South Asia: history of dress

South Asia comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. The geographical terrain varies from mountainous regions along the northern borders, to desert areas, arid and semiarid zones dependent on monsoon rains for agriculture, the uplands of the Deccan Plateau, tropical wetlands, and the rich valleys of the Indus and Ganges rivers, seats of ancient cultures.

Despite differences in physical appearance, language, and other ethnological features, the people of South Asia share to a considerable degree a common cultural heritage. Sanskrit and Prakrit, the languages of the region’s most ancient texts, are still employed in religious rituals and classical learning. The Mahabharata and Ramayana, great epics dating from ca. 500 – 300 B.C.E., reinforce cultural links and a sense of shared tradition throughout the region.

Pakistani man in native clothing. The national dress of Pakistan is the long tunic, or kamiz, and loose-fitting pantaloons called salwar.

Pakistani man in native clothing. The national dress of Pakistan is the long tunic, or kamiz, and loose-fitting pantaloons called salwar.

Draped and wrapped garments are the most common form of clothing for both men and women in South Asia. The sari (also spelled saree), in many variant sizes and wrapping techniques, worn with a choli (blouse), is the most typical form of South Asian women’s dress. An analogous wrapped garment for the lower torso and legs, the dhoti, is widely worn by men; it is usually wrapped and tucked to form a kind of unstitched pantaloon. In some areas both sexes wear the sarong (also known as a lungi), a wrapped skirt. Stitched garments are also widely worn in the region by both men and women; examples include the loose trousers called payjamas, and the ensemble of salwar (pantaloons) and kamiz (long tunic) that has become the national dress of Pakistan.

Wrapped and draped garments appear to be the oldest form of attire in South Asia. Nevertheless, awls found at archaeological sites of the Harappan civilization, in the Indus Valley (third millennium B.C.E.) indicate that leather stitching and embroidery were practiced there. Stitched garments entered the region with ancient migrations of people from Central Asia. The assumption made by some European scholars that Muslims introduced tailoring to South Asia is incorrect. Early literature preserves words for the needle (suchi), the thimble (pratigraha), scissors (sathaka), and even for the sewing-bag, showing that tailoring was practiced in ancient times.

Early Evidence

An early Harappan sculpture depicts a priest’s draped garment with an embroidered trefoil motif. Women are shown wearing elaborate headgear and a scanty wrap around the hips and pubic area, a form of dress used even today by some tribal people of Central India.

The early Vedas (ca. 1200 – 1000 B.C.E.) mention shining raiments, indicating the use of gold thread. The Mahabharata and Ramayana describe elaborate garments, but their form is unclear. Draped garments continued to dominate in post-Vedic times and had evolved into an elaborate costume with distinctive names. Antariya was the lower garment, while the upper was uttariya. The lower wrapper was held in place by an elaborate sash or a girdle of jewelry and the upper wrapper was draped with innumerable folds. Embroidered wrap skirts, pesas, were also used; they are similar to skirts worn in Gujarat. Another garment of post-Vedic times was a breast cloth, pratidi, tied or wrapped even today by the hill tribes of Bangladesh.

Later stone sculptures show a form of pleated lower wrap formed into a pantaloon created by passing the lower pleats through the legs and tucking them in at the back. There were variations of this technique, with descriptive names such as “elephant’s trunk” and “fish tail,” a style of wearing which continues to be used even today. Men and women used a wrapped head covering called usnisa, which was quite distinct from the later turban.

Cotton was most commonly used for textiles, along with other plant fibers and wool. Silk was indigenous to Assam. Silk cloth had connotations of purity, as was also true of wool in mountainous areas.

Historical Survey

South Asia’s first major empire flourished under Chandra Gupta Maurya (320 – 297 B.C.E.) and his grandson, Ashoka (274 – 237). They forged contacts with Central Asia, China, and the Greek world (which had expanded far into Asia under Alexander the Great). Chandra Gupta married a Greek princess and had Greek women bodyguards. The presence of Greek women at the Mauryan court possibly had significant consequences for the history of South Asian dress; the Greek women’s single-piece draped chiton, pleated as a skirt and draped over the shoulder, may have been an ancestor of the sari. A Greek ambassador named Megastenes gave a detailed description of gold-embroidered garments, printed muslin, and a life of great luxury. The elaborate drapings of Greco-Asian Gandhara sculpture of the northern area reflect the local costume, while stitched garments are depicted as being worn by soldiers, possibly of Central Asian origin.

