Vasudha Srinivasan | August 06, 2014
Bring up the word Indian in a conversation and the first thing that comes after Bollywood and Aishwarya Rai is India’s most famous traditional Indian women clothing, the saree (also spelt sari by some). Oprah’s worn it, Palash Ghosh has asked the rest of the world to stop wearing it and well, every Indian woman knows never to travel anywhere without it.
I cannot count the number of times I have had to entertain requests for this traditional Indian wear during Racial Harmony Day in Singapore. However, often overlooked in that well deserved glitz and glamour of the saree, are a few other staples of Indian clothing. We over at Little India Directory were having none of that however – hence, this short guide to the most common traditional Indian women clothing.
Worn all over India
As much as the saree may be stealing the airtime , it is very much well deserved.
Consisting of a single piece of unstitched fabric of either 6 or 9 yards in length, the saree is wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder with the excess cloth neatly pleated and tucked away. It is commonly worn with a form fitting cropped top (referred to as the ‘blouse’ or choli) and an underskirt.
Now, you may just be asking “Come on, how versatile can a piece of cloth actually be?” The short answer is: very.
Sarees most commonly differ in the way they are tied and the fabric that is used as its material. Depending on how the saree is tied and draped, it is actually possible to identify the region and subculture of the wearer. The fabric, in addition, can also indicate the occasion as well as the social and financial status of the wearer. Sarees which have a “jari” border (generally referring to border embroidery in gold and silver thread, though they can also contain embossed designs in gold and silver) usually come from South India while it is more common to see sarees from North India shot through with gemstones and sequins.
My mother, for example, wears simple cotton or crepe sarees around the home or for quick trips to the neighbourhood market. On the other hand, she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one of those to a festive occasion and reserves her stunning silk saris for such moments.
Adding to the sari’s versatility, are the blouses that accompany it. While it used to be enough that it matched the saree in hue, recent years have shifted the trend with blouses having such unique and elaborate designs, it seems sarees accompany them instead! Sleeves, collars, the back and the neck are the usual areas where tailors and designers can show off their skill. To top it off, elaborate handiwork such as lace patterns, stone and mirror work can often set each piece apart.
Both the tying and wearing of saree is unquestionably an art and I myself have only recently “graduated” to tying the saree on my own. What I have discovered is that it is fairly simple to get the hang of tying one (Of course, it also helps to have some well-placed safety pins hidden between the folds!). For years, I avoided the saree, thinking that its elegance was too high a price for what seemed like an evening of discomfort and unwieldiness. However, the elegance is that simple to achieve because the saree is tied in a manner that makes moving around in it ridiculously easy and comfortable.
Really, it is a fabric that contains elegance, allure and comfort in its folds.
Commonly worn in South India though there is a variation known as Mekhala-chador in Assam.
The younger cousin of the sari, the davani is also known as the half saree. Unlike its older cousin, the davani is a 3 piece affair composing of a skirt, a blouse and a fabric piece to be draped over the shoulder. The overall effect is that of a saree but davanis tend to have looser tops as they are usually intended as every day wear for teenage girls. In fact, many Indian schools used to have them as their uniforms . Traditionally, the davani would be considered the “mid-point” in South Indian female clothing as it meant to be a transition from the “padavdai sattai” (skirt and long blouse) worn by young girls to the saree. While the traditional look of davani was stark in its plainness (all the 3 pieces were solid colours, differing only in hues), they are making a comeback with elaborate designs similar to sarees and are not limited as young women clothing anymore.
Commonly worn in North India.
Shorten the length of the unstitched fabric in the davani and switch the blouse for a choli and voila!, you’ve got the ghagra choli, (the literal meaning being skirt and blouse). The unstitched fabric here is known as the duppata which is fashioned like a large shawl.
The ghagra, or lehenga as it is usually known was traditionally made from cotton, though modern fabrics such as polycotton and nylon feature in their make now. Traditionally, the ghagra has elaborate handiwork which can range anywhere from embroidery to mirrorwork, depending on the region’s specialty craft. It is usually stitched with pleats with a hidden drawstring to secure it at the waist. The pleating ensures that the ghagra it flares out beautifully with any movement, usually, seen to maximum effect when the wearer spins or dances. (Madhuri Dixit in Devdas anyone?)
The ‘choli’, being the top half, usually ends right before the waist or even higher, baring the midriff and the lower back. While similar to saree blouses in structure, their designs tend to mirror the elaborateness of the ghagra. The dupatta , on the other hand, can be wrapped in a variety of ways, pinned to the choli to hang loosely from the left shoulder or draped over the head, reminiscent of the Moghul influence. Often, this is the favoured bridal wear for North Indian weddings and the style of wearing the dupatta draped over the bride’s head is preferred, signifying modesty and shyness (a tradition no bride is unhappy about as it has helped facilitate quick naps during the wedding ceremony!)
Originated in North India but now worn all over India. Also worn in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Keep the dupatta, switch the skirt for some pants and the blouse for a long kurta and your ghagra choli has transformed itself to one of the most comfortable and fashionable Indian attires around.
Making pants in vogue long before it became the vogue, the salwar kameez is composed of loose trousers that narrow at the ankle (the ‘salwar’) and a long tunic with side slits (the ‘kameez’). A variant on the salwar, the churidaar, tapers from the knee, to hug the calves and ankles for a more form-fitting look. Another known as Pattiala, named after the region it hails from, is the opposite as it requires double the length of material with folds of cloth stitched together in pleats, creating a much roomier version of the salwar.
Designed for comfort, the salwar kameez has become popular with Indian women as it offers a more modest alternative to the saree without compromising on practicality. In its evolution, the salwar can be replaced with jeans or leggings to be paired with the kameez for a more modern Indo-Western look.
Traditionally, the role of the dupatta in the salwar was one of modesty; it was worn across the chest with the ends thrown back over the shoulder to flow down. In areas of India, where Islamic influence was stronger, it was used as an alternative to the head covering. Other versions include wearing it like a shawl, tightly drawn over both shoulders with one end thrown over one shoulder or as a cape. Nowadays, as dupattas themselves become more elaborate in design and use a variety of “less modest materials” such as net and chiffon, they are pinned to one shoulder and left to hang loose be show cased as fashion statements.
However, old habits die hard; walk into any temple and there surely will be a grandmother whispering furiously to her grand daughter to drape their dupattas in the traditional style!
Lest you think there are no fashion statements for Indian men, you will be surprised to know that the salwar kameez is actually unisex Indian attire, with the more elaborate male version known as the ‘Sharwani’. But that’s a post on its own so don’t forget to drop by soon to check out the Male version of this guide from us at Little India Directory!
If you are interested , why don’t you find out little bit more about the political history of India’s clothing (yes, it is that controversial.)
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