Changes in the styles worn by Indians reflected their contact with other peoples. As different tribes of people invaded or entered An Indian women often has to keep almost her entire body covered in clothing. India to trade or to live, they brought with them distinctive clothing styles. Throughout the different regions of India, the changes in clothing styles can be linked to some contact with other cultures. For example, Indians knew how to sew long before the sixteenth century when the Moguls, or Muslims, invaded, and they had long adorned their wrapped garments with elaborate embroidery stitches. But when the Moguls took power over the region, the Moguls’ style of sewn clothing became popular among Indians. Sewn jackets and trousers were among the styles popularized by the Mogul leaders, although traditional wrapped clothing remained common.
Trade contacts also spread Indian clothing styles and cloth to other parts of the world. The Dutch and the English established trade routes with India in the late 1400s, and by the 1600s Indian cotton was exported to regions throughout Europe and the American colonies, where shawls made of Indian cloth became especially popular. In the twenty-first century India continues to be a major source of finely woven fabrics for garment manufacturers worldwide.
A long, flowing garment that covers the whole body from head to feet, the burka, also known as burqa or abaya, is an important part of the dress of Muslim women in many different countries. Some burkas leave the face uncovered, but most have a cloth or metal grid that hides the face from view while allowing the wearer to see. The exact origin of the burka is unknown, but similar forms of veiling have been worn by women in countries such as India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan since the beginning of the Muslim religion in 622 C.E.
The Koran, the holy book of Islam, directs believers to cover themselves and be humble before God. Different societies and religious leaders have interpreted this command of the Koran in many different ways, often requiring both men and women to cover their heads as a sign of religious respect. Some Muslim societies have required women to cover themselves more modestly than men, covering not only their heads but also most of their bodies and even their faces. The burka is one example of very modest clothing worn by Muslim women.
The burka has mainly been worn in very conservative Muslim cultures, which often restrict the movement and power of women. Young girls are not required to cover themselves with a burka, but at puberty or marriage they begin to wear it. While women do not wear the burka while they are home with their families, they are required to wear it when they are in public or in the presence of men who are not family members. In many places the burka was first worn as a sign of wealth and leisure, because a woman could not easily work while wearing the long garment.
Though the burka often appears confining and limiting to Western eyes, many devout Muslim women choose to wear the long veil. Some say that the coverage of the burka gives them a privacy that actually makes them feel freer to move about in society. However, others say that even though the burka protects women from the staring eyes of strange men, it does not prevent the wearer from being touched or pinched by passing men. Also, many Muslim women who live in very conservative societies are forced to wear the burka whether they want to or not, and many have been punished harshly for refusing to cover themselves as their authorities demand.
The chadar, also spelled chador or chadoor, is a multipurpose garment worn by many people in India since before the third century C.E. Indians and others living in countries of the Middle East continue to wear the chadar to this day. Though the size, shape, and color of the chadar vary somewhat in different cultures, it is basically a large scarf, about three yards long and one yard wide, or larger. Both men and women use the chadar as a shawl or wrap for protection from the weather, for modesty, and for religious purposes. Some chadars have decorative or fringed edges.
The chadar is a common accessory in desert countries like Afghanistan, where it is often wrapped around the body, head, and face for protection from sand and dust storms. In less harsh weather, men usually wear the chadar around the shoulders, like a shawl. Women in Muslim societies are often required to cover themselves more modestly than men, and they wear the chadar over their heads as well, holding an end between their teeth when they wish to cover their faces. Some women wrap the chadar tightly around their neck and head to form
a sort of headdress that may cover all or part of the face. The abundant fabric of the chadar is useful for many purposes. A mother may wrap her baby in one end of the scarf and use it to cover them both while she breastfeeds. Ends of the chadar may also be used to tie small bundles to make them easy to carry. Some women’s chadars are large enough to cover the wearer from head to toe, similar to the long burka also worn by Muslim women.
The chadar also has religious and ceremonial purposes. The color and designs used in the fabric often have religious significance. Many Muslim men use the chadar to wrap themselves or kneel upon it for prayer, and a large version is often used to wrap around the dead before burial.
