charming folktale explains…

“The Sari, it is said, was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver. He dreamt of a woman, the shimmer of her tears, the drape of her tumbling hair, the colors of her many moods and the softness of her touch. All these he wove together. He couldn’t stop. He wove for many yards. And when he was done, the story goes, he sat back and smiled and smiled and smiled.”

“The deep involvement and complete sense of identity of the indian woman with the sari, has made her resist the pressure to change her style of dress, inadvertently providing continuity in weaving traditions of every part of the country. The sari represents a culture in which the woman and textured-with pattern-garment; unpierced or intruded upon by the stitching needle; was considered not only more appropriate in terms of aesthetics and climate, but was also an act of greater purity and  simplicity…”

Hinduism fostered the growth and development of the sari because of its preference for unstitched clothes for both religious and social reasons. Although knowledge of sewn garments has existed since prehistoric times, these were mostly reserved for warriors and kings, and never achieved the popularity of drapes. Therefore, the Indian culture developed the art of wrapping a piece of cloth around the body to a degree that far surpassed that of any other people.

The sari is known by different names according to the language of an specific Indian region: seere, pudava, lugda, dhoti, etc. There are more than one hundred drape and wearing styles therefore sari is the most unique and versatile of garments.

In deference to British and foreign presence in the country, the sari evolved from one single – piece to  two pieces. The urban wearing style is a post -1870‘ s phenomenon and is described as follows in Chitra Debi’s book  “Thakur Barir Onder Mohal”:

Gyanoda Nandini

“It is said that Satyendranath (elder brother of Rabindranath) Tagore’s wife, Gyanodanandini, went with her civil servant husband to Bombay around the 1870s and adopted the Parsi way of wearing the sari, as at that time the local Bengali way was not considered elegant enough for outdoor wear. On her return to Calcutta we find that this style, now known in the Thakur Barir as the Bombay Dastur, was adopted by all the ladies of the Barir and other society ladies, referred to it as the “Thakur Barir Sari”. In fact when Gyanoda advertised her willingness to teach this style of wearing the sari – with a saya or petticoat, chemise

Gyanoda Family

blouse and jacket – it attracted a number of women. It seems to have been a time when a number of ladies were experimenting with supposedly more sophisticated ways of wearing the sari. The sari went through various stages of resembling the hobble skirt and the gown.  At one stage, the pallav (end piece) was made so short that it could not cover the head and thus, a mukut (crown/tiara) was worn with a flowing backcloth. Suniti Devi, the Maharani of Cooch Behar, preferred to have a scarf over the head, worn like a spanish mantilla. Eventually, the traditional way seemed to make a comeback with some alterations in the early twentieth century, for the pallav was brought back over the head by Gyanoda’s daughter, Indira

Suniti Devi

Devi. We find that Suniti Devi’s sister Sucharu Devi, Maharani of Mayubhanj, was seen at the Delhi Darbar in 1903 in this modern style of wearing the sari, though she said that this was her in-laws’ ways of wearing it. Bengali ladies seem to have adopted this more convenient way, though they kept Gyanoda’s way of taking the pallav over the left shoulder”

The evolution of fashion in India have been triggered by various socioeconomic movements during the twentieth century.

“During the ’20s, one of the greatest influences on dress code was the movement towards equal status for women. Hence, a new breed of business-like women emerged and made corresponding demands on their dress, says A.K.G Nair, Director, Pearl Academy of Fashion. “The obvious choice for silhouette veered towards dropwaist or box and the choice of colour was black and grey and the fabrics preferred were silk and georgettes” he says.

1960's Poster

In India, the fashion scenario was in confusion as it was a turbulent period of conflicting ideologies, when the consciousness of an Indian national identity was beginning to find political expression and the struggle for Indian independence was getting momentum…” says fashion designer Ritu Kumar. Thus the fashion trends within high society, read the loyalty, was strongly influenced by the British with the result that western clothes became a status symbol.
The ’30s heralded the idea of socialism,communism and fascism and women’s fashion became more and more

1970's Poster

feminine in keeping with conservative ideas. “However this period also saw the emergence of the vamp and the culture of cabaret ” says Nair, noting that hence the dresses became more body hugging and the colours deep and dark in tune with such themes.
The establishment of the Indian cinema also proved to be the strongest influence on the fashion in the decade. Due to the western influence, the use of angarkhas, choghas and jamas diminished considerably by this time, although the ceremonial pagri, safa and topi were widespread as ever. “They had been replaced by the chapkan, achkan and sherwani, which are still standard items of formal dress for Indian men today ” says Kumar.

