India: clothing and adornment
Contemporary Indian dress is based upon a rich history of fashion development through 4,000 years (Ghurye 1966). The country contains one-sixth of the world’s population, divided into three language families—Sanskrit, Dravidian, and Proto-Munda—each contributing its own dress traditions. Dress varies by region, whether it is a difference in how a woman’s sari or man’s dhoti is wrapped; the cut of the design; the use of the headdress or hair dressing; or the use of temporary or permanent body markings. Caste, religious, regional, or ethnic identity of most rural dwellers and some urbanites is revealed in the design of their tattoos, jewelry, or headdress. Clothing style often communicates the same information. This entry focuses on popularly worn garments and major fashion trends of the recent era.
If an individual lives in rural India—particularly as a member of a low-income, minority, or low-caste group— choices will be smaller than those of urban, mainstream, or elite compatriots. Limitations in rural choice result, too, from a higher saliency of caste, ethnicity, and religion, and lower expectations of involvement in the fashion system.
In urban areas, comprising 30 percent of the population, and among elites, choices in dress are much greater. Though the dress traditions of minorities seeking upward mobility are giving way to the dress of dominant regional and national communities, the latter is developing into a fast-moving fashion industry. Regional and national styles of dress provide some anonymity to the wearer regarding social origins. Additionally, world dress provides further alternatives in cities to elite women and men of all classes.
Wrapped garments constitute the national wardrobe mainstay. Great complexity and varieties of garments and wrapping styles lie behind India’s stereotypic sari. Wrapped garments for the torso—primarily women’s sari and veshti and men’s dhoti, lungi, and veshti—include cloths 2.5 to 12 yards long, with women wearing the longer garments. Additional wrapped garments include shawls; veils for women, for example, dupatta, chunri, and orhni; 4-7.5-yard-longpagri turbans and shorter informal head wraps for men; men’s kamar band “waist ties”; and other items worn within minority groups, whose populations typically run to millions.
Wrapped garments are surface designed or woven to size on the loom with border designs on all four sides. The distinctive design of a garment, as wrapped on the body, results in the pattern of creases, pleats, and folds that the cloth makes. Women’s sari borders are wide. Their placement on the body defines the main lines of each wrapped style. With a glance at fabric characteristics and border placement, an onlooker can tell from which ethnic region an individual, or at the least, her sari originates.
Preshaped garments are not as ancient in India as wrapped forms of dress. Yet the orhni worn with ghaghra skirt and choli, a bodice front and sleeves secured across the back by ties, first appeared in pre-Muslim Gujarat in the tenth century (Fabri 1977). Both cut and sewn and knitted garments are now broadly incorporated into Indian dress practice.
Women have largely retained wrapped forms of dress despite the move into fitted clothing by many rural and most urban men. Yet women combine their wrapped saris with cut and sewn blouses. Still, among the elder population in parts of the rural East and South and in minority rural communities in central and southern India, bare-chested female dress sporadically occurs. For example, very orthodox Brahmin women still cook meals for auspicious occasions wearing only their sari (Boulanger 1997).
The movement under Muslim rule, from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries, toward cut and sewn clothing was strongest in the North and West. Women wear ensembles of salwar (narrow-ankle loose pants), kameez (tunics fitted with darts and inset sleeves), and dupatta; or ghaghra, choli, and orhni. Men of these regions wear sal-war and kurta tunics. Men, who did not adopt pants, still donned tunics of various styles for upper-body dressing. Well-to-do and formal men’s apparel expand this variety in tunics with the knee-length achkan and other long tunics, coordinating them with a variety of drawstring waist pants—straight-legged pajama, churidar pajama and salwar—to create ensembles specifying the wearer’s social identity and occasion of wear. In the North and West, turbans are broadly worn with these ensembles. Everywhere shawls are worn in winter.
British and European trade and rule, from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, introduced more styles of fitted clothing. Sari-wearing women added petticoat underwear and adopted British styles of fitting for their blouses. Men, no longer working in the agricultural or handicraft economy, adopted shorts or trousers and Western styles of shirts, including varieties of cotton knit under and outer shirts. Sweaters became popular—cardigans for women and pullovers for men.
