Getting Dressed in Delhi:

Traditional Indian Costume

copyright 1998 by Lady Melisande


The Rg-Vedic Period, From 3500 BC

By the time the Aryans have built their civilization in India, costume had three unisex forms. The first was like a lungi a tied and draped skirt; the sari in which the outer end of the lungi is extended and draped over the upper body; and adivasi or primitive tribe clothing in which a much shorter piece of fabric was draped around the hips for a skirt, or around the upper chest or shoulders like the Polynesian pareo. In cooler weather, an abbreviated top might be worn, known today as a choli.

In the Vedic period, vocabulary shows that silver and gold brocades were available, as well as embroidered garments. "Wraps like shawls" could be draped around the upper body, or "overgarments" worn. There were special terms for the appreciation of good taste in dress.

Indian costume has never been spare and simple, except as a sign of poverty or renunciation. Besides beautiful fabrics, ornaments of flowers and other simple materials were as important to a finished appearance as a collection of gold and silver jewelry. Even the simple farmer could, for festivals, show his or her elegant taste on a lesser budget, while fashion faux pas are always possible even among the wealthiest who do not listen to their dressers.

The word sari predates the Aryans, coming from the Tamil siri. Nivi meaning the front pleats of a sari, is equally old. It was considered approapriate and tasteful for those with dark skins to wear light and bright colors in clothing, while the fairer-skinned should wear deeper hues.

This is the period in which cities like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were built, so don't believe those reconstructive paintings that show everyone walking around in white, being simple and either oppressed or ascetic.

The Epic Period From 350 BC to 350 CE

In this period, the numbers of costumes increased. While for women the sari dominated, there were also fulsome skirts worn, closely sewn long-sleeved tunics open on the left side from the ribs to the above-the-knee hem (sadra). Trousers and kurta-salvars -- baggy trousers -- are available for both sexes. Especially in the northwest with its contacts with Alexander the Great and the Persian Empire shows a tendency to tailored costumes, which suit the foothill cold. Men and women both wore turbans and a great variety of other headdresses. A woman's choli fastened with ties either in front or in back.

During this period the sakacha, the skirt draped back between the knees so as to be bifurcate, came to be worn in the upper classes. Having no money to spare for excess cloth or time for folds that hang up on things, the working classes tended to tailored trousers, or even just a small cloth draped for dignity.

On the other hand, courtly dress was so rich that a special term, manichira, was used for a fabric fringed with pearls. The old term for fabric woven with gold or silver, hiranya-drapi continued in use, as it did to the present day.

From 350 to 1100

In this period, Indian dress looks distinctly more Indian to us. Only men wear the turban. Women concentrate on showing off large heads of glossy dark hair in piled, intricate hairdos. Unisex clothing becomes minimal. From here on, male and female dress are distinct.

The sakacha develops into the dhoti for men, and a form of bifurcate sari for women (the drape will be given later). These garments or styles were most popular in central and southern India. Northern India tended to the lungi and odhni, the shawl or scarf thrown over the shoulder, or the sari. The choli is now de rigeur for the women of the upper classes, though they will discard it in warm weather if they are anything but absolutely leisured.

Now proof occurs of silk fabrics, in the existence of the words patto and Chanansuki or Chanansuya, which indicate its Chinese origins.

The Last 900 Years

Beginning in the Northwest, what is now Pakistan, the Mogul invasion in annual waves had a distinct effect on costume. Women in art of this area are almost always show in a very full skirt with a choli and odhni. Men wear tunic, slim trousers and turban. In the rest of the subcontinent, the sari continues its dominance of women's costume -- as it may have in non-courtly circles of the northwest.

The Sari

Can't find a copy of Dongerkery? This will do. Some old-line SCAers may remember my article on saris for 'Tournaments Illuminated' and if I could find my copy I would be saved ever so much work. Instead, twenty years later, let me start from scratch.