“The women even though were accepting change, continued to wear their peshwaz, kurtas, ghaghras and dohnis at religious and ceremonial festivities, sometimes using imported fabrics but using mostly traditional handwoven fabrics” says Asha Baxi, Director Fashion Design. National Institute of Fashion Technology(NIFT).
In the ’40s,it was Christian Dior who turned fashion upside down with a new shape, with the bosom pushed up and out, a pinched waist and hips emphasised with short fluted jackets. “It was also a decade marked by the second World War and the ensuing independence of India with the result that women’s clothing was simple and functional ” says Nair.

The ’50s saw the dawn of art colleges and schools, which became places of rebels, and hence in silhouette, narrow waist and balloon skirts with bouncing patterns were in vogue. Also due to the freedom struggle and the espousal of khadi by Gandhiji, khadi garments became a rage giving a boost to the sagging handloom industry, according to Asha Baxi.

The ’60s one of the most shock-filled decades of the century, saw sweeping fashion and lifestyle changes that reflected the mercurial passions of the times. “This decade was full of defiance and celebration in arts and music and cinema, marked by a liberation from constraints and new types of materials such as plastic film and coated polyester fabric got popular” says Nair. Besides, adds Bax  “Tight kurtas and churidars and high coiffers competed with the mini-skirts abroad and at the same time, designers understood the need of the moment to launch cheaper, ready-to-wear lines”

“One of the most “revisited” and “retro” periods in the fashion, the ’70s is often called the ‘me decade’. “It saw the beginning of “anything goes” culture with the result that fashion became another form of self-expression and bold colours with flower prints were adapted in tunics, with shirts and bell-bottoms” says designer Manav Gangwani. As drug culture became a mass phenomenon, psychedelic colours were garish, the shoes were tall and hazardous and silhouettes were extreme and the dressing of the ’50s was definitely out.

“The 70s also saw the export of traditional material with the result that export surplus was sold within the country itself and hence, international fashion came to India much before the MTV culture,” says Baxi. Synthetics became popular and the disco culture had a profound influence on fashion and the clothes became as flashy as the mirrored ball that spins over the dancers.

In the ’80s the big money ruled. It was the era of self consciousness and American designers like Calvin Klein became household names. In India too,silhouettes became more masculine and the salwar kameez was made with shoulder pads” says Baxi, “Power dressing and corporate look became dominant dress code. “The influence of cable TV became more prominent and the teenage market boomed with youngsters going in for the trendy look, which in turn influenced the elders”.

The ’90s the last decade of the millenium, was one of the extremes. The excess of the early decade gave way to the drastic pairing down and stripping away in the hands of German designers like Helmut Lang and Jil Sander. “Perhaps the biggest fashion news of the ’90s has been the ascendancy of the younger generation of designers into the mainstream. The decade also looked for independent women with comforts, poise and confidence as key features,” says Nair.

But the decade also saw the revival of ethnicity with films too becoming more discreet and launching a “back to ethnic” look.While on the one hand the new drive for information technology popularized the corporate look, an ethno-cultural revival made people again go back to the traditional forms of art and crafts” states Baxi “As it is Indian fashion is extremely alive and whatever the decade or the century, it is here to stay. For not only it is comfortable, practical and aesthetically beautiful but has changed with time with the result that it has, in the past century, and will in the coming one, remain contemporary” she sums up.
Although sari is a fast disappearing garment for everyday wear, it will survive as special occasion wear. More and more Indian women today prefer stitched garments and Western wear of easy – to – maintain and wash – and – wear fabrics.  And yet there was a time when ladies rode horses wearing saris and even swan in rivers with their saris tucked between the legs, much like an unstitched pair of shorts. Saris were even draped longer in pantaloon – like fashion. If the principles of these wearing styles were put into practice, many more could possibly be evolved for contemporary needs. Interestingly, the sari is asserting a growing presence in the boardrooms of multinational corporate organizations, in law chambers, courts and among the new power professionals who are conscious of their identity and draw strength from it.