Typical locations for jewelry include the ears, neck, upper arms, wrists, and fingers. Women additionally wear jewelry on the hair, nose, forearms, waist, ankles, and toes. Turban-wearing noblemen include jewelry in their headdress.
Gold and silver jewelry are worn by both genders and by individuals of all ages, except for orthodox Hindu widows. Following the aesthetic of India’s former colonial rulers, strictly decorative jewelry is now worn almost exclusively by women; raja “kings” may wear rich jewels for formal appearances. Expensive jewelry is made from natural, polished, or carved items like pearls, coral, and ivory (now replaced with plastic) as well as local and imported diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds cut and set in India. Indeed, Indian kings and queens taught the European nobility to wear jewels.
In hotter regions of the country, a toddler may wear only a piece of jewelry, but one providing spiritual protection or marking entrance into community membership. Adults wear protective jewelry, too. Among urban middle and upper classes, jewelry has disappeared almost entirely from male dress, except for that which provides spiritual protection, such as rings with stones prescribed from horoscope readings. Women wear such rings as well, but they continue, like their rural sisters, wearing decorative jewelry. Upper-class women are now likely to wear styles of jewelry from a variety of regions. Their consumption of ethnic jewelry as changeable fashion items, not indicators of ethnic identity, marks them as members of the national upper class and global society.
Scenting the Body
Essential oils for scenting the body are extracted in northern and western India from fragrant plant and animal sources. A broader proportion of women, particularly in southern India, scent themselves by wearing fragrant flowers like jasmine in their hair. The most common methods of scenting the body are daily bathing with fragrant soaps and application of scented bath powder. Middle-class and rural women use face powder to lighten the complexion, in pursuit of a wheat-colored appearance.
Treatment of Head and Body Hair
Cultural norms of hair treatment stress uncut hair for women and global style short hair for men. Very orthodox high-caste Hindu men maintain one long uncut lock of hair from the crown. Long, thick, very black hair is a highly valued component of an attractive woman. Approaching puberty, if not before, a girl learns to take special care combing and oiling her hair to grow it into an asset as she approaches the marriage market. Women in southern India and girls throughout the country keep their hair in one or two braids, respectively. Northern Indian women usually tie their hair in a bun, with styles differing through history and across regions. Exceptions to these male and female practices are found in minority groups of central and far-eastern India. Among the Bondo of central India, for example, women cut their hair close to the scalp and wear a headband, while men grow their hair long and tie it up (Elwin 1950). Also, long, uncut and matted locks identify the holy man or woman who has given up worldly cares for a life of meditation. In the last twenty years, women in cities and wealthier classes have begun cutting their hair in neck-and shoulder-length styles.
Facial hair is treated in a variety of ways, depending on caste, religion, and region. Most men shave their beards, but Hindu men often maintain a mustache. Upturning mustaches are claimed by high-caste men; in rural areas a low-caste man who turns his mustache up may be severely beaten. Full, uncut beards and mustaches are a religious must for orthodox Sikhs, who usually roll the beard under the chin, securing it with a net. Sikh men and women both leave their hair uncut, the men tying it into a bun at the top of the head and covering it with a cloth and turban. Older Muslim men tend to grow a full beard and, if they have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, dye the beard red with henna.
Many Indian men shave their armpits as part of their regular grooming, but women’s body hair removal varies a lot by region and subculture. Some indigenous beauty saloons advertise thread work hair removal treatments as a bridal service. The goal is to make a woman’s skin as smooth as a child’s.
Application of Color to the Body
Adults and children across rural northern India wear kajal eyeliner. Users say the eye-black, made from the soot of burned camphor, is cooling and promotes eye health. Black-lined eyes are aesthetically appreciated, too, so kajal is not strictly medicinal. Exaggerated kajal-lined eyes are essential makeup for male and female classical Indian dancers.
A code of symbols marked on the foreheads of devout men and women in red sindur powder or pastes of saffron, rice, or sandalwood mark an individual not only as a Hindu, but also communicates the particular deity to which a person is devoted. Young women concerned with adornment in some fashion periods make the Hindu bindi dot on the forehead in a myriad of sari-matching colors and decorative designs. Some designs are available as stick-on bindis.