Unlike the SCAers, you are not going to be wearing the saris: your characters are. And a good thing for you with the beard! The sari is a garment where literally one size fits all, as long as we exclude the extremes of trying to put both a child and a 300-pounder in the same one. For adult women in a normal range of, say, size 2 to 24, one sari can be worn by any.

This is because the sari is a long piece of woven fabric which is never sewn nor seamed in any way. It is tied and draped around the body, providing varying amounts of coverage. It can even be draped as trousers rather than a skirt.

The sari looks beautiful on any woman, if she choses a flattering hue for her coloring, and a drape that suits her movement. I frankly envy a people who can wear these every day without getting funny stares in the supermarket the way a too-European-looking woman does. Sigh.

Traditionally, the district from which a woman comes can be told not only by the pattern of decoration of her sari, but by the manner in which she drapes it. The decoration of a sari is usually woven in: it is a garment designed by the weaver, not the tailor. In some areas, the woven pattern will be augmented by tritik (non-hippy tie-dying) or embroidery. Chunaree or Bandhani fabrics, whence our word bandanna, especially use lovely dying techniques. The techniques of Ikkat have become known generally as ikat, a method of laying out a pattern by dying the warp and weft threads before they are woven.

The sari is not just any strip of piece goods. Along one long edge is the main border that will be put to form the hem of the skirt part. On the part draped around the upper body, the end is covered with the patterned area called the pallav -- the most ornate part of the sari. The pallav will be from eighteen inches to a yard deep. At the other end is normally a simple crosswise band, the keel pallav. The top border may be somewhat narrower than the main border, or it may match it exactly. Sometimes the top border goes only far enough from the pallav to be tucked into the waist in the style for which it is designed. This can be a great savings in gold thread and weaver's work.

A tropical garment, the sari is made of cotton or silk, sometimes a mix of the two, in a weight varying from a light broadcloth to a voile. The borders and pallav contrast, and often there is a small motif scattered over the body of the fabric. The trim may or may not contain metallic threads. In India, everyday work saris are all-cotton, with white and a color for the patterns. Those for great ceremonies, like weddings, may be silk with thread-of-gold, the main border rising nearly to the knee.

With the sari is often worn what looks to you like a short, scoop-necked, short-sleeved tee-shirt. This choli is actually made of woven fabric. This is fitted, and individual to the wearer. The choli may also contrast or complement in any number of pleasing ways, and have three-quarter-length sleeves, shaped sleeve-ends, or a fancy-cut neckline in modern times.

Especially under very sheer saris, women wear a "petticoat" to add opacity. It fastens around the waist with a drawstring, never an elastic, and the minimum number of gathers. It is only two yards around the hem, which hits above the ankle. Wearing this petticoat also lets the sari be woven a yard or so shorter. Very neutral colors like white, ivory, light drab, pale peach and pink are used for the petticoat -- 95% of the time white.

The modern sari is about 45-52 inches wide and five or six yards long. This size sari can be draped in the Nivi, National, or Modern style, and also the Madras, Orissa, Gujarat, Bengal, and Rajasthan styles. The older sakacha style sari is nine yards long and at least 52 inches wide, though sometimes as wide as sixty inches. It is especially popular among working women in central India, who use a sari about six or seven yards long draped into the sakacha style.

The Nivi or National Style

This can be treated as the basic style. The top border of the sari is tucked into the waistband of the petticoat, or is knotted around the waist to form a self-petticoat over which more yardage is tucked. While doing this, the length is adjusted, from a practical ankle length to the elegantly toe-covering. Tucking begins in front of the right hip, proceeds across the belly and the back, with a few small pleats here and there so that it will be loose enough to walk in -- it should not bind or constrict the steps at all.

Once the start is reached again, enough of the pallav end is left free for the particular drape, and tucked in at center front. The yards of bight left between is gathered into small folds, around four inches wide, until it is all taken up and tucked into front of the waist.