The Satavahana Empire in south India (200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.) encouraged trade with the Roman Empire, Arabia, and Southeast Asia. Unstitched garments are shown in Satavahana sculptures, along with stitched garments such as a tunic with V-neck and sleeves. Soldiers wore sleeved tunics with tight trousers.

The Kushans, known to the Chinese as the Yueh-Chi, dominated Central Asia during the period from 130 B.C.E. to 185 C.E. They entered the Punjab, destroying the local rulers and consolidating their rule by defeating the Greeks and the Scythians (Sakas), who dominated Western India. The presence of Greeks, Kushans, and Sakas introduced varying cultural traditions. The monolithic statue of Kanishka at Mathura has a long coat worn over a tunic. The coat’s open front flaps turn outward exactly in the same way as Turkoman coats worn in the twenty-first century. Women wore jackets over their sarongs held together with decorative buttons, and tunics with sleeves and rounded necks, probably opening at the back. A dancer wore a tunic, pajama pants, a floating scarf, and a cap, similar to later Central Asian dance costumes and also to the costume worn by the women dancers of Kathak, a classical dance of North India.

Stitched garments became common during the Gupta period (fourth to eighth century C.E.), for the Gupta rulers controlled territories from Central Asia to Gujarat. The Gupta-era murals at Ajanta, however, show royalty wearing flowing garments while the attendant, entertainers, and soldiers wore stitched clothes. Women wear a range of blouses, known by names similar to choli, the word for blouse today. The backless blouse with an apron worn by the dancer in the murals is still worn by some nomadic peoples.

The Sanskrit and Prakrit lexicons of the seventh century C.E. contain a wide range of terms for clothing, many of which are closely related to words that are in use today. This lexical continuity shows that upper wraps, veils, jackets, tunics, and various other types of garments have continued in use from that time to the present.

The conquest of most of Central Asia and northwestern India by Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century played a major role in bringing Islam to South Asia. The Islamic influence exerted by the Ghaznavids and their successors had a notable effect on the clothing of South Asia. There was an extensive trade in textiles between India and the Middle East; records specifically mention fabrics for lining and edging, indicating a highly evolved style of stitched costumes. Mention is also made of costumes coming from Syria, Egypt, and Baghdad to be used by the Sultans and their court. Textiles were also produced locally under the patronage of Muslim rulers.

Robes decorated with woven or embroidered calligraphy were worn throughout the Islamic world. They originally were produced in textile workshops (Dar-al-Tiraz) set up by the Caliphate in Baghdad. They came up, however, throughout the Islamic world to serve the courts. Designs and techniques were exchanged from one area of the Islamic world to another and were incorporated into garments for royalty and robes of honor. The rulers of various sultanates of northern India set up their own royal textile workshops; one was described by the inveterate Arab traveler Ibn Batuta and thus the Indian courts began to follow the dictates of fashion set by the caliphate.

The consolidation of the Mogul Empire during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries led to changes in governance and court life through the country. Lesser rulers followed the dictates of the ruling Mogul emperor. Humayun, who experienced the sophisticated life of Shah Abbas’s court in Persia, evolved an urbane way of life. He returned with masters of many arts to set up royal ateliers in Agra and Lahore. He laid the foundation of the indigenous Mogul style, which Emperor Akbar (1556 – 1605) perfected. Abul Fazl, Akbar’s chronicler, records that the Akbar’s wardrobe contained dresses designed by the emperor himself to be suited to the Indian climate. He describes an unlined cotton coat in “the Indian form” tied on the left side, while Hindus tied theirs on the right. (The difference persists to this day.) He introduced the double shawl used by men, a style in keeping with the flowing garment of the Indian tradition. Foreign names for introduced garments were changed to indigenous or Sanskritized versions to enhance their acceptability.