Brides and grooms are massaged with a mixture of oil and turmeric in preparation for marriage. In addition to the benefits of purification and spiritual blessing, turmeric also makes the skin glow golden. Some southern women regularly apply turmeric facials to enhance beauty. The faces of brides, and some bridegrooms, are decorated with designs in sandalwood paste. Additionally, lyrical designs in reddish mehendi are painted on the bride’s hands, and on the feet, even if only the minimal design of a red line around the outside edge of the foot. As long as her husband lives, a married woman of eastern India wears red sindur in the part of her hair.
Age and Gender Differentiation
Babies and toddlers wear little or no clothing in rural areas, particularly when temperatures rise, but in urban areas and among the elite they are clothed in the full range of world dress garments for babies. Children under five years of age are dressed in bright, solid colors, especially red. Brighter colors continue for girls thereafter while boys begin dressing down in color. Girls wear dresses with a bodice, dropped waist, and skirt. Boys wear shirt and pants. Adolescent girls wear salwar-kameez-dupatta ensembles, though the short-sleeved top, long skirt, and half-sari veil tied over the developing chest continue in popularity in southern India. Adolescent boys wear shorts and later long pants, with a shirt. The clothing of children attending private schools is codified into uniforms.
Gender difference is boldly announced in Indian dress. In extreme western Gujarat, for example, women’s blouse design draws attention to breasts, through embroidered circles or panels of bright cloth over the bosom. The tightly wrapped dhotis holding male genitalia in high relief in one region of western India perform a similar function. When outside the home, orthodox Muslim women always wear a two-piece burqa over their clothes, covering themselves entirely. Tinkling anklets and bangles, always worn in matched left-right pairs, audibly announce a woman’s presence.
Yet even where gender is not so baldly announced, dress clearly distinguishes gender through a variety of means. These include major differences in garment form; the restriction of most of men’s dress to somber and neutral colors—especially since contact with colonial dress norms; using rich color, texture, or surface design on every aspect of a women’s clothing; and restriction of decorative jewelry to women.
A woman’s marital and socially sanctioned reproductive status—unmarried, married, or widowed—is marked in dress. Sindur use was described above. Veiling practices vary by area. In some places all females cover their head; in others only married women cover up, and then only in the presence of their husband’s senior relatives. Local and caste-specific designs of jewelry mark the status of a woman married to a husband who remains living. In each region, a loose code of garment colors communicates the marital and reproductive status and age of a woman. Absence of adornment in a woman’s dress in very orthodox high-caste Hindu families indicates that her husband is away or deceased or that she is menstruating (Leslie 1992). Widows wear white, or at least neutral colors.
History and the Indian Fashion Industry
For 4,000 years India has exported elaborately designed apparel and houseware textiles to the world, especially cottons but also some wools and silks. Importing markets, following their own cultural aesthetic, requested particular patterns and colors, introducing into India new design ideas. Indian textiles also attracted travelers from Europe, middle and central Asia, and China, as well as conquering armies from those same quarters and tourists. Such intrusions also expose Indians to new designs. Under colonialism, British rulers even invented Indian dress traditions, for example, the codification of the Sikh headdress (Cohn 1989).
At the end of the nineteenth century, the broad array of garments described above and rich textiles—everything from gold-embroidered velvets to transparent cotton muslins and brocaded silks—were still being made by hand to dress the Indian elite. Middle and lower classes wore a decreasing number of indigenous hand-loomed cottons, favoring cheaper industrially produced cotton garments from British, European, and Indian mills.
During the struggle for liberation from British rule, nationalists abandoned industrially produced cloth and overtly European or luxurious forms of Indian dress. Mahatma Gandhi encouraged production of khadi—cloth hand-loomed from hand-spun yarn—and designed a nationalist garment ensemble sewn from khadi. Thispajama, kurta, and Gandhian cap outfit communicated a unified identity, replacing the divisive caste and religious identifications of conventional dress. The less ardent continued wearing traditional ensembles, but made from khadi. India’s luxurious textiles as well as conspicuous displays of jewelry fell out of fashion among urban educated elites and political leaders.
