The South Asian culture is one of deep history and diverse communities. Where we come from is defined by many different cultural elements like food, music, dance, practices and perhaps, most apparently, our clothes and sense of fashion. An evolution of fashion tells the story of crop cultivation, cultural dominance of empires and religions, the influence of weather and the development of tools for weaving and stitching. To tell this story is no small task, so bear with me as I try to condense almost five milennia of history into a one-page post.
So, as all stories do, our story begins at …
The very beginning (or “meh, who needs clothes?”)
If we look back 4500 to 5000 years ago (about 2500 B.C.), the first “Indians” civilized the Indus Valley region in colourful clothes of natural textiles like cotton, flax and silk. Men wore long wraps over their waists, some wore turbans and higher members of society wore cloaks with motifs. Women were less clothed, with a small cloth around their waist and turbans to keep off the heat. Both genders were fond of jewelry and exquisite ornaments made of gold, silver, copper and stones like lapiz lazuli and turquoise.
The Vedic age aka “drape me fabulous”!
Move forward a millennia or so into 1500 B.C. – 500 B.C. and the subcontinent enters the Vedic Age. Draped garments are still in style and the Indus people craft out the Hindu vedas and epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Clothing was split into three parts with a lower wrap made of cotton or muslin called the antariya, a sash called the kayabandh and a scarf or wrap called the uttariya to cover the upper body with or to tie around the head. Some believe that the two-piece Keralan outfit mundum neryathum is a survivor of this ancient style in the modern world.
The rise of Empires & stitched garments
Between 321 B.C. – 185 B.C. (about 2300 years back), South Asia’s first major empire bloomed under the Mauryas. The Mauryas forged connections between Central Asia, China and Greece, with the empire having a Greek Princess and Greek influences in the court. This Greek influence might have also contributed to an evolution of the sari through the Greek chiton (below), which is a single cloth pleated as a skirt and draped over the shoulder.
Towards the turn from B.C. to A.D., the sub-continent saw the rise and fall of many empires, including the Mauryans (321 B.C. – 185 B.C.), the Kushans (130 B.C. – 185 A.D.) and the Guptas (320 A.D. – 550 A.D.) in the north, the Satavahanas (200 B.C. – 200 A.D.) in the central and south, and the kingdoms of Cholas (300 B.C. – 200 A.D.), Cheras (300 B.C. – 1200 A.D.) and Pandyas (600 B.C. – 1300 A.D.) in the deep south, including Sri Lanka.
The Kushan Court held influence over Western India in the land of Punjab after defeating the Greek and Scythian rulers who had dominated the region. The kings wore long coats over a tunic. The women wore jackets over their sarongs and tunics with round necks and sleeves. A dancer in the court wore a tunic, pajama pants, a floating scarf and a cap – similar to the modern Punjabi suit and Kathak dance attire. The Kushans (below) also wrapped fabrics in ways inspired by Graeco-Roman fashion, which seem to preclude the modern “fishtail” (flowing) style of draping the sari.
During the Gupta period, people began wearing stitched garments with influences from Central Asia, Greece and China. The silk route flourished in the north with trade links between Central Asia and China; and trade boomed in South India with Arabia, the Malay Archipelago and later, Rome. The north of the subcontinent adapted stitched tunics and close-fitting, upper-body garments (kanchuka), and women gradually gave up the head turbans for longer hairstyles with buns adorned with ornaments and flowers. Gradually, the antariya (dhoti) worn by the women in the Gupta court evolved into swirling ghagris (preclude to the modern ghagra). Men wore only antariyas (lower-body wraps) and enjoyed maintaining long hair which they tamed with fabric bands.
Meanwhile, the south of India with the Satavahanas, Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas (below), continued the fashion of wearing wraps and women indulged in a fondness for ornaments. A style of wrap that developed was the kaccha, identified by the lower garment being looped from the front and tucked into the back. Garments usually covered the lower body and head, while the chest was left uncovered until mid 1800 A.D. by most. In 1858 A.D., the Channar Revolt took place where lower-caste Keralite (Nadar) women demanded their rights to wear upper-body clothing. 1859 A.D. saw the widespread adoption of upper-body clothing as the King of Travancore relented and issued a proclamation announcing the right of Nadar women to wear upper garments, as long as they didn’t imitate the styles of the higher-classes.
All said-and-done, South India does not seem to have been influenced by the turbulence of the north, spare the Mauryan Empire, and that may be the reason that traditional styles continued in the region long into the British Empire. During this period, distinct styles segregating northern and southern dressing styles emerged to how we understand them today.
The Mughals & the British
The Mughal Empire (1526 A.D. – 1867 A.D.) added nuances to the already prevalent Indian styles. Men wore a tight-fitting frock with full skirts (jama) and long-sleeved coats (chogha) over pantaloons, and turbans (pagri) with jewels. To distinguish themselves, Muslims tied their jamas at the waist to the left, while Hindus tied theirs to the right. Women initially wore similar clothing to the men, but gradually adopted nose rings and veils. Women’s pants evolved into farshi pajamas that were long and flowing pants that rustled against the floor. There was also a tradition of wearing embroidered footwear with ornamented leather, similar to Lucknow footwear (below) of the present day.
Finally, the last conquerors of the subcontinent were the British. European clothing’s influence on India was gradual. The turning point of adopting European fashion came with the arrival of European women, who brought along with them a change to civil lifestyle, society and culture. Indian civil servants and the elite adopted more western elements in their dressing with shirts, coats and umbrellas. Women’s fashion adopted elements influenced by western necklines, collars and puffed sleeves. These elements of British fashion persist in our Indian culture till today.
Where to from here?
The South Asian fashion scene has been dominated previously by functional and cultural adaptations brought about through cultural evolution, trade routes and invasions that shaped our heritage. Going forward, current trends in ethnic fashion seem to evolve in two directions, either towards the more oppulent, or towards minimalism. The changes in Indian dressing over the past hundred years or so is a topic on it’s own, and I will reserve that for the next round. Until then, they are covered in many exciting videos that can be found on YouTube. So instead of boring you with more text, here are a couple of videos to help me complete this story with a bang!
100 years of beauty in Singapore
Indian Fashion: Then and Now