Mogul miniature paintings demonstrate that fashions in clothing were dictated by the court. Men wore long coats over pantaloons, and turbans with jeweled plumes. In Akbar’s court chakdar jama, a long coat with pointed corners was fashionable, while Jehangir introduced a fitting Nadiri coat. In the early Mogul period, the dress of men and women was similar, but during Jehangir’s reign women’s fashions changed. Miniatures show layers of fine muslin garments floating over rich brocaded tunics with gossamer tissue veils. Indigenous textiles and skills inspired a range of costumes influenced by local fashions.

The Mogul Empire’s decline shifted patronage to regional courts and led to indigenous styles. A long, trailing coat was worn at the sophisticated court of Oudh. Women’s pajamas evolved into elaborate slit skirts called farshi payjama. Only Hindu women wore skirts.

The impact of European clothing on India was gradual. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many European men adopted Indian dress and married or lived with Indian women. The arrival of substantial numbers of European women in the mid- to late nineteenth century brought about a change of lifestyles. The formation of a colonial government and the evolution of a formal social life led to a more formal dress code. The Indian civil servants, soldiers, and students were expected to dress accordingly. The Indian elite adopted the Western mode of dress, while the middle class blended it with their own. The Bengali babu wore his dhoti with a shirt, a coat, and an umbrella. In southern India, men wore the coat and shirt over the sarong. Women began wearing blouses imitating the neckline, collars, and puffed sleeves of Western fashion. The tunics of North India also followed some of the European fashions.

General Regional Styles

Despite the fact that South Asia preferred the use of draped garments, regional variations occur throughout the area. These are influenced by geo-climatic conditions, and sociocultural environment.

North India and Pakistan

In North India and Pakistan, stitched costumes similar to those of Central Asia are prevalent. Men and women wear a tunic called a kamiz, together with salwar, loose pantaloons, narrow at the ankles and tied at the waist. (The salwar is cut quite differently from the pajama.) The versions of salwar kamiz worn by men and women are similar but have a different cut and styling. In addition to the tunic and pantaloons, women wear a veil, dupatta, which is a head covering, and can envelop the body. Pakistan’s women have adopted salwar kamiz as their national dress; for outdoors, many women wear a burqa over the salwar kamiz that covers them from head to toe.

In Greater Punjab (extending into both India and Pakistan), Sindh, and the North – West Frontier Province of Pakistan, people wear a longer style of tunic, called a kurta, as well as salwar. The embroidered tunic worn by women in Pakistan’s Sindh and Baluchistan areas is similar to the one worn by the Baluchi women of Afghanistan and Iran.

Refugees in Pakistan. In many South Asian countries, Muslim women wear saris inside the home, but are obliged to wear head-to-toe coverings called burqas outside the home.

Refugees in Pakistan. In many South Asian countries, Muslim women wear saris inside the home, but are obliged to wear head-to-toe coverings called burqas outside the home.

The Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh peasants wore a long wide sarong known as lacha made of cotton, worn long at the back and knotted in the front, with the ends tucked into the side. Affluent landlords wore a silk lacha with broad borders. Men wore turbans with a crestlike fan rising from behind and a long, flowing end falling down the wearer’s back. The Jats of East Punjab and Haryana in India wear a similar dress.

The men and women of Kashmir wear a long, loose tunic, pheran, with a salwar or a pajama; the Kashmir tunic is quite distinct from the kamiz. The women’s tunic has embroidery at the neck and is worn with a headscarf.

Ladakh

Sometimes known as lesser Tibet, the small Himalayan territory of Ladakh maintains Buddhist lamaistic traditions. Men wear a long, woolen coat with side fastenings, with a shirt and a sash. Everyone wears a tall hat with an upturned rim, richly embroidered for special occasions. Women wear a long velvet dress, with a sheepskin, lokp, suspended from the shoulders at the back like a short cape, which is replaced by a brocade or richly embroidered version for festive occasions. Women also wear an elaborate headdress, perak, covered with large pieces of turquoise, which curves over the head like a cobra hood and hangs down the back.