At the dawn of Indian civilization in 2500 B.C.E., women left their breasts bare. It was under Muslim rule, which lasted from 1500 to 1700 C.E., that women began to dress more modestly. The choli, a sewn garment that covered women’s breasts, became popular as the Muslims rose in power. The choli is worn with a skirt or under a sari, a draped dress.
Although Indian women wore unstitched garments from the beginning of Indian civilization, from the first invasion of the Muslims in about the tenth century some Indians began to wear stitched garments. The choli is such a garment. The first choli only covered a woman’s breasts, leaving her back bare. The garment evolved into many different variations, the most common being a tight-fitting bodice with short or long sleeves that ended just below the breasts or just above the waist. Many other variations of the choli are worn throughout India today and include styles fastened with ties, versions with rounded necklines, and some that shape or flatten the breasts.
Worn mostly in the north and west of India, the choli is distinguished in different regions by various decorations. The fabric can be dyed bright colors, embroidered, or appliquéd with mirrors. Cholis are made of cotton or silk but can also be made of organza and brocade for special occasions.
Dhoti and Lungi
Two styles of clothing have been most popular with Indian men and boys from ancient times to the present day: the dhoti and the lungi. Both the dhoti and the lungi are garments made from wrapping unsewn cloth around the waist to cover the loins and most of the legs of their wearers. Although these garments are most often worn by men, women do wear them and other similar garments that resemble skirts.
A dhoti is a large cloth wrapped around the waist and then between the legs with the end tucked into the fabric at the waist in back. A dhoti resembles trousers but is made of unsewn fabric.Commonly, dhoti drape below the wearer’s knees to mid calf, but some men in warmer parts of India and young boys wear the dhoti above the knee. Although normally created out of a single piece of fabric, the dhoti can also be secured by a kamarband, or a piece of cloth tied around the waist like a belt. The lungi also covers the man from the waist down but resembles a long skirt. A lungi is made by wrapping a cloth around the waist and securing it with a knot called a duba. Both the dhoti and the lungi can be worn alone with a bare chest or with a variety of upper body coverings including shawls, shirts, or jackets.
Both dhoti and lungi have been woven out of silk, cotton, and sometimes wool. Although the dhoti is most commonly made of thin white cotton, the lungi is often dyed bright colors or decorated with colorful patterns. Lungis are either dyed a plain color or decorated with stripes or plaids and bordered in a contrasting color. If the garment is made with dyed yarn, the fabric is most often woven with a pattern of two colors. Popular colors for everyday lungis include white, dark red, blue, brown, and black while those worn for ceremonies or festive occasions are made in brighter shades of yellow, pink, turquoise, dark blue, green, and purple. Other decorations include embroidery on the borders, appliquéd mirrors, and patterns made from tie-dyeing or stamping carved blocks.
In ancient times entire families would be involved in spinning and dyeing the yarn used and weaving the fabric for these garments. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), the leader who rallied Indians in nonviolent protest against British rule in the early 1900s, encouraged Indians to shun imported British fabrics and to weave their clothes at home. Some Indians continue to weave fabric at home, but large factories with power looms are responsible for the greatest portion of modern-day production.
The sari, sometimes spelled saree, is a draped dress, created from a single piece of fabric five to nine yards long, which is wrapped around a woman’s body in a variety of ways. The resulting garment can be practical working attire or an elegant ceremonial gown, depending on the type of fabric used and the style of draping. While women wear the sari, men wear a version of the wrapped garment called a dhoti. A daily garment worn by approximately 75 percent of the female population of India during the twenty-first century, the sari is one of the oldest known items of clothing that is still in use. Saris were mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient sacred literature of the Hindu religion, which has been dated back to 3000 B.C.E., and many people believe that saris may have been worn even earlier.
Like the Greeks and Romans who followed them, the ancient people of India mainly wore garments that were wrapped and draped, rather than sewn. This was not because they did not know the art of sewing—early Indian people were experts in fine weaving and embroidery—but because they preferred the flexibility and creativity that draped clothing allowed. Loose, flowing garments were practical in the hot climate of southern Asia, and the sari, woven of cotton or silk, was both cool and graceful. Though rich and poor alike wore the sari, the wealthy could afford to have fine silk fabric with costly decorations, while the poor might wear rough plain cotton.
