India – known for its hand-woven textiles, richly embroidered fabrics, authentic drapes in exclusive designs have been prized by western civilization for centuries. Indian men and women have always loved to dress up in their traditional costumes, attires and accessories during festivals and other occasions which are an integral part of Indian life. Recently, Indian costumes have been successful in attracting the attention of and capturing the global market.
Indian clothing has been influenced by diverse cultural influences since time immemorial. The sari itself, historians say dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization which flourished in 2800-1800 BC, in the north-western part of India. In fact studies show that the men’s dhoti is a prototype of the sari and both the sexes wore the former till the 14th century. The choli or the woman’s blouse is believed to have come into existence with the various European colonial powers that once occupied a major portion of the Indian subcontinent. The British did influence women’s clothing to a great extent. Indian high society ladies started wearing long-sleeved blouses with frills, very similar to the Victorian upper garment, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Historians say that the achkan, a long-sleeved coat worn mainly by Muslim men even today, originated in Central Asia, more specifically, it was the court costume for Persian and Turkish nobles. The achkan can reach down to the knees or even lower, and is buttoned in the front.
The sari is the traditional garment of an Indian woman. It is an unstitched piece of cloth, which varies from five to nine yards in length and can be worn in different styles. A sari is worn over a petticoat and a short-sleeved midriff-baring blouse. The most popular style of wearing a sari is by tucking one end into the petticoat at the waist while a major portion of it is pleated neatly and tucked in the front. The rest of the sari, which is known as the pallu or pallav is taken over the left shoulder. The pallu is the most fascinating and striking feature of a sari, it is often heavily embellished with woven motifs or embroidery.
However, this authentic Indian garment has lost some of its popularity as daily wear in the recent past. The western outfits have made an inroad into the Indian woman’s wardrobe due to a shift towards rapid globalization and emerging corporate culture. Today, women prefer to wear clothes that offer ease of movement in addition to style. Also, with the boom in the retail industry Indians have a wider variety of options to pick and choose from and women are being increasingly seen in designer outfits western style outfits.
The Saris of India
This elegant drape of India comes in varied textures and styles. For most formal occasions one finds women both the middle-class and the elite looking their best – in a graceful sari! The materials may vary from crisp cottons, rich silks to synthetics and chiffons, but the final overall look is simply elegant and matchless. Did you know that every region of India has a distinct sari of its own, very much influenced by their particular social milieu and culture?
Some well-known regional styles of wearing a sari:
Bengali: In the traditional Bengali style, the sari is draped around the body without pleats and the pallu is left loose by hanging over the left shoulder often with a bunch of keys attached to it. The earlier generations of Bengali women preferred the style because of its sheer simplicity and utmost comfort.
Gujarati: The Gujarati woman sports a distinctive style, as she wears a sari with a neatly pleated pallu brought in front over the right shoulder with one end tucked around the waist to the left.
Maharashtrian: A nine-yard sari called the nawwadi is the traditional style very similar to the men’s dhoti. The pleats of the sari are placed between the legs and tucked in the centre back. Fisherwomen in the coastal regions of Maharashtra still wear a nawwadi and well, it is worn without a petticoat!
Madrasi: This style is very similar to the Maharashtrian nawwadi or the nine-yard sari. The pallu is quite long and wrapped around the waist and tucked in.
Some important varieties of Indian saris:
Banarasi: These saris are made of finely woven silk and have intricate designs done in golden thread (zari). Benarasi saris are relatively heavy and worn by Indian women on important occasions. The trousseau of any Indian bride is deemed incomplete without the customary red Benarasi sari. In fact in most states the Benarasi is the sari that the bride wears for the wedding ceremony
Baluchari: The Baluchari sari of Vishnupur in West Bengal is made of silk and woven on special looms. The borders and pallu of the sari are very striking because of its use of intricate thread work to depict stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Chanderi: Chanderi, a small town located in Madhya Pradesh has long been famous for its hand woven sarees. Silk or cotton is used to make a chanderi which is combined to create beautiful saris with artistic borders that are practically weightless. They generally have a rich gold border and the exclusive ones have gold checks with butis (round shaped motifs) all over.
Dhakai: The dhakai jamdani sari originated in the region now known as Bangladesh and is made with superior quality cotton. It was originally woven as the legendary dhakai muslin and woven with beautiful, eye-catching patterns.
