Indian Costumes

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Item Code: IDE351
Publisher: Publication Division, Ministry Of Information And Broadcasting
Author: A. Biswas
Language: English
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 8123010559
Pages: 145 (Figures: 102)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.8" X 7.4"
Weight 400 gm
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Shipped to 153 countries
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Book Description


Costume is a cultural visual, a mirror of the time and the people. The dress of a people presents a vital clue to their mood and taste, their aesthetic temper, their art and skill to adjust to their social and geographical environment, their resilience to various influences, in short, to their way of living.

In this book, an attempt has been made to capture the glimpses of our sartorial world through time and space. Indian costumes provides a brief survey of how our people dressed themselves in the past and how they now dress themselves in the different regions of this country. A brief has also been made of styles of coiffures and the use of ornaments, cosmetics and fabrics. A selected glossary added at the end of the book may be found useful.

The bewildering range and multiplicity of regional and local dresses with varieties of styles according to different classes and communities make it obviously impossible to include everything in so slight a volume. One is forced to be selective at places without omitting the most representative styles of wear.

The material for the book has been collected from many sources-standard books on Indian costumes, District Gazetteers of different States and Village Survey Monographs of Census of India, 1961 and 1971. The illustrations of chapters III and IV are mostly based on Dr. Charles Fabri's line drawings appearing in his book A History of Indian Dress. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the authors of these books and documents. My thanks are also due to Shri R. K. Bose for the illustrations.


The story of the dress of a people from age to age presents a vital clue to their social and economic conditions, their mood and taste, their aesthetic temper, their love for beauty and refinement, their art and skill to adjust to the material and geographical environment, their resourcefulness, their resilience to influences, external and internal, in short, their way of living. A historical pageant of constumes of a community or a nation is an essential aspect of its cultural heritage. No people proud of their heritage can miss it.

The community or its leaders decide as the what to wear, how to wear it and what are the distinctions to be made on the basis of six and age, class and caste, religion and region, occasion and occupation. What part of the body has to be covered and what has to be left bare, how to conceal and how to reveal and questions of community sanction. It all depends on how the community thinks about these matters and all such thinking decides the style of dress. Costume is a cultural visual, a mirror of the time and the people.

Man's thinking changes, so do the styles in dress. On the one hand it is an imitation of the old, on the other an adjustment to the new needs, tastes and circumstances. This is how culture lives, regulates and rejuvenates itself from time to time. Foreign conquests, exotic ideas and new influences bring in changes on the sartorial horizon and yet the old is never dead. In the wake of conquests, either the old absorbs the new or the new adopts the old.

Dress has become a vital part of our living. We hardly think of its beginnings in the remote past. Looking back through aeons of time we discover the dim distant age when man lived in caves, when there was no cotton, no wool, no silk. Man's only concern was securing his food and preserving his life. Dress did not exist then. It had to emerge through a long tedious process of evolution. The painting, cutting and tattooing of the skin were the first attempts of man to look a little different than what God had made him. Body decoration was the first step towards dress. When the primitive hunter returned after a chase or battle with scratches and stains of blood all over his body he was given a hero's welcome. The gory evidences of his glorious might, the blood stains and scars were considered silent symbols of his courage, skill and success. Thus an urge arose to have some permanent marks of honour. What else could they have thought of than to decorate themselves by daubing their faces and colouring of bodies. Soon these symbols gathered in patterns and designs. Then man discovered new ideas to scratch and slash his skin with permanent patterns. This was followed by tattooing.

The second step towards dress was the impulse that arose in man to attach something to his body. He cut a hole in the lip, nose or ears and ran a bit of wood, bone or stone through it. He also began hanging somethings from his neck and tying something around his waist, limbs and fingers. Then he started using other things besides facial ornaments. He wore his trophies of war-the chief of the tribe wore necklaces of teeth, bones, claws, feathers and polished stones. Similarly the hair of the head was found a natural holder for leaf, flower, feather and horn ornaments. The girdle preceded the use of any other covering. It was first a male appendage found useful for carrying tools for hunting operations as it kept the hand free. It was more like a modern pocket and the idea of a suspender came later. This was the first real article of clothing, and what could be more natural than to hang grass, leaves, flowers of feathers from it. This set a fashion, which brought in its wake the short grass skirt. It became an article of decoration, protection and concealment.

The idea of the upper garment emerged perhaps after the grass skirt. It could be that one day the chief of the tribe came home wearing the skin of some animal about his shoulders and that started a craze. Every hunter would try to save the best animal men of the tribe claimed special clothings and ornaments. This gave birth to the idea of dress as a symbol of dignity, distinction and status.

The experimenting process plodded its way through time till it reached the gates of ancient river valley civilization. The Egyptians were the first to leave their records of costume in durable pictures painted on the walls of tombs and temples. Our Harappan civilization was almost contemporary to the Ancient egyptian civilization. But the archaeological finds from the Indus valley civilization do not provide us with adequate evidence to say with certainty how these people dressed themselves.

Clothings help in furnishing adornment, protecting the wearer from the elements, maintaining modesty, or fixing status. It has been seen how pre-historic men realized these four important functions of what they put on their body, whether it was a paint, a grass skirt or the skin of an animal.

Besides these four functions, which are frequently combined, costume serves other factors, which have a direct influence on what the people wear. They could be geographical, technological, aesthetical and historical factors. There could be more.

