woman wearing a pink silk sari, a traditional south asian article of clothing

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan

Welcome back to the anthropology in fashion series, where each week we discover traditional dresses from one part of the world. This week, we look at the South Asian countries of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

These countries in the South Asian sub-region is culturally rich and diverse and collectively have so many cultural dresses that they needed a post of their own.

 

Factors Influencing Clothing in the 3 Countries

The area is known to have four climatic zones, making it one of the most diverse climatic regions as at least half of all types of climatic zones in the world can be found in this area. The climates range from tropical, subtropical, dry and temperate. Meaning, that the climate may be warm overall but, they can differ depending on the different areas within the sub-region. This information is significant as it helps us deduce the sort of clothing that the people in these countries may wear. After all, the climate is one of the primary factors to influence the type of clothing found in different countries.

The oldest evidence of clothing in this region dates back to the ancient Indus Valley civilization that lasted from 3300 to 1300 BC. Here, evidence of long woven fabrics draped and wrapped around the body have been found by archaeologists and anthropologists. For the common warm and humid climate, it is crucial to wear clothes that ensure evaporative heat loss and airflow and these clothes served their purpose. Even today, the traditional clothes found in the region achieve exactly that. And, with the change in climates, there is also visible evidence in the change in the design, the fabric material and the way of wearing different garments.

a statue of a priest dating back to the time of the indus valley civilization wearing a floral pattern shawl draped over one of his shoulders
A statue of a priest from the Indus Valley civilization, wearing a shawl to cover his upper body. Image Credit: Story of Styles

 

Cultural Significance of Clothing

Clothing in this region is undoubtedly influenced by its climate but, also by the religion and other cultural determinants followed in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Though there are multiple religions followed in these countries, the majority of the combined populations, follow either Hinduism or Islam. Religion ingrained in the cultures and religious principles is central to the lifestyle, customs, rituals and even attire. Modesty is a common principle found in both religions. The concept of modesty here doesn’t just require a person to cover parts of their body but also cover or have control over the way one behaves. Modesty in this context also refers to ‘having a sense of shame’ which often revolves around the idea of showing respect towards elders and husbands. This shame is demonstrated by having control over one’s words, veiling and covering parts of the body. The clothes here, therefore, are designed to meet both criteria of climate and, modesty.

Indian women from Rajasthan wearing red saris veiling their faces with the fabric at the end of the sari in the presence of elderly men as a sign of having shame
A veiled Rajasthani woman covering her face in the presence of an elderly man. Image Credit: Counterview

Clothes in this part of the world communicate the status of the person, whether they’re wealthy, poor, their profession, whether they’re married, unmarried, widowed, uneducated or educated, among other things. For example, white clothes worn by Hindu women would signify that they’re widowed.

And, like in all other regions in the world, clothes in these three countries are a symbol of cultural pride and heritage. Clothes in these countries are so diverse that even an entire book about them would fail to provide all the details as each state, each district has its own distinct clothing.

Knowing that the scope of this topic is huge, the garments that are worn by the average Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi were selected.

 

Sari

Sari is a traditional article of clothing worn by women across South Asia, particularly in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It refers to a three-piece outfit consisting of the sari, choli and petticoat. A sari is a long piece of unstitched fabric that ranges from 3 to 9 yards. They’re made of light material such as cotton, silk or chiffon. And, depending on their purpose they can be decorated with embroidery, zari, mirrors, prints, brocades, etc. or, they can be left plain. Zari is embroidery work with fine threads made of gold or silver.

The cloth is wrapped and tucked at the waist and the remaining fabric is draped over the shoulder. The part of the sari that hangs over the shoulder is called a pallu. This part is used to cover the head, in certain communities.

Before draping the sari, a woman will wear a choli, or a tight-fitting blouse that extends to the diaphragm, to cover the chest. The choli may be sleeveless, long-sleeved or half sleeved. Most traditional cholis are usually at least half-sleeved.

The lower half of the body is covered with a petticoat, before draping the sari. A petticoat is an inner skirt extending to the ankles or just above it, and that is tied with a drawstring at the waist. They’re made of comfortable material such as cotton and usually come in a solid colour, matching the colour of the sari. It serves as an inner garment that is especially useful if the material of the sari is light and see-through. Though, usually, the petticoat isn’t visible as traditional saris are adequately opaque.

a mannequin displaying a black choli and a pink petticoat, the inner garments worn before draping a sari
The choli and the petticoat. The sari is draped over these inner garments. Image Credit: Amazon

 

The first historical evidence of the sari can be found in the ancient Hindu texts of the Rig Veda, which dates back to  3000 BC.