Kantha: Literally speaking, kantha is a style of embroidery that uses the simple running stitch which is nothing but passing the needle in and out of the fabric to produce beautiful floral or abstract patterns. Did you know that it all started as a form of recycling of old cloth to produce the traditional quilts and bedspreads made from old saris and large pieces of used cloth. This type of embroidery was an art practiced by Bengali women in their spare time. In the small town of Bolpur in West Bengal, famous for producing saris with kantha embroidery, each sari is a labour of love, taking a long time to complete, as much depends on the skill and precision of the artisans.
Dhonekhali, and Begumpuri are other popular styles of saris made on handlooms in Bengal. Dhonekhali is known for its stripes and checks. Bengal being a coastal state, the fish is a much loved and commonplace motif. Consequently Dhonekhali sarees often depict rows of fish running across in horizontal stripes throughout the piece of textile. Over the years, the distinctive patterns have merged as weavers started experimenting with various combinations of design and yarn, so much so, it is now difficult to distinguish between the various styles, unless one is an expert on texture.
Kanjeevaram: These are considered to be the most spectacular and exclusive silk saris of India. The little town of Kancheepuram near Chennai has been making these saris for over 400 years. Woven in brilliant colours and the designs Kanjeevarams are influenced by the paintings in the Pallava temples and palaces. The most striking characteristic of a Kanjeevaram is its zari ( thread made of fine gold or silver) work done on pallus and borders of the sari. Not surprisingly, the more the zari work the more expensive will be your Kanjeevaram! In recent times, Kanjeevarams are being experimented with patterns from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagwad Gita.
Mysore Silk: Mysore silk saris of Karnataka are famous for their traditional designs and colours. The zari work on the pallus and borders add to the sophistication and elegance of these saris. Mysore silk saris are considered to be very durable and can be washed and worn as often as required.
Maheshwari: Hailing from Madhya Pradesh, this sari has a natural sophistication that is difficult to match. The speciality of these saris is its unique striped and chequered patterns on silk and cotton fabrics. The pallu of a Maheshwari sari bears five stripes, three coloured and two white.
Narayanpet: Narayanpet, a small town in Andhra Pradesh is a significant sari manufacturing centre. These saris come in both silk and cotton and are well known for their gorgeous zari borders with rudraksh (a special type of fruit) motifs. The pallu in these saris are very attractive with alternating coloured bands.
Pochampally: Located in Andhra Pradesh, Pochampally is famous for its rich saris in both cotton and silk incorporating traditional ikat weaves. Ikat is the name given to a weaving technique which makes use of the tie-dye process. In this method, the yarn is first dyed and then sent for weaving.
Paithani: In Maharashtra, a woman’s wardrobe is deemed incomplete without the inclusion of the Paithani of Paithan, a small town near Aurangabad. The hand-woven silk sari comes with an ornamented pallu with zari work and is considered to be a collector’s item. The style of the sari is characterized by the pallus with peacock designs and exclusive motifs such as flowers, fruits and birds.
Taant: The word literally means ‘made on the loom’, Taant is the traditional sari of Bengali women in India. Popularly known as Bengal cotton, taant is hand-woven in various districts of West Bengal. These saris come in a variety of colours with simple yet beautiful designs.
Shantipuri: Shantipur, a small town situated in the Nadia district of West Bengal is famed for its fine cotton saris. These saris are woven on the looms by the taantis (weavers) of the town and come in soft colours. Once upon a time, the Shantipuri dhuti (the rectangular piece of unstitched garment for men) were preferred by all Bengali bridegrooms and their relatives.
Tangail: Tangail is a district in what is today known as Bangladesh. The traditional tangail saris have borders with the lotus or a lamp pattern. These are now being made in the Phulia district of West Bengal.
Venkatgiri: Venkatgiri is a small town in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. Known for its fine cotton saris which go by the same name, it is a perfect wear for the Indian summer. The main characteristic of these saris are their beautiful jewel-like colours.
Other costumes for women:
Salwar Kameez: It is the outfit commonly worn by Indian women and is second in line after the sari. The outfit is probably born out of Islamic influence especially that of Arabic and Persian cultures. Women all over the country prefer this dress mainly because of the comfort and ease of movement that it offers, besides near zero maintenance.
A salwar is a pair of loose pyjamas held together with a drawstring around the waist. It also comes in another version – very tight and narrow at the bottom with numerous extra folds gathered at the ankles. This is popularly known as a churidar. In Punjab, the women wear a patiala salwar which falls around the legs in innumerable pleats resembling a dhoti. A kameez is a long shirt, either loose or tight-fitting and comes in a straight or A-line shape. It is slit along the sides to allow freedom of movement. A salwar kameez is incomplete without a dupatta, which is a long piece of cloth to cover the bosom, but mostly used like a scarf.