“Saris of India. Tradition and beyond” por Rta Kapur Chishti.

“The Sari: Styles, Patterns, History, Technique”. Linda Lynton

“Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India”. Emma Tarlo

“The Sari”. Mukulika Banerjee. Daniel Miller


Lorena Mena

Related posts:

Fashion in India: Shalwar Kameez and Kurti (Part I)

ne of the most remarkable features of Indian apparel is the ingenious way in which a simple length of unstitched cloth is used. Gracefully drapped as a sari, or wrapped around the head as a turban, the length of fabric is versatile and is worn by men and women. Today, despite the growing influence of contemporary Western fashion trends, most Indians continue to dress traditionally. Stitched garments include the kurta (for men), kurti (for women), pyjama, sherwani, lehenga choli and of course, the trouser, shirt and ubiquitous blue jeans. The sari, particularly, is still worn all over India, even though the style of draping it differs from region to region.


Shalwar Kameez

The court nobles of Ottoman and Qajar dinasty upheld Shalwar Kameez as their court costume, hence, this royal background made it reach the heights of fame. It was imported to India by the Muslim invasion that set off in the 12th century. The Turko-Iranian regime of the Delhi Sultanate and later the Moghul Empire in India sustained the tradition of dressing in Shalwar Kameez. The rest of the story is the rising of this garment to popularity.

It has received the greatest embrace from North India, especially the region of Punjab, and sometimes it’s called “Punjabi Suit”. This is the national dress for both men and women in Pakistan and Afganistan.

Sometimes shalwar is pronounced salwar but basically both are referring to same outfit. The word “salwar” or “shalwar” comes from the Persian that means pants and the word “kameez”  comes from the Latin “camisia” from which it probably made its way into various European languages (chemise) and into the Arabic as “quamiz”.

The shalwar or salwar is a sort of loose pyjama like trouser. Traditionally it is wide from top. It has 4 to 5 inches belt attached to rest part of the shalwar which is pleated. Upper part of the belt has tunnel for drawstring. Normally the traditional shalwar size from top at waist is almost double as the actual size to make it comfortable to wear. It has big room at the thigh area and almost double bottom size  as the circumference of the ankle so as to make proper space for the feet to put inside for wearing.

The kameez traditionally is long up to knee with wide circumference (gher) and with full sleeves. It is almost fully covered  from the back as back neck line depth like 2-3” and medium low at the front like 6-7” inches as front neck line depth.

The dupatta (scarf or shawl) is the third piece of the Shalwar Kameez set. It is usually worn around head or neck.

For Muslim women, the dupatta is a less stringent alternative to Chador or Burqa.

For Hindu women (especially those from Northern India), the dupatta is useful when the head must be covered as in temples or the presence of elders. For other women, the dupatta is simply a stylish accessory that can be worn over one shoulder or draped around the chest and over both shoulders.

Shalwar kameez are made of  lot of materials as plain cotton, rich silk, tussar, crepe, georgette, shiffon and other types of fabric available. The several designs include sequin embroidery or semi precious stones embroidery; mirror work, artwork, cut-work or simple prints, hand paintings, etc

The style of Indian Shalwar Kameez varies as:

  • Traditional shalwar kameez
  • Churidar shalwar kameez
  • Patiala shalwar kameez
  • Anarkali shalwar kameez

The Traditional style is the baggy style pants and a full sleeve tunic but nowadays the contemporary outfit follows the trends set by the fashion industry. The Bollywood film industry is a great trendsetter. The shalwar kameez that Bollywood actresses wear in movies are lapped up by their fans. Soon, a particular outfit design made popular by a movie actress will be seen on the display windows of showrooms.

Churidar style is quite popular amongst the Indian community. The bottom part of the garment has a different design as compared to the traditional style.It is sleek in look and has leg shape fitting with less amount of thigh and upper space. At bottom it has small hole with hooks or thread to close the bottom at the ankle. It is longer than traditional shalwar for spiral shape look at the bottom. Churidar has different designs as per the market trend and requirements.

Patiala style is similar to traditional style except that Patiala shalwar has more pleats and big fall comes on wearing at back. This design has a special historical background. There is a story behind the name. Patiala is a place in Punjab at North India. In ancient times, Maharaja (King) of Patiala was very famous. His dress was a pleated and baggy type shalwar with long loose kameez with full sleeves. He used to wear this dress as a king and for comfort also. In the new modern era, the women community copied his dress and named Patiala.