Indian Regional Costumes

In northwestern India, the women of Gujarat and Rajasthan wear a wrapped skirt, jimmi, or a wide skirt, ghagro, with a fitting backless blouse, and a veil. The blouse has many variations, as described in the ancient literature. In Saurashtra and Kutch, men of the Kathiawari ethnic group, descendants of the Huns, wear a pleated blouse (kedia), tight pajamas, a large shawl around their waist, and a turban, a costume similar to some peasant costumes in the Balkans. People in the Tharparkar and Sindh areas of Pakistan dress in a similar manner. Hindu women wear a skirt, a backless blouse, and veil, while Muslim tribal women wear a thigh-length backless blouse, an embroidered salwar, and a veil. In the urban areas of Gujarat, men wear a dhoti with a shirt, while women wear a fourteen-and-a-half-foot sari with a cross border worn in the front.

In central India and the western coastal area, Hindu and tribal men and women wear unstitched garments. Urban men wear stitched upper garments during winter or for special occasions. Women of different groups wear saris of 137 inches to 312 inches in length (3% meters to 8 meters in length). Tribal women wear shorter saris, while urban and more affluent women wear longer ones. They are wrapped so as to create unstitched pantaloons by taking the front pleats, passing them between the legs, and tucking them into the back. This style of sari wrapping is associated with women’s chastity. Women in south India (including Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) wear the sari in a variety of styles, depending on geo-climatic conditions and cultural traditions.

Women in Kerala, in southwesternmost India, wear sarongs instead of saris, while men wear a white double-layered sarong, with an upper-body cloth along with a shirt.

Muslim men and women throughout India wear stitched garments. The common dress for men is a kurta (long tunic) and pajama. The affluent wear an embroidered coat, angarkha, and embroidered cap. For official occasions they wear a fitting long coat, sherwani, and tight pajama. The turban varies according to their vocation, the occasion, and their age. Women wear a tight pajama, a fitted shirt (often with a jacket), and an embroidered veil. For outdoors many women wear the burqa. Among the affluent, farshi payjama, a trailing, wide divided skirt, is worn for special occasions. Among non-Muslims, such as Hindus and Jains, stitched garments have to be removed by men and women for religious ceremonies or for entering a temple.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, a large island lying at the southernmost tip of India, was an important maritime center from ancient times, linking the East with the West. The Greeks called it Taprobane, and the Arabs Serendib. Sri Lanka’s recorded history dates from the mid-first millennium B.C.E. Around 400 B.C.E. King Pandukabhaya began developing the arts and established close contacts with Buddhist India. Theravada Buddhism remains the dominant religion of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese people today. Early sculptures show close linkages with Indian tradition and the figures are seen wearing flowing draped garments.

Sri Lanka has absorbed a great deal of external influence during its history. Arab traders drawn to the spice and textile trade visited the island from late Roman times onward. Colombo and Galle had colonies of Arab traders, who introduced Islam to Sri Lanka. Portuguese traders settled in coastal areas in the early sixteenth century. The Portuguese settlements were taken over by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century; the British, who established a colonial regime in 1833, in turn, expelled the Dutch. European influence on Sri Lankan culture can be seen in dress, especially among the so-called Burghers, who are of mixed Dutch and Sinhalese ancestry. Early drawings show Burghers mingling traditional dress with European elements. Men wore over the sarong a long coat with puffed sleeves and a sash, as well as a hat. Women dressed in a sarong and upper cloth combined with European jackets. However, many people continued to wear clothing not affected by European influence.

The Sri Lankan population includes two major elements, the Sinhalese and, especially in the northeastern part of the island, the Tamils. The latter were migrants from southeastern India, many brought in by the British as plantation workers in the nineteenth century. The two communities have distinctive clothing traditions.

The traditional dress of the Sinhalese women is the sarong worn with a stitched blouse and a scarf over the shoulder. In some cases the sarong has a frill at the top. Some wear a blouse with lace inserts at the waist and the sleeves, with a silver belt. Men wear a sarong and a kamiz (tunic). The fact that two women heads of state have always worn the Sinhalese national dress has influenced even the Burghers to adopt the traditional costume. Tamil women wear the saris draped in the traditions of their community, while the men wear the veshti, a white sarong. Muslim men, who trace their roots to Arab settlers, wear a colorful sarong with a tunic and a cap. Muslim women traditionally wore local dress; however, in the early 2000s many have adopted Islamic dress, including wearing the headscarf.