Ghaghra / Lehenga Choli: A ghagra or a lehenga is a long gathered gypsy skirt with dazzling embroidery or mirror work and comes in vibrant colours. It is worn with a choli, which is a short closely fitted woman’s blouse that shows off the midriff, or a kurti (shorter version of a kurta). Some cholis can be fastened at the back by means of narrow strips of cloth or chords. An odhni or a dupatta (scarf) with intricate designs complements the outfit. Women in Rajasthan and Gujarat don this beautiful and highly sensuous outfit. Dressier versions are teamed with chunky silver jewellery during festivals and other important occasions.
Some Interesting Regional Costumes:
Mekhla Chadar: The mekhla chadar is the traditional attire of the women of Assam, a state in the North-East India. It is a two-piece ensemble and resembles the sari – the lower part, called a mekhla is neatly pleated and tucked into the petticoat in the front. The upper piece, called a chadar is also tucked at the waist and taken over the left shoulder as a pallu. A typical mekhla chadar is made of white or golden Assamese silk with prominent thread work done in red along the lower border.
Traditional sari from Kerala: During the festival of Onam, women wear a two-piece garment very similar to a sari, with a blouse. It is worn in the same fashion as a sari but without pleats in the front. This drape usually comes in shades of white or sandalwood with a bright gold border.
Phiran: The people in the state of Jammu and Kashmir wear a traditional beautiful long sleeved tunic known as phiran. Phirans are made of woollen fabric to keep the wearer warm during the severe winters of the valley. A woman’s phiran is stylish with colourful embroidery at the cuffs, neck and edges. Interestingly, a phiran is unisex in nature and worn by all sections of the Kashmiri society. The men’s phiran is more sombre, in grey or brown fabric with little or no embroidery.
The North-East happens to be one of the most diverse and culturally vibrant regions of India. It comprises the seven beautiful states more popularly called the “Seven Sisters”, inhabited by as many as 166 different tribes pursuing their unique lifestyles.
Arunachal Pradesh: Men in Arunachal Pradesh believe in simple dressing styles. Their wardrobe mainly consists of lungis woven in red and black yarn, a jacket and a turban. Arunachali women wear a piece of cloth that covers the body from the shoulders till the knees. They complement the wrap with a full-sleeved coat and an attractive sash, locally called muhkak, tied around their waist.
Meghalaya: The Khasi and Garo tribes of Meghalaya are the most prominent tribes of the state. A Khasi man can be identified by his unstitched lower garment or a dhoti, jacket and a turban. Khasi women wear a two-piece cloth pinned on each shoulder and a shawl, which are called jainsem and tapmoh respectively. Garo women on the other hand wear a blouse and tie a long unstitched piece of cloth called dakmanda around their waist. It is hand-woven, having a 6-10 inch border with floral motifs. A Jaintia woman dresses up in a similar manner in a blouse and a striped sarong called thoh khyrwang.
Mizoram: Traditional costumes in Mizoram are exclusively hand-made by the women of the household. Mizo men wear a piece of cloth, almost 7 feet long, which is wrapped around the body. In winter, men wear a long white coat that is fastened at the throat and reaches up to the thighs. These coats have beautiful patterns near the sleeves with bands of red and white. Men also don a special kind of headgear – wrapping a piece of cloth around the head so that the ends fall over each ear. Mizo women wear a single piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and reaching up to the knees. A short white jacket with hand-woven patterns on top completes the look of the costume.
Manipur: Manipuri women traditionally wear a blouse and a three-piece hand-woven phanek, which very closely resembles a wrap-around skirt. Men usually wear a single piece of cloth almost like a lungi. A turban is a must for the Manipuri man
Nagaland: The Nagas are classified into sixteen tribes speaking different dialects, customs and traditional costumes. Among the men, the costume mainly consists of a short wrap-around skirt and a feathered headdress. Naga women have different styles of wearing a skirt, called mekhla, which vary with the respective tribes. For example, the women of the Ao tribe wear a piece of cloth wrapped around their waists like a skirt with a hand-woven top or blouse. In some cases, just a single piece of cloth is used to wrap the body starting from the bosom and reaching up to the knees. The pattern mainly consists of red and black stripes with small yellow motifs on the black stripes.