Anarkali style is a long kurti with short, full and half sleeves, but tight at arms, fit and tight above the waist and below the butts like an umbrella. It is sometimes called Anarkali Umbrella Kameez. Anarkali means pomegranate blossom and she was a legendary slave girl from Lahore (Pakistan) during the Mughal period. Her name was Raj Nartika and she  was a dancer at palace of Great Mughal emperor Akbar. She was supposedly ordered to be buried alive by Mughal emperor Akbar for having an illicit relationship with Prince Nuruddin Salim later to become Emperor Jahangir. Due to the lack of evidence and sources, the story of Anarkali is widely accepted to be either false or heavily embellished. Nevertheless, her story is cherished by many and has been adapted into literature, art and cinema.

The dance called mujra or mujara was famous that time. Famous dancers at palace of Mughal kings dance for entertainment of Mughal kings. So, the dresses were worn by the dancers while mujra dance called as mujra / mujara dresses. Later they got famous by name Anarkali dresses or Anarkali shalwar kameez in the remembrance of a great dancer and a passionate lover Anarkali.

Latest designs of  Anarkali dresses are popular and in fashion trends wearing with different prints, materials, embroidery work, different designer sleeves and stylish necks.

Shalwar kameez also appears as a part of men wardrobe.

Different companies in India offer ready made shalwar kameez or unstitched  material which can be sew as per given measurements. It is a sort of pre designed kit of three pieces, tunic, pants and dupatta.



The kurti is a tunic and it is related to Roman civilization. It was a common clothing wear under toga (like a long sari) by male community. In ancient times, tunic used to indicate the wearer’s status in Roman society by the presence of stripes and ornamentation work on it.

In Western culture it was mainly used as religious uniform but from last few years when Indian kameez or Kurtis (for ladies) got popularity in Western society it became part of the global wardrobe. It is usually worn with parallel pants or jeans. These are available in different fabrics e.g. silk, cotton, chiffon, crepe, etc and different type of work e. g. sequin, beaded, embroidery,  etc



Times of India


Lorena Mena






aised on a Western society  probably one of the most shocking thing you notice about India are the arranged marriages.

After 3 years blogging about this country I’ve got emails from foreign ladies asking about the amount of dowry they have to pay to get a “good indian boy”. Dowry was banned in India after the passage of the Prohibition of Dowry Act in 1961, but many people still practice the system of dowry.

Few Westeners realize the importance of the family in Asian cultures. Likewise, few Westeners are aware that many Asians are horrified by the lack of family feelings and loyalty shown in Western nuclear families in comparison to the support and security of the traditional Asian extended family. The term “extended family” does not necessarily means relatives living under the same roof or owning communal property. It refers to kin: “who are bound by mutual rights and obligations subscribe, at least nominally, to a hierarchy of authority among its members”

Needles to say, the males of the family have greater authority over the females within the same age categories, although older females do have the power over younger males. As most people are expected to marry, a girl in this community is under some authority all her life, first as a daughter, then as a wife. Only when she herself becomes a mother in law, does she see her own authority increased, especially if the newly wedded couple live under her roof.

Indian children are not brought up to consider themselves individuals, entitled to take their own decisions, but, rather, as members of a group, which reach decisions all together. Relationships are not on a one – to – one basis as in many Western cultures, but rather between family units. Every Asian knows s/he is part of a “biradari”, an extended kinship group or clan. They know that they are never alone, they are confident in having the support of a larger number of people behind them. On the other hand, they only have the advantages of this network of support provided that they keep the rules. The rules stipulate that its members must not disgrace it and must comply with the decisions taken by the elders. Marriages among Indians are not seen as a contract between two individuals, as they usually are in the West, but as an union of two families. The suitability of the prospective husband or wife as regards his/her character, caste or income has far more importance then whether the couple actually like each other. Indians would say that love comes after marriage. A similar background is essential, whereas physical attraction may not last.