The basic wrap of a sari usually involves winding it around the waist first then wrapping it around the upper body. Women frequently wear underclothes of a half-slip tied around the waist and a tight blouse or breast-wrap that ends just below the bust, which provide the basis for wrapping the fabric of the sari. There are many different styles of wrapping and draping the sari, and these vary according to gender, region, social class, ethnic background, and personal style. Instead of wrapping the fabric around the chest, the ends of the sari can be simply thrown over one or both shoulders. Sometimes an end is pulled between the legs and tucked into the back of the skirt, making it into loose pants, which are practical for working. Many men wear saris that only cover the lower half of their bodies. Though saris are usually wrapped to the left, people from some regions of India favor wrapping to the right. When the abundant material of the sari is wrapped around the waist, it is usually pleated to create graceful folds and drapes. The number of pleats and the direction they fold can vary and is sometimes dictated by religious belief. Though many modern saris are mass-produced, saris made of handwoven cloth are important to many people as a political symbol of Indian pride.
Though many Indian people, both those living in India and those who live in other countries, have adopted Western dress, it is very common for Indian women to wear the sari for important ceremonies, such as weddings
The jama is a jacket that was worn by men in India following its introduction by Mogul, or Muslim, invaders in the sixteenth century C.E., and which influenced later menswear. The jama resembles sewn jackets worn in ancient Persia, modern-day Iran. The jama is identified by its long sleeves, tight-fitting chest, or bodice, tie closures at the side, and flared skirt. While the sleeves and chest are similar in the many variations of the jama, the jacket closures and the length and flare of the skirt have changed over time. Early versions of the jama, for example, had skirts that reached to midthigh and flared slightly at the ends. By the eighteenth century, however, jama had long flowing skirts that touched the floor. The jacket tie closures were modified by the different religious groups in India. Muslims tied the jama at the right armpit from the sixteenth century forward, while Hindus tied their jamas on the left. Mogul rulers insisted that Hindus and Muslims continued this custom in order to distinguish themselves from each other.
The jama is the forerunner of other jackets that became popular in India. The influence of British styles in the eighteenth century pushed the jama out of fashion. The jacket was replaced by the angarkha and the choga, which were both gradually replaced by the chapkanm, achkan, and shervani in the nineteenth century. These later styles of jacket were slim fitting and closed with buttons.
The Punjabi suit, also known as the salwar kameez, is an outfit worn primarily by Indian women but also by some men. The Punjabi suit became popular around the time of the Mogul Empire, from 1500 to 1700 C.E., and has continued to be worn by modern Indians to the present day. The Punjabi suit consists of a sleeved tunic-liketop that hangs to mid thigh and loose trousers that become narrow at the ankle. A scarf, or dupatta, is often draped around the neck as an accompaniment to the suit. Made of a variety of light fabrics, such as cotton and silk, the Punjabi suit can be plain but is more often decorated with printed fabric or embroidery. The decorations found on the garment are highly symbolic, often designed to guard against evil spirits that might harm the wearer.
The word “purdah” comes from the Hindu word meaning curtain or veil. Purdah is a complex set of rules, followed in some Muslim and Hindu societies, which restrict a woman’s movements both in the outside world and within her own home. Meant to separate the family as a unit from those outside the family, purdah requires a woman to isolate herself from those who are not in her immediate family by veiling her body and face or sitting behind screens or curtains. The custom of purdah originated among the Assyrians and the Persians, peoples who inhabited ancient Mesopotamia, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq, around 1000 B.C.E. The term purdah is also sometimes used to describe the heavy veiling that women wear under the rules of purdah.
As early as the 2000s B.C.E., ancient Babylonian men had strict rules about the movements of women, requiring them to cover their bodies and faces and to be accompanied by a male chaperone when in public. A few centuries later, Assyrian and Persian men refined these rules further, insisting that women remain inside their homes most of the time, concealed from view behind curtains. When the Arab people conquered the Persians during the seventh century B.C.E., they adopted many of the Persian customs including the seclusion of women. They blended this custom with their Muslim religion, and many Muslim societies began to practice some form of purdah. The influence spread across India as well, and many people
of the Hindu religion also began to practice purdah.