A Sri Lankan Hindu in traditional attire. While some Sri Lankan attire has been influenced by Arab and Western styles, others have remained untouched by these outside elements.

A Sri Lankan Hindu in traditional attire. While some Sri Lankan attire has been influenced by Arab and Western styles, others have remained untouched by these outside elements.

Nepal

The Royal Kingdom of Nepal, a landlocked area with the highest mountains of the world, extends from the Gangetic plains to the Himalayas. The country’s climate ranges from alpine cold, to hot and arid, to hot and humid. The country has many different ethnic groups, but they fall into two main divisions. In the mountains are found peoples of Tibetan origin, while people of Indo-Aryan origin live mostly at lower elevations.

Early references to clothing in ancient texts indicate that the various peoples of Nepal had diverse clothing traditions from ancient times and that some of those traditions persist to the present day. The earliest reference to Nepalese textiles is in Kautalya’s Arthashastra (250 B.C.E.). It refers to black blankets stitched together from eight pieces. These continue to be used as a wrap by the people. Historic dress styles can be studied from sculptures, murals, and book illustrations. Draped and wrapped garments dominate, along with stitched jackets. In the early fifteenth century, the ruler classified the dress of sixty-five sub-castes; for instance, some were prohibited from wearing coats, caps, and shoes and others from having sleeves on their jackets.

Newari women of the central valleys and the lower mountain ranges wear a pleated wraparound skirt held together by a heavy shawl at the waist, while the men wear a long shirt, nivasa, pleated up to the waist and reaching to the ankles, which is worn with a waist cloth. A jacket and a topi, conical cap, completes the outfit. Gurkha men wear ordinary trousers with a blouse reaching below the hips and fastened by a heavy cummerbund with the kukri traditional dagger stuck into it.

The Kirant, one of the larger ethnic groups, wear an interesting blouse called choubandi, which means “four knots.” The blouse crosses over, tying at the armpit and at the waist. Women wear it waist-length, while the men’s comes to the hip. Women also wear a wraparound skirt with a sash. The Tharus of Terrai wore wrapped skirts made from multicolored panels and appliqué blouses.

Ethnic groups of Tibetan heritage, such as the Sherpas and Dolpos, generally wear clothing similar to that of Tibet. These include, for women, a silk blouse and a wrapped skirt, worn with a narrow apron of brightly colored stripes, stitched together from three pieces. Men wore woolen coats and trousers or left their legs bare. The Dolpo’s woolen coat, chuba, came with multiple panels and had a distinctive style. Both groups use long sheepskin or goatskin fleece coats to ward off the high mountain cold.

The distinctive characteristic of Nepali dress was the more affluent the wearer the greater the length of cloth. Royal women used 80 to 90 yards of material for their gathered skirts. These thick and heavy skirts were worn with a thick sash to protect against back strain.

Bhutan

The Royal Kingdom of Bhutan is east of Nepal, between northeastern India and Tibet. The country is mostly mountainous. The majority of inhabitants, of Tibetan culture and ethnicity, live in the principal valleys among the high mountains. A hot and humid lowland area on the southern fringe of the country is home to many Nepalese immigrants. Finely woven woolen textiles are produced in the highlands, while cotton and silk is produced and woven in the lowlands.

Traditional dress is mandatory in Bhutan. Men wear Tibetan-style tunics, gho, with a belt; the style is, however, quite distinct. It is raised and tied at the waist with the legs left bare for greater mobility. Rich woven patterns give the tunic a distinctive character. Ceremonial scarves are essential for all rituals and ceremonies and the color denotes the status of the wearer. Even their raincoats woven out of yak wool and dyed with vegetable dyes, char-khab, are beautifully patterned.

Many men are monks and wear Tibetan Buddhiststyle burgundy or orange woolen wrapped robes stitched together from separate pieces of cloth. Women wear a wraparound dress of wool or silk, kiru, with a sash. Silver brooches with a pin, koma, hold the wrapped dress in place. Over this they wear a jacket, toego, which gives the dress a very elegant style. A shoulder shawl, rachu, is essential for entry to the Dzong or in the presence of royalty or high officials. The finest kiru, known as kushutharas, is a highly elaborate weave and is worn mostly by royalty.