Indian tradition says that parents have more experience than children and are therefore more likely to choose the right person. Children accept this because “Obedience is a extremely important foundation of Indian family relationships and agreement is frequently reached on the basis of acceptance of the parent’s authority”

Moreover, the whole family must be considered suitable, not just the young man or woman, which explains why parental knowledge of life has more weight than a biased adolescent view of a girl or boy-friend. It is argued that arranged marriages are more successful than love marriages because there are more divorces in love matches. Asian parents who wield statistics to prove this point fail to take into account the lack of figures for failed arranged marriages. According to tradition, a love marriage means that you are putting yourself first before your culture, your community and even your parents. If anything went wrong and the union ended in divorce, the parents would disgraced and the divorced partners would be rejected by the community at large. If an arranged marriage fails, the whole family unites behind the husband or wife and thus, as it were, shoulders the blame.

It must be said, nevertheless, that arranged marriage is the tyrannical system it is made out to be by the media. The publicity it receives is always in terms of girls being forced and parents being cruel. In reality, it is much less traumatic, much more “semi-arranged”.

Nowadays there seems to exist a liberal version of the arranged marriage. The parents look for a suitable match through a network of relatives and friends. When they are satisfied with the boys’s background, financial standing and education and the girl’s character, family background and ability to manage a home, sometimes photographs are exchanged. If the couple feel attracted to each other, a chaperoned meeting is arranged. If this encounter does not dampen the initial interest, the marriage can be said to be on. Should the couple not feel suited, another round of enquiries ensues. The final decision rests with the boy and the girl not with the parents, as used to be the case. It is doubtful whether this means a kind of progress towards liberation as, underneath it all, the system is surely the same. Girls are not allowed to object to the principles of it and certainly cannot go on refusing for ever. An important reason why parents are loath to leave this decision entirely in their daughter’s hands is their fear of her choosing someone outside her religion or caste, but not so much because of divine disapproval but rather because of the reproof of society. Indian society is an extremely conservative one and stepping out of one’s place is deeply frowned upon.

Indian boys are, perhaps surprisingly, compliant as far as arranged marriages are concerned. Only a minority refuse to conform. Among Hindus and Sikhs a new wife brings a large dowry with her, which nowadays is usually the payment of a mortgage, so it is easy to see why it would be against their interests to rebel against apparent parental tyranny when they are assured a rent-free future. From a privileged male standpoint, arranged marriages can be seen to have numerous advantages.

The institution of arranged marriage is alive and well among Asians communities nowadays.

Sometimes there is a kind of contradiction in attitudes for Asian parents who are often pleased and proud that their daughters are educated and can occupy positions when they get a good job, but in many cases they are afraid that the price they will have to pay for having another family member with a respectable income is too high should the girl become too “westernized”.

In Indian or Pakistani villages, if marriages were not arranged by the family, it stands to reasons that many women remain single.

Arranged marriages have been put on a par with computer dating, which of course is not disapproved of in the West.

The Western emphasis placed upon individual choice may seem to suggest that only marriages chosen by the couples themselves can bring happiness, but the Eastern belief in family wisdom creates a confidence and trust in arranged marriages. The careful matching of backgrounds and associated customs and values is a key quality of arranged marriages which remains relevant even as relations between the sexes change.

Considered in this way, it stands to reason that marriage seen as a watertight, carefully prepared, permanent contract as opposed to the risky, often short-lived gamble which it is in most Western cultures, is more likely to prove lasting and successful in the former case. It can not be ignored, however, that even in so-called “free choices” marriages, partners are frequently selected from similar personal, social and cultural backgrounds.

It is even more difficult to understand how young Asians, educated in Western cultures, can still identify with their Asianness after contact with what the Westerners see as a superior or more advanced culture. Conflicts between parents and teenage children exist among all cultures, but when such problems arise in Asian families, it is often assumed thats the parents are being excessively authoritarian and the adolescents are desperately trying to shake off their Assian “yoke”.

Leaving home may be a satisfactory solution for many teenagers in Western cultures when the home atmosphere becomes too tense, but among Asians the feeling of loyalty and obligation to the family makes taking such a step virtually impossible for the majority.

There is a  cliché that children of Asian migrants are “torn between cultures”. On the contrary, the second generation, and certainly the third generation to a much larger extent, have access, as it were, to two cultural resources, which they can use in  a flexible and accomplished way, depending on the situation. Thus, they can move confidently in both the Asian and Western worlds, although most scholars would claim that “their roots lie in the resourses of Asian cultures”

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