Fashion has been a quintessential part of Indian history, social structure, and cultural identity. History of Indian Fashion represents generations of movement of people, ideas, and wealth across different regions in India and abroad.
“Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.”
— Diana Vreeland
In recent history, Indian fashion has transformed from the simple cholas of the yogis to the yards of fabrics of a Sabyasachi lehenga. Indian textiles, ranging from royal silks and muslin to humble cotton, have been famous the world over for decades, and now they are finally being paid homage at home.
Let’s explore Indian fashion history through the ages and across royal eras.
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Table of Contents
History of Indian Fashion
Indus Valley Civilization (C. 2500 BCE)
The beginning of any art form starts with the invention of tools used to express the needs of the artist. In India, fashion’s first tool, spun cotton, has been traced back to the Harappan era C. 2500 BCE.
The Harappan era is recognized for its excellent urban planning, drainage systems, and baked brick houses. The fashion of this ancient civilization time has been understood by studying ancient figurines, found near the Indus valley (Harappan Civilization).
The figurine of the Priest-King (a famous Harappan find) can be seen wearing an elaborate drape over the left shoulder. Most depictions from this time show lengths of fabric that have been draped over the body in various ways.
Only a single scrap of cloth that had been dyed a madder red has been found and preserved from that era. The discovery of this scrap and dying facilities at the excavation site confirms that Harrapans dyed their cloth with madder root and it is speculated that indigo and turmeric must have been used to dye clothes as well.
Figurines from the time show a variety of ways in which men and women dressed in this period. Women adorned themselves with headdresses, extensive earrings, necklaces, and bangles that covered their entire arms.
Men wore clothes that wrapped around and through the legs and were worn similarly to a modern-day dhoti. Men that held an elevated position in society wore an upper-body wrap that fell over one shoulder.
A casual glance at our history and modern traditional clothing can show us a glimpse of wrap-style dresses that are still popular. Examples in modern clothing are of similar drapes are sarees, dhoti, turban, chola, etc.
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Vedic Period (C. 1500 – 500 BCE)
The Vedic period is marked by the composition of the Rig Vedas. Indo Aryans had migrated to and settled in Northern India. The cultural outlook of the time steadily moved from tribal to monarchial. The social hierarchy of four castes that will define Indian culture for thousands of years was established at this time.
Uttariya is a garment that was wrapped around the upper body and thrown over one shoulder. The fabric used for uttariya changed depending on the weather. Paridhana or Vasana style of wrapping the cloth was famous and preferred in humid weather. It was a long piece of cloth that was wrapped around the waist with pleats at the front. The Paridhana was held at the waist by a cloth called the Mekhala. Lastly, a Pravara was worn in cold weather as a cloak.
The only difference between the clothes worn by men and women in this era was in the wrap’s length and style in which they wrapped it.
The social strata differentiated themselves by the length of their wraps. The longer the wrap and most body parts covered signified social prestige over the simpler loincloths worn by the lower classes.
This was also the time when layers of clothing made their presence known. In Rig Veda, there is a mention of layers such as Adhivastra (outer cover or veil), Kurlra (the headdress), and Pratidhi (the long wrapping garment). Atharva Veda mentions the following layers of garments and accessories:
- Nivi (underwear),
- Vavri (upper garment),
- Upavasana (veil),
- Kumba, Usnlsa, Tirlta are different headdresses.
- Kumba-Kurlra (ornaments attached to the headdress)
- Niska (necklace)
- Rukma (encircling ornament)
- Updnaha (footwear),
- Kambala (blanket), and
- Mani (jewel)
Most clothes were made with Ksauma (linen) and Kauseya (silk). Turban (Usnisa) was worn on distinctive occasions along with Pravarana, an outer wrapper.
Pre-Mauryan and Mauryan Period (C. 450 – 180 BCE) (
The fashions of the previous era were still going strong. Dhoti was a preferred method of wrapping the lower garment, and tight-fitted half sleeve kurta-style shirts were popular.
Elaborate headdresses, conical hats, and extrinsic earrings that fell to the chest are highly in fashion.
Stitching was making its presence known. The ladies’ garments had become fitted, and the waistbands had embroidery in them. Textiles such as cotton, silk, wool, linen, and muslin were in high use.
Early Classical and Classical period (C. 200 – 1187 CE)
Gagri, a type of skirt with many folds, was a favored style of clothing for women in this period. The fashion for the upper body has turned to stitched upper body tunics worn over gagri.
Nobles preferred to wear brocade long tunics along with accessories made of gold such as kundala (earring), kayura (armband), muktavati (pearl necklace), kinkini (anklet with bells).