Tripura: The tribals of Tripura make their own clothes at home. Men wear a narrow piece of cloth as a lower garment without a shirt. The headgear comprises a turban - just a long cloth tied around the head. Women wear two separate pieces of cloth that are draped around the body as an upper and lower garment respectively. The most striking feature of the entire garment is the upper half, which is embroidered with beautiful designs.
Some other tribal outfits of India
The Bhils residing in southwestern Rajasthan are one of the oldest tribes in India. The dry and arid weather of the region have very much influenced the clothing habits of this region. Men are usually comfortable in a loincloth and embroidered waistcoats coupled with turbans and traditional Rajasthani shoes, curled up at the toes. Bhil women wear a single stretch of cloth that is tucked around the waist while the rest is used to cover the head. Wearing a blouse among bhils is a status symbol and only married women are expected to wear one. A variety of jewellery ranging from beaded chokers, colourful bangles, nose-rings and an ornament suspended from the hair to the forehead, is an essential part of a Bhil women’s dress.
The Warlis of the Western Ghats, more popularly known as ghatis are scattered over the coast of Maharashtra, Surat in Gujarat and Daman. The tribe believes in minimal clothing and men can be found in short dhotis and embroidered waistcoats. Warli women wear saris that are short in length, with a half-sleeved embroidered choli that is tied in a knot in the front.
The Todas of the Nilgiris in South India are a small population now faced with the threat of extinction. The men of this community wear a long, loose-flowing garment covering the entire body from shoulder to toe. This is usually in white with red and blue borders. The women also wear the same hand-woven garment except in the style of a sari. Their jewellery is restricted to silver, beads and shells.
The Santhals of West Bengal, Bihar and parts of Orissa are basically cultivators by occupation. Santhal outfits are again minimal where men wear a lungi whereas women wear a short sari without a blouse, but worn to fit their bodies snugly, without getting undone even in the most trying of circumstances.
In India, men’s everyday clothing is by and large restricted to western wear such as trousers, shirts and formal suits. But when it comes to festivities, it is the ethnic pajama kurta or dhoti kurta which hold sway. Some traditional costumes of Indian men are:
Dhoti: This remains the most traditional garment of the Indian male. It is a 6 yard-long rectangular piece of unstitched white cloth, which is wrapped around the waist and between the legs. The dhoti is ideal for the torrid summer of India. Its usage can be traced back to ancient times. Though western outfits have replaced the dhoti over the years, yet it remains the chosen one for Indian festivals and weddings. It may be found in cream or off white shades, both in cotton and silk fabrics. But today one can find designer dhotis in different colours and designs.
A dhoti can be worn in a variety of ways and have different names according to the style. For example, it is called a dhuti in Bengali, veshti in Tamil and pancha in Telugu. A dhoti is usually complemented with a kurta on top but in southern parts of India, it is worn mostly with a shirt. An angavastram or an unstitched piece of cloth is placed over the left shoulder in this case. A South Indian dhoti is worn like a lungi and often has a broad zari border. A common sight in South India is that of men folding the dhoti up to the knees for the purpose of comfort, during work.
In Bengal, a dhuti is worn pleated, almost touching the ankles and tucked at the centre back. The style is such that the other end is well folded and can be held in the right hand. The garment is quite synonymous with the babus of Calcutta who worked as government servants during the British Raj. Those days the dhoti was worn with a long shirt. It also became the symbol of the Bengali gentleman and the elite who wore a plain dhoti kurta and discussed politics and literature over endless cups of tea at cafes and restaurants! Even today, Bengali men flaunt their exclusive designer dhutis with brilliant kantha stitched kurtas, during festivals and other occasions. Kurtas with batik prints and Lucknawi embroidery are becoming popular too.
In some parts of Maharashtra, men still wear the traditional dhoti, which is worn shorter than the way Bengalis wear it. A white kurta and a Nehru cap completes the look of the typical Maharashtrian man.
Lungi: This is a piece of cloth sewn in a circle and worn around the waist like a sarong. Besides India, lungis are popular in several communities across Asia, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The most common patterns of lungis are plain, checks or stripes. It is considered to be a very comfortable garment among males in regions where conditions make it impossible and uncomfortable for the men to wear trousers all the time.
In Punjab, a lungi is also called a tehmat, which is made of extravagant silks in an endless variety of hues and shades. It is draped in a manner where the pleats fall in the front. Punjabi men wear this with a long kurta and an embroidered jacket and of course, a colourful pagdi (turban).