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Home > History of Fashion in India - Part 1
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History of Fashion in India
                    Any account of historical Indian costumes runs into serious difficulties not for want of literary evidence or of archaeological and visual materials: of both of these there is a fair measure that is available. The difficulty arises when one tries to collate the information that can be culled from these sources. The descriptions in literary works, for all their great poetic beauty and elegance, are, in the nature of things, not precise and one has to guess and reconstruct.

                    Sometimes the descriptions are so general that they can fit more than one costume quite different from each other. All this is not to say that a broad, general idea cannot be formed of the kinds of costumes worn in the ancient, medieval or the late medieval periods in India.

                    What one is denied is the possibility of going into the many subtleties that Indian costumes possess. Their range is remarkably wide, according to the great size of the country, and geographical differences, and the bewildering diversity of its ethnic groups is added the complex factor of the coming in, at regular intervals, of foreign peoples into India at different periods of time and in varying numbers.

                    The costumes that these people brought along did not stay necessarily apart from the mainstream of Indian dresses - that one could have dealt with - but, with the Indian genius for adaptation and modification, these costumes become altered, even metamorphosed, and eventually assimilated to the broad, native Indian range of dress.

                    One has, therefore, to sift and isolate, and then relate and bring together, the evidence available which is not the easiest of tasks in the context of Indian history where material culture does not always get the attention it does elsewhere.

                    Through sharp analysis of Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Hindi, as much as Arabic and Persian sources, they have brought within reach a rich body of material. The inherent difficulty in the matter of interpreting this material and relating it to surviving archaeological and visual evidence naturally leaves some matters obscure, and others open to controversy. But a very substantial body of information has been collected.

                    A question that needs to be disposed of rather early is whether, in the indigenous Indian tradition, stitched garments were known or used at all. From time to time statements have been made that the art of sewing was unknown to the early Indians, and that it was an import from outside. Serious and early students of Indian costumes, like Forbes Watson, have stated, mostly on the authority of other scholars, that the art of sewing came to India only with the coming of the Muslims.' This statement needs no longer to be taken seriously.

                    As has been established, not only was the needle and its use known to Indians from the very beginning of the historic periods that we know of; the art of sewing was practiced, and one comes upon clear and early references to stitched garments that leave very little doubt about the matter.'

                    It is possible that the view that "before the invasion of India by the Mohammedans, the art of sewing was not practiced there" was formed not on the basis of any historical or scholarly inquiry into this matter but simply 'observation': observation of the dresses of two different categories of people, those who were far more rooted in the Indian soil and could thus be taken as representing the long Indian tradition of wearing costumes in a particular fashion, and those who could be linked with outsiders' who came to India late, and visibly preferred different kinds of dresses.

                    This observation could only have been superficial; besides, clear distinction needs to be made between the knowledge of, and the use of, sewing. It is possible perhaps also to draw a distinction between what, in the Indian context, can be designated as "timeless" costumes, and those that are time-bound".

                    The 'timeless' Indian dress of men, thus, consists of garments that use no stitching, garments in other words that, as Forbes Watson says, "leave the loom, ready for wear". The Dhoti, the Scarf or Uttariya, and the Turban, which have never really disappeared from any part of India, belong to this category, and their marked visibility in India could have led one erroneously to conclude that the early Indians did not use any sewn garments.

                    Likewise, for women, the Dhoti or the Sari as the lower garments, combined with a Stanapatta or breast-band for covering the breasts, forms a basic ensemble, and once again consists of garments that do not have to be stitched, the breast-garment being simply fastened in a knot at the back. And the Dhoti or the Sari worn covering both legs at the same time or, in the alternative, with one end of it passed between the legs and tucked at the back in the fashion that is still prevalent in large area of India.

                    But the preference of Indian men and women for these garments, rational and understandable in the context of the generally hot Indian climate, does not afford any proof that for long periods of time the Indians knew no other garments than those which "left the loom, ready for wear".

                    It is not easy to make out everything in Alberuni's description, but there is little doubt that he is referring to a dhoti when he speaks of 'turbans used for trousers', and a kaupina when he is speaking of 'a rag of two fingers' breadth bound over the loins. But the amusing reference to 'trousers lined with as much cotton as would suffice to make a number of counterpanes and saddle rugs' is not easy to make out. Possibly he is referring to dhotis of considerable length and fullness that were tucked between the legs and at the waist behind.

                    Similar problems arise with the accounts of Chinese writers. Wherever they speak of costume, not too much is added to our information although there is much precision and detail when it comes to their description of the trade in textiles from different parts of the country. This is understandable because one of the principal concerns of the many travellers to India was trade precisely of this kind, sometimes in these very materials.

                    All the same, the information made available is not without interest, and one notices carefully the comment of someone like Chau j ' u-kua, the inspector of foreign trade in Fu-kien in the 12th century, concerning the dress worn by the ruler of Malabar: -"The ruler of the country has his body draped, but goes bare-footed. He wears a turban and a loin-cloth both of white cotton cloth. Sometimes he wears a white cotton shirt with narrow sleeves".

                    The period of the Sultanates in northern India is marked, once again, by much interest, both on the part of the Indian writers, and of the newly-arrived Muslims in matters concerning fabrics and dyes and costumes. But the earlier difficulty of accurately interpreting this information persists, for even though long lists become available, these remain confined to names for which we have no pictorial equivalents in the matter of costumes, and no analytical descriptions in respect of fabrics and the like - in the paintings from the Sultanate period, an area in which our knowledge has increased remarkably in the last quarter of a century or so, there is much that one can observe, but to give precise names to costumes still remains difficult.

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