However, diversity in Indian dress continued after the 1947 liberation, in part because 75 percent of the population still earned their livelihood in relatively unchanged agricultural villages. Government restructuring of the textile and apparel industry also played a major role. To keep employment high in the textile industry, the government developed a bifurcated policy. It facilitated mechanized spinning to feed the hand looms, which clothed the nation and supported revival of waning weaving traditions. Industrial weaving was reserved for export, and suffered severely, but bifurcation gave new life to local styles of hand-loomed saris.
Then in the late 1980s, the generation born after Independence came into power and reassessed its relationship to the global economy as well as sober forms of dress. Reversal of textile policies encouraged industrialization of both weaving and spinning, including production of synthetics. Cotton-polyester blends became popular among the working and middle classes. Ähadi-producing societies now weave polyvastra cotton-poly khadi. Foreign-educated designers like Ritu Kumar (1999) began mining the luxurious clothes of Indian heritage for inspiration.
The government established a chain of National Institutes of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in seven of its major cities. NIFT students study local textile technology and design traditions and incorporate them into designs aimed at national and export markets, including the huge Indian diaspora ringing the globe. Richly embellished textiles and apparel are the mainstay of modern fashion design, drawing on India’s wealth of skilled hand labor for block-printing, varieties of embroidery, beading, tie-dyeing, and other indigenous textile crafts.
Indian and foreign entrepreneurs and business owners are contributing to the growth of the Indian fashion industry. As late as the 1970s, wrapped forms of dress remained the only available ready-to-wear items. For fitted garments, individuals purchased yardage and had it tailored. Housewives began designing and manufacturing fitted and woven garments, eventually opening boutiques to retail them to urban elites (Castelino 1994). Fashion cycles of design development arose within various sari-weaving traditions (Nag 1989). In New Delhi and Bombay these small beginnings grew into destination shopping areas filled with designer boutiques.
NIFT and the growth in boutiques support a cadre of Indian designers who experiment with India’s garment and textile traditions, particularly in surface design in the early 2000s. Even the ghaghra-choli-orhni ensemble worn by some women construction laborers has been gentri-fied into haute couture for a season of the Ethnic Chic trend. The industry has converted salwar-kameez-dupatta dressing into the national urban outfit for teenage girls. Women wear their first saris at graduation and marriage (Banerjee and Miller 2003). Ethnic Chic men’s wear provides contemporary designs of heritage garments for elite and diaspora bridegrooms.
In the early twenty-first century, the salwar-kameez-dupatta ensemble has been globalized. Flared pants with outside hem slits replace the salwar. The kameez is cut briefer and shorter. The dupatta has been altogether dropped. A stylish woman in an elite society anywhere in the world could wear this ensemble.
The boutique ready-made movement has developed into national chains of stores reaching into all the main cities of India, and into the Indian diaspora via foreign branches and Internet sales sites (Bhachu 2003). In 2004 Anokhi and Fab India occupied the middle rank providing designs for everyday wear in multiple sizes and colors. The Ensemble and Ritu Kumar chains straddled the haute couture and ready-made markets. For the first time, a variety of sized apparel were being retailed to Indian women. Haute couture customers found one-of-a-kind outfits designed, like the ready-made, in garment silhouettes drawn from both Indian heritage and world dress.
Foreign businesses are helping bring world dress to India. By 1995 at least thirty-five agreements between Indian and foreign textile and apparel-producing firms had been made, including Lee and Levi Strauss. These are deals to produce denim in India and sew it into apparel to reach the lucrative Indian jeans market. Several foreign retailers of men’s wear have branches in all of India’s major cities.
Indian fashion is falling in step with its Western counterpart. The lengths of women’s kameez and end border of the sari have risen and fallen with Western skirt lengths. Trends in hairstyles started by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and more recent global media heartthrobs have spread to India, popularized in film by heroes like Raj Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, and Shah Rukh.
