I’m currently working on updating my wardrobe to more seamlessly reflect the American and Indian aspects of my life. I’ve been creating blogs and writing away, completely forgetting that many Americans may not know that much about Indian clothing! So I decided to create a brief “beginner’s guide” to get us all on the same page. Enjoy! 🙂
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: India is one of the most diverse countries in the world – in food, language, tradition, and – you guessed it – clothing. However, there are a few general silhouettes and styles that are seen all across India. Some styles are more popular in one area and less so in another, and things like color, pattern, embroidery, and fabric (often called “stuff”) also vary from state to state and region to region.
I’ll be focusing on women’s clothing because that’s what I wear, and that’s what I know the most about! If there is interest, I may consider a post featuring men’s clothing as well.
Does this guide cover everything in Indian fashion? Absolutely not, and I’m okay with that. Does it mean that non-Indian Americans should start wearing Indian clothes? Nope, not unless you have a reason. The goal of this post is simply to create awareness of the general silhouettes in Indian fashion, and to hopefully spark interest and dialogue around this wonderfully glamorous topic 🙂
So without further ado, let’s talk clothes!
Saree or Sari
This is probably the first thing that comes to Westerners’ minds when they think of Indian clothing. Sarees are very long garments (at least 4-5 yards, sometimes more) that are wrapped and pleated around the waist, then draped across the bust and over the shoulder. There are multiple ways of tying a saree, depending on the occasion and saree design – the differences are mainly in how the saree is draped across the midriff/bust and over the head/shoulders. It can be a sliding scale between modesty and modernity.
Sarees also have a short blouse that is worn under the draped fabric – this is known as a choli (pronounced CHOH-lee). You can think of it as a sort of crop top. Although the choli is somewhat hidden, it can still make a big impact in the overall look of the ensemble. Cholis come in countless shapes and sizes, and designs vary in regard to sleeve length, neckline, back design, and embroidery/embellishment. Most cholis are custom made to your measurements, so you can ensure you’re getting the best fit.
Sarees are worn with a petticoat underneath, which is basically a plain, opaque drawstring skirt to tuck the saree fabric into, and to ensure that you don’t accidentally flash anybody if your draping comes undone. And this is a (somewhat) legitimate concern if you don’t know what you’re doing – sarees are notoriously hard to wrap for the inexperienced, and are not the easiest things to move around in if you’re planning on doing more than standing and walking around (read: still totally okay for a swanky party!). But it’s 2016, and luckily for us non-Indians, we can get our sarees pre-stitched, meaning the classic look is just a clipped waist and shoulder drape away 🙂
Sarees run the gamut from casual everyday wear to blinged-out partywear and even bridal attire. For that reason, they are perhaps the most versatile type of Indian fashion garment.
But regardless of their being almost synonymous with India, sarees are not the wardrobe staple across the whole country. They are still very common in southern and eastern India, but are not as common as other garments in places like northern and western India.
Dupatta or Chunni
Pronounced doo-PUTT-ah, or CHOON-nee
A dupatta (sometimes called a chunni, depending on the region) is essentially a scarf. Dupattas come in all colors, patterns, and embroideries, and are typically on the lighter side in regard to the material they’re made of – cotton, silk, chiffon, Georgette. They come in mix-and-match varieties for more casual wear, while dressier ensembles typically come with a matching dupatta (with the exception of sarees – they already have plenty of fabric on their own!). They serve a variety of purposes: as a fashion accessory, for modesty in covering the decolletage, for covering the head in religious spaces or against the sun, and more.
Kurta-Pajama or -Churidar
Pronounced KOOR-tah pa-JAH-mah, or CHOO-ree-dar
A kurta is basically a shirt or tunic. Kurtas (or kurtis for the female version) come in many different fabrics, sleeve lengths, colors, patterns, and embroideries – just like Western shirts. The difference is that kurtas are longer and looser at the bottom, with slits on the side that go up to the hips – what Westerners would normally call a tunic. Some kurtas are “short” and go about mid-tush, while others are “long” and go anywhere from knee-length to mid-shin. Casual kurtis can be mix-and-matched with a variety of bottoms, while dressy kurtis typically come as part of a complete ensemble.
Pajamas/pajamis (also known as a churidar in some areas) are not something you sleep in – they’re kind of like leggings! Casual ones are usually cotton and stretchy, while fancy ones are typically unstretchable silk/polyester/linen (if you’re lucky) with loose butts and a giant drawstring. Pajamis are usually either solid-colored or modestly patterned in order to leave room for the kurta to shine. In fancier outfits, pajamis are made to match the ensemble, just like the dupatta. But regardless of how fancy they are, all pajamis should be long enough for significant bunching at the ankles.
Since pajamis are like leggings, and we all know that leggings aren’t pants, it stands to reason that you need to cover your tush when wearing pajamis. So when selecting one of the kurtas that I mentioned above, you’ll need to choose a long one. Short kurtas are usually reserved for wearing with actual pants (like jeans).
Anarkali or Anarkali Suit
An anarkali can be compared to a dress, with lengths ranging from below-the-knee to floor-length. The hallmark of an anarkali is the dramatic flare at the hips, with plenty of extra fabric for a graceful twirl, should the need arise. Unlike Western dresses, anarkalis don’t come in casual and dressy varieties – they are typically reserved for dressy events. Matching dupatta and pajamis included.
Salwar Kameez or Punjabi Suit
Pronounced sal-war kah-MEEZ, or pun-JOB-ee soot
A salwar kameez – also known as a Punjabi suit due to its roots (and popularity) in North India – is composed of three elements, two of which you have already seen: a kurta (kameez), and a dupatta. The third element – the salwar – is what defines the outfit: pleated, airy, billowing pants – a polar opposite to the tight-fitting pajami. In this type of outfit, kurtis tend to be medium-length (still covering the tush!) and usually end around mid-thigh. Similar to kurti-pajaimis, these outfits can be mix-and-match for casual wear, or come as a set for dressy occasions.
Lehenga-Choli or Ghagra-Choli
Pronounced LENG-gah CHOH-lee, or GAH-grah CHOH-lee
A lehenga-choli (also known as a ghagra-choli in certain areas) is sort of like a deconstructed saree. But while the silhouettes are similar, this type of outfit is actually made of three separate pieces – a choli (also worn with sarees), a dupatta (draped over the shoulder or head similar to a saree), and a skirt called a lehenga or ghagra. Lehenga-cholis are common in northern and western India, especially in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, and are typically worn as bridal attire in northern states like Punjab. (Both of my wedding dresses were lehengas!) Lehengas allow for the grace of a saree combined with the ease of a skirt and top.
And there you have it – the basic styles in Indian fashion! I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed creating it, but most of all I hope you learned something! Feel free to share this with friends and family to spread knowledge about Indian fashion beyond the saree, and of course stay tuned for more posts about my Indo-Western wardrobe! 🙂
Which outfit type is your favorite? Did I do them justice? Did I leave something out? Please share your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below!