There are supposedly over a thousand ways to drape a sari. The way a woman drapes her sari would indicate what region she’s from, her social class, religion, caste and the kind of tasks she may need to do that day. Despite all these variations, the nivi drape remains the most common way to drape a sari.

woman wearing a brown colour sari with golden borders and decoration draped in the nivi style
The Nivi drape sari, the most common way to drape a sari. Image Credit: Pinterest

The sari also conforms to both the criteria of climate and, modesty. The exposure of the midriff, and the way that the sari is draped, provides the necessary air circulation required for the hot weather. Making it the most suitable garment for women. In most Indian culture, exposing the midriff isn’t regarded as provocative, especially if one wears a sari.

However, in the more conservative cultures, the midriff is covered and the head is covered with the pallu, making it easy to conceal the body according to the requirements of modesty by the woman’s family or culture.

Saris are mostly worn on special occasions and formal events, as the draping requires some time and effort. However, women, especially in the more remote areas of these countries wear saris on a daily basis, even inside their homes. These saris are usually made of cotton as they’re far more comfortable.

Finally, saris symbolize womanhood. Some of these cultures perform coming of age rituals that mark the transformation of a girl to a woman. Saris are worn and even gifted to the newly turned women to welcome them into the stage of womanhood.

an indian girl wearing a decorative red silk sari for her coming of age ceremony
An Indian family celebrating their daughter’s passage into womanhood with a ceremony called Ritusuddhi. Image Credit: Katherine Kimball

 

Salwar Kameez

Salwar kameez is an outfit that women wear in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is the national dress for women in Pakistan.

The salwar is the Persian word for loose fitted trousers.  A salwar, therefore, is a pair of loose fitted trousers that are tighter at the ankles. It is tightened at the waist by a drawstring. The salwar is worn under a kameez, which is a long tunic extending to below the knees or the ankle. The outfit is completed with a matching dupatta, or a long scarf to cover the chest. Alternatively, the dupatta is also hung on one shoulder.

a woman wearing a yellow kameez, a white salwar and a white dupatta
A woman wearing a salwar kameez with a dupatta hung over her shoulder. Image Credit: Indiamart

This is the most common traditional outfit worn in urban areas in lieu of a sari. This is because they are made of comfortable and light material and they’re easier to wear.

Similar to a salwar kameez is the churidar and kurta. A churidar is a pair of trousers that are loose at the thighs but tighter fitted from the calf to the ankles. These are worn with kurtas, a tunic that extends to the knee, similar to a kameez. Contrary to the salwar kameez, churidar and kameez are worn by men as well. The men’s variety will be discussed later.

a woman wearing a turquoise churidar, kameez and dupatta.
A woman wearing a churidar with a kameez and dupatta. Image Credit: Meem

 

 

Ghagra Choli

The Ghagra choli or Lehenga is a tailored outfit that women in all three countries wear at special occasions, weddings and cultural events. It features a choli that usually has half sleeves; a long pleated yet flowing skirt with embroidery and decorations, and a dupatta, a cloth to cover the body. The dupatta is sometimes used to cover the head as required. It is a popular outfit among brides in these countries.

a maroon lehenga adorned with metallic embroidery at the borders with floral patterns. It consists of a choli, a ghagra and a dupatta.
A bridal lehenga where the dupatta is used to cover the head, as necessitated by tradition. Image Credit: Royal Pepper

Ghagra choli is the name that people in Southern India use while the word lehenga is used by Northern Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

 

Veils

As a large population of the people are of the Muslim faith in the three countries, some level of veiling is expected. But, as mentioned earlier, some Hindu women are also required to veil therefore, it isn’t restricted to Muslims.

In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the state religions are Islam, and in India, all are free to practice their own religions. Interestingly, in all three countries, there is no compulsion in veiling. The rules by the respective governments are not strict about veiling. The rules of veiling, however, depend on the community one belong to as the usage of a veil among the people surrounding an individual will determine the level of modesty required.

In the more conservative communities, Muslim women, wear a burqa. A cloak that covers the entire body and face, including the eyes. The women see through a mesh cut out where the eyes should be. These are mostly worn in Northern Pakistan and, more commonly in Afghanistan.

greyish blue burqa worn by women in Pakistan covering their body and face. A mesh where the eyes should be allows visibility
Burqa covering the face and the doy. The mesh at the front is for visibility. Image Credit: Asianet

Alternatively, conservative women in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, wear the niqab. A black cloak that covers the body and the face but has a slit that reveals the eyes.

Less conservative Muslim women, veil themselves with a chador, a cloth wrapped around the whole body, leaving only the face visible. Women from the least conservative communities, cover their head with either a hijab or a dupatta. The dupatta leaves the hairline visible, which is acceptable in these communities. In places where the sari is worn more, like in Bangladesh, if it is required, the head is covered with the pallu.

A translucent light coloured dupatta doubled as a headscarf
Dupattas are doubled as headscarves by Muslim women in the region. Image Credit: Pinterest

Orthodox Hindu women are required to veil their heads and faces, especially in the presence of a male and/or the presence of an elder. They are allowed to unveil as they leave.