Television programs from the United States and Britain, Bombay films produced as much for the Indian diaspora as for national audiences, and Indians’ active maintenance of ties with relatives settled abroad encourage growth in world dress among young women as never before. Young elite women are beginning to catch up with the world dress trend of their male peers. Fashionable young urban women in tight jeans and midriff-baring tank tops are challenging modesty norms requiring that a woman’s lower torso be covered by loose clothing.
Changing economic realities and rural television and film viewing are eliciting fashion experiments outside cities, too. Young men are giving up dress that marks low caste, ethnic, or regional identity. Young women, who have been altering the designs of their embroidered trousseau skirts for two generations, are now abandoning them altogether for saris; lower-caste groups are taking up their skirt-embroidering traditions. In western Gujarat state, young women recombine garments from their own and neighbors’ traditions to create astonishing choli-salwar outfits as revealing as those of their elite urban sisters. The supposedly tradition-bound dressers of rural India are as caught up in fashion changes as their urban compatriots.
See also Nehru Jacket; Salwar-Kameez; Sari.
Abreu, Robin. “Weaving a New Survival Strategy.” India Today 20, no. 23 (15 December 1995): 119.
Bala Krishnan, R. Usha, and Meera Sushil Kumar. Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India. Mumbai, India: India Book House Limited, 1999.
Banerjee, Mukulika, and Daniel Miller. The Sari. Oxford: Berg, 2003.
Bhachu, Parminder. “Designing Diasporic Markets: Asian Fashion Entrepreneurs in London.” In Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress. Edited by Sandra Niessen, Ann Marie Leshkowich and Carla Jones, 139-158. Oxford: Berg, 2003.
Boulanger, Chantal. Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping. New York: Shakti Press International, 1997.
Brij Bhushan, Jamila. The Costumes and Textiles of India. Bombay: Taraporevala’s Treasure House of Books, 1958.
Castelino, Meher. Fashion Kaleidoscope. Calcutta: Rupa and Company, 1994.
Chishti, Rta Kapur, ed. Saris of India: Bihar and West Bengal. New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd.; National Institute of Fashion Technology and Amr Vastra Kosh, 1995.
Chishti, Rta Kapur, and Amba Sanyal. Saris of India: Madhya Pradesh. Gen ed. by Martand Singh. New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd., and Amr Vastra Kosh, 1995.
Cohn, Bernard. “Cloth, Clothes, and Colonialism: India in the Nineteenth Century.” In Cloth and Human Experience. Edited by Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider, 305-353. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
Dasgupta, Sunil, and Sudeep Chakravarti. “On the Cutting Edge: New Players Are Coming in and Old Ones Are Reshaping Their Strategies.” India Today 19, no. 9 (15 May 1994): 130.
Dhamija, Jasleen, ed. The Woven Silks of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1995.
Dhamija, Jasleen, and Jyotindra Jain, eds. Handwoven Fabrics of India, Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1989.
Elwin, Verrier. Bondo Highlander. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1950.
Fabri, Charles. Indian Dress: A Brief History. New Delhi: Sangam Books; Orient Longman Limited, 1977.
Frater, Judy. Threads of Identity: Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris. Ahmedabad, India: Mapin Publishing, Pvt. Ltd., 1995.
Ghurye, G. S. Indian Costume. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1966.
Kumar, Ritu. Costumes and Textiles of Royal India. Edited by Cathy Muscat. London: Christie’s Books, 1999.
Leslie, Julia. “The Significance of Dress for the Orthodox Hindu Woman.” In Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning. Edited by Ruth Barnes and Joanne B. Eicher, 198-213. Oxford: Berg, 1992.
Nag, Dulali. “The Social Construction of Handwoven Tangail Sari in the Market of Calcutta. ” Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1989.
Sahay, Sachidanand. Indian Costume, Coiffure and Ornament. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Pub. Pvt. Ltd., 1973.
Singh, K. S. The Anthropological Atlas: Ecology and Cultural Traits, Languages and Linguistic Traits, Demographic and Biological Traits. People of India series, vol. 11. Delhi: Oxford University Press for Anthropological Survey of India, 1993.
Tarlo, Emma. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.