Medieval Period (C. 1200 – 1500 CE)
There is plenty of evidence to establish the fashion choices of this time. Paintings from temples, monasteries, etc. are plenty.
Kurta and shalwar was a preferred mode of dressing from this period. Salwars and dhoti kept equal dominance in people’s lives. The modern style of dressing was already prominent by this time. Eastern Indian states depict the modern way of draping dupatta as well.
Early Modern Period and the British Colonial Period
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they notice the woman.”
— Coco Chanel
This was the height of the Mughal dynasty. Prominently known for their interest in art and culture, their preferred fabrics were muslin, silks, velvet, and brocade. Mughal women wore a large variety of ornaments from head to toe. Their layers included and alternated between Pajama, Churidar, Shalwar, Garara, and the Farshi. They wore head ornaments, anklets, and necklaces. A common custom that segregated the upper and lower classes was the length and number of layers worn. More fabric signified affluence and a higher status.
This period saw the use of extensive jewelry by both men and women. A floor-length kurta with a fitted bodice and an attached swirling skirt at the waist was worn under an Angrakha, a short jacket along with churidar (fitted slacks with ruched ends), and a dupatta (unstitched fabric draped over the shoulder) was the common fashion choice of this time.
During the British Colonial period, western styles heavily influenced clothing. The traditional long lengths became shorter, the hair pleating and hair buns gave way to long open tresses.
Fashion in modern India is an amalgam of thousands of years of ancient Indian and western influences. The rise of designers in the 1980s led to a demand for individual design and expression. Design that separates and stands one out from the masses.
Bollywood played a huge role in defining fashion for the masses for decades. Designers such as Bhanu Athaiya set mass trends for sarees and bell-bottoms in the 1960s. The 80s led to the rise of designers such as Satya Paul, Rohit Khosla, and Tarun Tahiliani. From the elaborate and big hair and fitted blouses of the 50s to the brightly colored chiffons of the 1980s. Indian fashion has grown with each century and decade.
Different Styles of Saree Draping across India
|Style of draping||State|
|Atpoure Saree||West Bengal|
|Seedha Pallu||Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, and Odisha|
|Gol Saree||Maharashtra (Parsi community)|
|Halakki Vokkaliga||Karnataka (tribal)|
|Kunbi drape||Goa (tribal)|
Today, Indian fashion is being sought the world over. The influence of the west has stabilized decades after independence. The Indian designers, Bollywood, and the masses are all coming into their own. We are seeing the value of our native textiles, from silks to muslin, and we see the handicraft of embroidery and hand block printing. The next phase of Indian fashion is here expressing our ancient cultural identity with a modern twist.
10 Fun facts about the History of Fashion in India
- Cotton dhoti was the preferred choice of clothing for both men and women for thousands of years.
- The layering of clothes such as drapes over shoulders became religiously significant in the Vedic period.
- By the time the classical period rolled around, the headdresses were elaborate works of art. The skirts had pre-stitched pleats at the front. The armbands, necklaces, and anklets were more bejeweled.
- Silk and Cotton have always been the favored fabrics from ancient to modern India.
- The Mughal era added another layer of style into the already thriving Indian fashion. Introduction of ‘jama’, paijama, churidar, shalwar, choga, etc made from extravagant brocades and silks, lead to a magnificent-looking court of the Mughals.
- The addition of the Rajputana fashions into the Mughal court with King Akbar’s union to Princess Jodha created a fusion style that included intricately embroidered patka at the waist that held the sword, Mori and Juti (footwear), etc into the early modern period.
- Some famous muslins (they differ by thread count) are Mulmul Shahi, Shabnam, Abirawan, etc.
- Indigo is the oldest dye made from plants that are still used in Indian handloom fabrics. The plant used to make this dye, ‘Indigofera Tinctoria’, is native to India.
- Ritu Beri was the first Indian designer to showcase her work during the Paris fashion week.
- The most expensive fashion book ever written in India is “Firefly – A Fairytale”, priced at ₹ 1 lakh.
The history of fashion in India dates back to the Harappan Era, 6000 to 8000 years ago.
Mrinalini Devi, Rabindranath Tagore’s wife, started the trend of wearing a petticoat and blouse with the Saree.
The highest selling garment in modern India is the evergreen Saree!
Saree is the traditional unstitched piece of fabric that can be anywhere between 5 to 9 yards, wrapped around the body in different ways.
Rohit Khosla became a leader in the industry when he started ‘Ensemble’, a multi designer store in Mumbai, along with Tarun Tahiliani, Abu and Sandeep Khosla, and few other designers.
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