The History of Indian Clothing

Written by cece evans
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The History of Indian Clothing
Indian women in saris (femmes en saris image by harmonie57 from Fotolia.com)

Indian clothing throughout history varies widely by region, culture, religion and climate. Saris and the salwar kameez--a unisex outfit consisting of loose trousers and a tunic--are traditional attire for Indian women. Indian men traditionally wear the lungi, dhoti or kurta. While European styles frequently appear in large Indian cities like Mumbai, many Indians hold to traditional clothes.

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History and Politics

Traditional Indian attire took on political significance during India's struggle for independence from British rule during the first half of the 20th century. Mohandas Gandhi famously wore the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl. The dhoti is rectangular strip of cloth about 7 yards long. Men wear the dhoti wrapped and knotted around their legs and waists.

Gandhi hand spun the yarn for the fabrics he wore. In India, Gandhi's choice of attire became politically meaningful because it spoke to the movement to reject British goods and support Indian products and traditions.

Sari

The sari, sometimes spelt "sari," is a long strip of unstitched cloth that women drape over the body in several different ways. In the late 20th century, the most common way to wear the sari is to wrap it around the waist and drape it over the shoulder. Women wear the sari over a petticoat and a fitted short-sleeved blouse called a "choli" or "ravika."

The Sari in History

Historians trace mentions of the draped fabric clothing as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization (2800 to 1800 B.C.), where archaeologists uncovered a statue of a priest wearing a wrapped cloth. Though without precise dates, most historians agree that saris developed simultaneously in North and South India, and that women have worn the sari in its current form for hundreds of years.

In the late 19th and 20th century the sari became a symbol of the Indian nation. Several famous artists like Ravi Varma and Abanindranath Tagore made paintings featuring several women dressed in the regional variations of the sari to symbolise the diversity and unity of the Indian people.

Dhoti

The Indian western states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra have a large number of men who continue to wear the dhoti. There are many regional variations in how men wear the dhoti across India. In Gujarat, for example, men wear the dhoti with a short kurta on top, called a "kediya" (a kurta is a loose tunic buttoned halfway down the front).

The dhoti is also subject to several rules of etiquette. In the southern part of India, men sometimes pull up the dhoti and fold the top around the waist--the dhoti then ends slightly under the knees. However, many believe that talking to women with the dhoti worn in this shorter manner is indecent and disrespectful.

The Dhoti in History

Like the sari, Indian have worn the dhoti and styles similar to the dhoti for several centuries. Several dhoti styles appear in the Amaravati sculptures made during the Satavahana dynasty of south India (2nd to 3rd century B.C.). Many of the dhotis carved in the Amaravati sculptures also have kamarbands, a wide wrapped waistband whose name is the source of the Western cummerbund.

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