 

Dhoti

Dhoti is the men’s traditional garment in India. It is a long piece of unstitched fabric that is worn to cover the lower body. The cloth is wrapped around the waist once and tucked in and, the remaining fabric is folded in between the legs and tucked in at the back. This is just one of the ways to fold a dhoti. Like the sari, dhotis are also draped differently in different states and regions. Dhotis are usually made of cotton and are white in colour. On special occasions, such as weddings, men wear dhotis with golden borders at the edges.

a white ceremonial dhoti, a fabric wrapped around the legs. A garment worn by Indian men
A more ceremonial white dhoti. Image Credit: Amazon

 

Lungi

Another folded garment for the lower body is the lungi. It resembles the Southeast Asian sarong, and in fact, this is the garment that inspired the creation of the Southeast Asian sarong.  The difference is that the sarong is usually a stitched skirt, whereas the lungi is an unstitched fabric folded in numerous ways into a skirt and secured with a knot at the waist. Lungis are most commonly worn at home and in India and Bangladesh as they are made of cotton and allow good airflow. Better quality and more decorated lungi are worn on special occasions and for dance performances.

a man wearing a purple lungi with pink floral patterns. The lungi is tied into a half skirt, knotted below the naval.
A man wearing a lungi tied as a half skirt. Image Credit: Utsavpedia

 

Achkan and Sherwani

An achkan is a jacket like a garment with buttons at the front, extending below the knees worn over a churidar or a dhoti. Achkan are thicker in fabric and more popular in Pakistan and northern India. The climate in these regions is drier and in the winters, it can touch low temperatures. The thicker fabric, therefore, acts as an indicator of the climate. Achkans are worn at formal events and special occasions.

a man wearing a black achkan, a long jacket like garment with a white churidar
A man wearing a black achkan with a white churidar. Image Credit: Pinterest

A Sherwani is a fancier and more decorated version of the achkan. Like the achkan, it is also worn over a churidar. Only, it is made with luxurious and thicker and more luxurious fabric, often silk, and it is decorated with embroidery. In north Indian and Pakistani weddings, the groom wears a sherwani with a turban on the head.

a man wearing a sherwani, a decorated version of an achkan worn by grooms in india and pakistan. it is worn with a churidar at the bottom and a turban on the head.
A decorative sherwani. The outfit worn by North Indian and Pakistani grooms. Image Credit: Pinterest

 

Kurta Pajama

Like the women’s kurtas, the one that men wear is also a long knee-length tunic that is usually long-sleeved. They are worn over a pajama, which are loose fitted trousers made of cotton, usually white in colour, tightened at the waist with a drawstring. Occasionally the pajama can also be replaced by a churidar.

man wearing a kurta, a long tunic with long sleeves and an off-white pajama, loose fitted trousers tightened with a drawstring at the waist.
A man wearing a green kurta over an off-white pajama. Image Credit: Tjori

In Pakistan, the kurta pajama are worn at formal events and cultural events. In India and Bangladesh, they are worn for the same purpose only the pajama is sometimes replaced by a white dhoti. Informally, men in India and Bangladesh, wear the kurta with a lungi.

 

The Advent of Modernization

The reason that the three countries share these types of clothing is that they were one nation before 1947. That year, Pakistan and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) were formed, separating from India. The two nations gained independence from the British imperialists then, set out in their own paths. However, they are inevitably still culturally linked.

Speaking of the British colonization of India, it was through them that the country was introduced to tailored and stitched clothes such as suits, gowns, socks, etc. Today, with globalization and the availability of cheaper ready-made clothes, western-style outfits are popular among the youth and many fear the disappearance of the cultural garments. A disappearance of cultural garments would equal the disappearance of tangible cultural heritage and the loss of cultural identity.

However due to the high population, high diversity in cultures, and a large number of both religious and non-religious festivities in this region, people always get the opportunity to wear their traditional clothes. India in fact that the highest number of festivals in the world. And, on these days, the youth proudly wear their cultural clothes and perform the necessary rituals. Hence, keeping the traditions alive.

 

This series will continue next week once again, as we discover the traditional dresses of another region in the world.

If you missed the last three posts in this series, here are the links below:

1. Anthropology of Clothing in Culture: From Prehistory to Present Day

2. Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Middle East

3. Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Southeast Asia

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below and click here for more articles like this.

 

Works Cited

Bettin, J., 2009. All the world’s a stage control and creation of character through costume. In: D. Rodger, ed. Theatre Design & Technology. Louisville: United States Institute for Theatre Technology, pp. 30-37.

Chatterjee, S., 1978. The pattern of Indian clothing in relation to tropical climate. Journal of Human Evolution, 7(1), pp. 95-99.

Country Watch, 2021. Afghanistan Country Review, Houston: Country Watch.

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