The free pallav end is brought up across the body and hung over the left shoulder. It drapes gracefully over the left arm, and down the back to the knee or calf. If necessary, it can be drawn over the wearer's head as a veil, but this is strictly a temporary measure, and not part of the drape.

The Gujarati Style

In this style, putting on the skirt part is the same as in the Nivi style, but a foot or a foot and a half more is allowed in the pallav. From its point of affixment, the pallav is drawn to the back under the left arm and forward over the right shoulder. The point where the top border and pallav meet -- the top border should be against the neck -- is brought under the left arm and tucked into the back waist under the drape. The excess width of the pallav is borne on the right arm, the breasts are covered if no choli is worn as in hither ages, and the excess length hangs in a graceful arc down the back.

The Kalakshetra Style

Tucking the skirt is done as in the nivi style, but one and a half times the pallav end is allowed. The pallav is folded in half, corner to corner. Fold against the neck, it is brought up across the body, back over the left shoulder, forward under the right arm, and the center of the pallav is tucked in over the main drape at the front of the left hip. This style looks well-wrapped and secure, and just a little bulky.

The Fixed Veil Style

Unfortunately, I have never been able to find a geographic homeland for this attractive drape which I have spotted three or four times, once in a photograph so I could stare at it until it draped itself in my mind.

The skirt is draped like the nivi style. The pallav, about one and a half times the length for the national style is brought behind under the left arm, up under the right armpit, up past the left cheek, over the head, and down past the right cheek. The edge of the pallav is held horizontal across the front of the waist, and its corners are tucked into the waist at the back, over the rest of the drapes. It looks belted, very modest, and the veil can be arranged as best flatters.

The Sakacha or Maharashtrian Style

This requires the large sari, and cannot be done over a petticoat. The pallav will be draped as in the nivi style: the difference is in handling the pleats. Having tied the keel pallav end into a skirt, you measure off the pallav and toss it over the shoulder, out of the way. You now pleat some six yards of fine fabric in your hands. There will be a huge mass of them, and they are not tucked in over the top of the tight end. Rather, you hold them against your navel and roll the top border over them, forming a roll around the waist that adjusts the length as well.

A small handful of pleats from the visual middle -- guessing is good enough: this isn't rocket science -- is grasped at the bottom hem, drawn back between the ankles by swapping hands, and brought up to tuck into the back waist. Small garters will often secure the ankles, so that the edges don't flap around loosely.

The Coorg Style

Now we head into those drapes less like the nivi. In the Coorg style, you start tucking behind the left hip, and the nivi wind up at center back. The top border of the pallav is brought forward high under the right arm, and across the body to cover the breasts and stay close up under the arms. Going to the back under the left arm, the top corner is brought forward over the right shoulder and fastened to the border over the breasts with a brooch.

This is a very wrapped-up and tailored-looking style. Obviously, it was originally designed to operate well without a choli.

The Bengali Style

In Bengal, they do it differently, and most days I'll say the hang of the curves makes this the prettiest of all the drapes. Any day I wear it, I'll tell you that any veiled style is a beast to keep up on one's hair.

The keel pallav end is tucked into the petticoat or self-petticoat. When the front of the right hip is reached, you keep on tucking flat until you get to the front of the other hip. Then you fold three big pleats on either side that will reach hip to hip and tuck them in. This leaves a lot of pallav! You'll be glad you didn't use the big sari. However, a sari designed for the nivi style with a partial top border will look bad because the border starts too late.

The top border is brought from its attachment at the front of the right hip across the body, up past the left cheek, over the head, then down the back past the right ear. From behind, the top corner of the pallav is brought under the right arm, up across the body again, and tossed over the left shoulder -- usually secured by the weight of the household keys tied to that corner. Unless secured to the hair with pins or ornaments, it falls down the back into a drape that often drags on the ground. Bengali women must have velcro chignons.

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