly women, mostly because of its good aeration. It is an item widespread in many different countries, such as Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Somalia.

Anchkan/Sherwani

An anchkan is a long coat (or jacket) that usually has exposed buttons through the length of the jacket. It arrives just below the knees, and it sports a Nehru collar, that stands up.

The anchkan is paired with fitting pants called churidars, a kind of trousers that are loose around the hips and the thighs, but tight around the ankle.

It is the traditional dress worn by grooms, and usually, it is cream, light ivory or gold.

Indian Groom Wearing Wedding Sharwani Dress Sherwani is the traditional dress worn by grooms, and usually, it is cream, light ivory or gold.

Bandhgala

A bandhgala (also known as jodhpuri) is the formal evening suit worn by Indian men. It originated in the Jodhpur State and became extremely popular especially under the British Raj.

It has a coat and a trouser, and sometimes a vest. It is a way to put together the western cut with Indian hand-embroidery.

Usually, silk is used. The material is lined at the collar and at the buttons with embroidery. The material can be plain or jacquard, and normally the color of the trousers match that of the coat.

Sari jama

The jama is a long coat popularized during the Mughal period. There are many different kinds of jama, even if they are not as used as in the past. However, some men still wear the jama known as angarkha.

Pagri – The Indian turban

Pagri is the term used to indicate the turbans originated in the Indian subcontinent. There various types of turban, and wearing one is a way to indicate one’s social, religious, and caste status.

One of the most famous types of turban is dastar, the headwear that symbolizes Sikhism. It is not a simple piece of clothing, it represents honor, self-respect, courage, spirituality, and piety. The turban is used to cover the long hair, and it is seen as an acceptance of the will of God.

Pheta is the turban worn in the Maharashtra region, especially during weddings. The color varies according to the occasion and, for example, saffron indicates honor, while white indicates peace.

In Rajasthan, men wear pagari, that varies in style, color and size and indicates the wearer’s social class, caste, and region. In the desert, the turbans are large and loose; and the biggest turbans are worn by farmers and shepherds, who need to protect their head from the elements of nature.

Indian Wedding Dresses

In India, a traditional wedding has to follow a series of rituals and each has its significance in the marriage and celebrates the changes that are taking place. A wedding usually lasts for several days with different ceremonies each day.

Weddings often include a Tilak (the placing of a red mark worn on the forehead), Sangeet (and event with dancing, performances, and the playing of traditional music), Haldi (making turmeric paste and applying it to the skin of the bride), and Baraat (a wedding procession for the groom).

All these ceremonies are glittering events that showcase the range and variety of clothes worn by both men and women. On the wedding day, the bride and groom will dress up in their gorgeous outfits with gota patti embroidery that is made from gold or silver threads.

Details Of Traditional Indian Wedding The bride and groom will dress up in their gorgeous outfits on the wedding day

The Bride’s Dress

Most brides wear a bejeweled bright red wedding saree. Wedding attire is often red as it is considered to be the most auspicious color. Some brides also choose not to wear a saree and instead wear an elaborately embroidered lehenga (heavy long skirt).

In West India, East India, and South India the saree is the more preferred bridal dress, while in North India the lehenga is more popular.

Henna patterns or mehendi are to be worn on the bride’s body usually covering her palms, hands, legs, and feet. Putting henna on a bride is done as part of the wedding preparations. Henna is a form of body art that uses the plant lawsonia inermis to dye the skin dark brown and create beautiful patterns.

Indian bride hand with mehandi Henna patterns are to be worn on the bride’s body usually covering her palms and hands

Awlata is a red dye that is applied with cotton to the hands and feet. Awlata is typically seen on fingertips and the end of the bride’s toes.

A henna ceremony is held the night before the wedding, usually organized by the bride’s family. This ceremony brings together all the female members. The core idea behind this practice is to make use of the herb’s medicinal values to cool the nerve endings and relieve the bride’s stress. It is also a way to wish the bride good health and prosperity.

The Groom Wedding Attire

Grooms from South India usually wear traditional costumes called dhoti that come in plain or solid colors with embroidered borders. South Indians may also wear a cotton mundu, or draped cloth, on their lower half.

In North India, grooms wear a sherwani that features detailed embroidery or patterns. They may also choose to wear a jodhpuri suit consisting of a coat, trousers, and a vest.

male dress in wedding Grooms from South India usually wear traditional costumes called dhoti

Where to Buy Quality Traditional Indian Clothing

If you are visiting Delhi and would like to shop for some good-quality ready-made garments, there are dozens of markets around the city worth looking into. Besides Connaught Place, almost every residential area boasts a clothing market ranging from an old established shops or bazaars to high-end boutiques and department stores.

Indian traditional textiles are available in most high-quality shops, particularly Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Janpath. This multilevel store is a wonderful place for Indian handicrafts from stoneware, woodcarvings, and bamboo products to paintings and textiles. This mall also has a selection of quality silk, cotton, traditionally dyed fabrics.

Anoki is a store in Khan Market that can be distinguished by its prints and sense of design. This shop provides a wide collection of tunics, skirts, salwar kameez, chudidars, patialas, dupattas, stoles, and tops. You can also find colorful bed linen and light cotton quilts here.

The Lodi Colony Market has several boutiques offering Indian designer wear including that from the stylish brand Abraham. The store Shyam Ahuja sells linen and textiles.

Mumbai is another shopping paradise in India. Large malls, department stores, and stylish boutiques all stock a variety of interesting goods. Boutiques like Aza and Ensemble, specialize in popular Indian designer labels including high-fashion Western brands and traditional Indian apparel.

Casual ready-made garments are available at Cotton World, a store dedicated to natural clothing by using natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, modal, tencel, and viscose. A variety of comfortable and quality rich clothes for women, men, and kids can be found at this store.

If you are looking for more traditional Indian textiles and weaves, Fantasia, Indian Textiles, and Fabindia offer a wide range of silk saris, home furnishings, and accessories.

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