In the twenty-first century strict purdah is mainly practiced in rural areas of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and some other countries that practice the Muslim or Hindu religions. The rules of purdah usually apply only to women after they are married, and they vary somewhat between Muslim and Hindu peoples. For the Hindus, purdah is a tool for defining the family, as well as showing modesty. Young married women mainly associate with members of their own family. They rarely travel, seldom go out in public, and are always completely veiled when they do. Even at home, they only show their faces to members of the family they grew up in and to their husbands, covering their faces or remaining behind a screen even around their in-laws. Though they may talk to women and children outside their immediate families through the veil, they usually do not speak to any men outside their own birth families. As these women grow older, the rules of purdah relax and many go unveiled inside their homes.
From ancient times until the present day, the most common headwear for Indian men has been a turban. A turban is a length of cloth wrapped in a specific way around the top of the head. Most commonly worn outdoors, turbans can also be worn indoors.
Woven of cotton, silk, or wool, turbans can be simple or very ornate. The type of fabric, patterns or colors on the fabric, length of fabric, and wrapping technique used for the turban indicate the wearer’s social status, religion, ethnicity, and, in some cases, profession. Followers of the Sikh religion, a religion based on the belief of one God and many paths, for example, are required to wear a starched muslin, or cotton cloth, turban made from a cloth about five or six meters in length. (Sikh men never cut their hair out of respect for it as God’s creation and wrap it in these turbans.) In some regions, Sikhs wear white turbans while in others dark blue turbans are worn. Turbans worn in different regions of the Rajasthan Desert include the leheriya, or wave, a patterned turban that is worn especially during the monsoon season; the panchrang, or five-color, turban worn for celebrations; and the more simply designed bundi, or small dot patterned, and mothro, or small square patterned, turbans worn for serious, somber occasions.
Turbans can be decorated in a variety of ways. Often the fabric is dyed one color and bordered with a contrasting color. For more intricate designs, everyday turbans are block-printed or tiedyed. Festive turbans or those worn by wealthier men are made of more expensive fabrics, such as silk, and even woven or stamped with gold thread.Turbans continue to be worn by men throughout India and by many Sikhs and Muslims throughout the world. The style is also worn by women in some cultures, such as the nomadic group known as Kurds living in parts of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. A prewrapped version of the turban became a popular hat with European and American women in the 1960s. Some older women continue to wear it in their homes as a casual covering for hair rolled in curlers.
Both men and women covered their upper bodies in ancient India with a garment called an uttariya. An uttariya was an unsewn cloth or scarf. Made commonly of cotton, the uttariya could also be made of animal skin, linen, or—for the wealthiest people—silk. Some writings from early India, written in the ancient Sanskrit language, refer to garments being made of the bark of the tree of paradise or the filaments of lotus flowers. The uttariya always accompanied other garments. Men wore them with a type of wrapped garment called a dhoti, and women wore them with a sari or an antariya, a wrap around the lower body.
No matter the fabric, uttariyas were light and delicate because of India’s warm climate. The delicate material used for uttariyas did not last long, and no examples of the actual early garments have survived for historians to study. Costume historians must rely on the depictions of the ancient form of the garments on existing sculptures and in remaining literature.
Uttariyas could be draped over the left shoulder to cover the chest, thrown loosely over the shoulders, tied in place across the wearer’s back, or held by a belt at the waist. Although men wore the uttariya to cover their upper bodies from the earliest years of Indian civilization, women did not typically cover their upper bodies until the fourth century C.E. At that time the uttariya became an important garment to preserve the modesty of women. Women would use the uttariya to cover their breasts in public, and some began to use a portion of their uttariya as a veil to cover their heads.
Uttariyas could be made of the simplest, plain cloth for those of modest income. But wealthy Indians often wore highly decorated uttariyas made of brightly dyed cloth of red, blue, or gold, among other colors. The uttariyas of the wealthy were also adorned with studs of pearls and other jewels, embroidery, and painted designs. Like the dhoti, the sari, and the turban, the uttariya remains one of the garments from ancient times that is still worn in modern India.