Bangladesh

The Vanga or Banga Kingdom is mentioned in early Sanskrit literature (1000 B.C.E.) and it was known as one of the earliest Indian kingdoms to embrace Buddhism. Bengal has a strong, local cultural tradition and has long had contact with Southeast Asia and with the West, via Arab traders. Portugal was the first European state to have direct contact with Bengal. The region is ethnically diverse, with a Bengali-speaking majority in the broad river valleys and lowlands, and with hill tribes, especially in the east, that have connections with the peoples of Myanmar (Burma).

In 1576 C.E. the Moguls conquered Bengal, incorporating it into the Mogul Empire. The British East India Company established a trading settlement in 1651. Bengal was assimilated into the British Empire, and Calcutta became the seat of the empire, as well as the hub of the trade. The partition of India in 1947 saw East Bengal, which had a Muslim majority, become East Pakistan, while West Bengal, with a Hindu majority, remained part of India. In December 1971 East Pakistan became the sovereign state of Bangladesh.

Bengal was known from early times for its gossamer Dacca muslin, which was in demand throughout the world. Women spun cotton thread to the fineness of 400 count. The Roman senate bemoaned emptying their coffers to pay for this fine muslin. Caesar complained that his wife appeared naked in public and she responded that she wore seven layers of the Indian cloth.

Young Bengali women. Women of the Bengal region typically wear draped cotton saris over blouses (cholis), and those who practice the Hindu religion drape the end of the sari over the head to form a veil.

Young Bengali women. Women of the Bengal region typically wear draped cotton saris over blouses (cholis), and those who practice the Hindu religion drape the end of the sari over the head to form a veil.

The women of both West Bengal and Bangladesh wear cotton saris in the typical Bangla style of fold upon fold. Hindu women use the long end of the sari as a kind of veil by draping it over their head; Muslim women wear the sari at home in the same manner but cover it with a burqa outside the house. Muslim peasant men wear a colorful lungi (sarong), with short vest. Hindu men wear a dhoti (unstitched pantaloon), a vest, and a shoulder cloth. Urban Muslim men wear loose pajamas with a tunic known as a Punjabi. For formal occasions the men wear fitting, long coats, sherwani, with tight pajamas, while Hindus wear cotton or silk dhotis with Punjabi and a shawl. Tribal women wear sarongs and breast cloths with intricate patterns, woven on backstrap looms. Among some tribal women, the intricately woven sarong was formerly worn from the breast to the calf. The custom of wearing blouses with the sarong or sari was introduced much later. The younger generation has taken to wearing the salwar kamiz.

Conclusion

South Asia has the distinctive characteristic that women have maintained their traditional way of dress. The elite younger generation does wear Western dress and the universal jeans, but for special occasions and as they settle into domesticity, they wear their local dress. However, the different styles of wearing the sari in different regions dictated by the geo-climatic conditions and local culture is now disappearing. The eighteen-foot sari with the cross border thrown across the left shoulder has come to dominate throughout India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka; upper-class women of Nepal also wear the sari.

The freedom struggle and search for identity had led to the use of khadi, handspun handwoven cotton, and the Gandhi topi (cap), which became associated with the freedom struggle. After independence and the need for creating a national identity led to the introduction of the Jawahar jacket, a sleeveless fitting jacket worn with Indian clothes made fashionable by the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as the Jodhpur coat, a close necked full-sleeved short coat worn with trousers as semiformal dress and the sherwani or achkan, a long coat worn with tight churidar pajama and formal dress.

Pakistan guards its separate identity and the women wear the salwar kamiz, which has also spread to Bangladesh and southern India. Women’s magazines and Bollywood films have had an important influence in making the women innovative in enriching their costume. This began even before the advent of India’s National Institute of Fashion Technology in the 1980s and the proliferation of boutique culture in the hands of young fashion designers, who are setting new trends in South Asian styles of dress.

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