It will be a geographical compulsion in very cold regions like Ladakh, Leh and Lahul to have thick woollen, for or even skin garments to protect every part of the body. Man would not survive if he does not take al protective care against the biting cold or snow. In hot humid tropical places man needs free movement of air over his body. As such he traditionally wears little clothing and keeps as much part of the body exposed as possible. Draped clothing best suits the tropical monsoon climate. Sari and dhoti best serve the purpose. Dress is also affected by the natural resources and material available. Early fabrics in Egypt were linen, in India cotton and in Greece wool.

Technological advancements also changes in dress. In the 19th century the sewing machines helped mass production of garments copied from the upper class, thereby enabling the workers also to wear them. The 20th century has seen the invention and fashion of varieties of synthetic fabrics.

Whether or not garments are needed for protection, in all civilizations it is worn for modesty. The sense of shame about exposed skin is purely a matter of social convention. It varies widely from one place to another and may change with time. Customs and usages largely dictate the limits of modesty. When people become accustomed through many centuries to cover a certain part of the body, an aura of secrecy gathers round the region. It will greatly shock the society if that part is ever exposed. It is this same reason that makes it difficult to believe that Indian women in the past did not generally wear an upper garment. In fact, it is the covering that causes the feeling of modesty and not modesty that causes the covering.

This feeling of shame that arises due to exposure of that which is concealed by social custom is more predominant in the case of women. Concealment is an aid to protection against attraction. But strangely enough clothes have enhanced the charm, which they were supposedly to conceal or subdue. Clothes have thus the dual function of concealment and display at the same time. They adorn the body while they cover it.

Aesthetically dress serves two purposes. It helps to accentuate the beauty of the human form towards perfection by suitable emphasis. It also contrives to conceal what is not shapely or beautiful by intelligently designing artificial folds, lines and curves on the clothes. No doubt a good dress sometimes provides an illusory effect but it provides great satisfaction and pride to the wearer, and as Thomas Fuller said, "Good clothes open all doors".

Dress distinguishes a person's status and position in society. It tickles his vanity. He wants to look more beautiful or handsome, more important or impressive than his peers. He tries to give the feeling that he belongs to a group superior to or more important than other groups. These attributes of the ego may not surface at all times and in many men of groups. But an intuitive pride in self-elegance goads him imperceptibly. In the primitive stage, the chief of the tribe knew well that his position in the tribe depended on his acquisition of those gaudy dresses and funny trinklets, which had been accepted as symbols of authority. Among tribal communities men flaunt various dress elegances according to their hierarchy in the tribe. In the eastern hilly regions each clan or subclan can be distinguished by its style of dress or the typical designs of the shawl. The school uniform displays the pride of belonging to a certain institution. People of the wealthy class will have costly garments and precious ornaments. In the defence services it is the uniform that gets the salute because it represents a certain rank in the hierarchy.

Historical events have been of great significance in changing the style of our dress. The invasion of Alexander introduced the Hellenic touch. The Kushan kings acquainted us with the long coat and boots. The Muslim influence gifted us the sherwani and churidar pyjamas, the kameez and salwar. British rule gave us the coat, trousers and tie.

Religion and belief in supernatural powers have also exercised a subtle influence on what people wear. What part of the body should be kept covered and what type of dress should be worn during the act of worshipping or at the time of religious ceremonies or otherwise are prescribed norms. Sometimes neck ornaments, amulets, armlets, bracelets, ear ornaments and finger rings of alloyed metal studded with stones were worn as security from evil spirits and certain sickness. Some people still adorn their forehead with auspicious marking. Some wear the sacred thread (yajnopavita) as a religious requirement. It appears on the stone sculptures of both men and women since the 2nd century. Some of these practices have now lost their religious orientation or magical significance. Some of these articles have now turned into adornments.

To discover how people dressed themselves in the ages gone by, we have to take recourse to literature, sculpture, terracotta, paintings and coins of those times. Interestingly enough all the ancient sculptures represent men and women bare down to the waist. Naturally, to the Indian mind, it is difficult to accept these artistic depictions as copy from life. Some historians assert that women even in those times always kept their breast veiled. The line of argument has been that in that age of artistic fervent the sculptors wanted to take the advantage of the new found opportunity to display their artistic excellence by showing the upper part bare, for it requires greater talent and skill to sculpt the nude or partially nude form they cite examples of nude sculptures of the Greeks. This point does not go far. There is no doubt that the Greeks loved to depict the nude but they had also sculpted thousands of statues showing minute details of dresses worn by every type of people.

Throughout the history of Indian art from the earliest times to the 11th or the 12th century, women as a rule, are shown without the upper garment except, here and there, with a thin scarf as a piece of decoration. Those rare cases where women have an upper garment may pertain to foreigners and maid, servants of the royal household. But even sculptured portrayals of kinds and their queens commissioned by royalty are shown without any upper garment. It does not stand to reason that the kings would have allowed public exposure of the sculpted bare bosom of their wives, if in reality, the queens were accustomed to keep their torsos properly covered. Modesty is a matter of social convention and permissibility. The archaeologists and scholars provide us reasons to accept that the styles of dress depicted on the sculptures are direct matter-of-fact presentations of reality and not a mere product of the sculptor's imagination.

In the following chapters we will witness the drama of the dress on the panorama of life unfolding itself scene by scene in graceful patterns. Indian sartorial scenes have changed rather slowly. Certain basic fashions have remained the same for a long time though changes in emphasis and minor details continued. In fact any major shift depends on the holding power of tradition and the pressing demands of the time. Continuity and change are the two essential characteristics of a living culture. Culture ensures that we are not totally uprooted from our past inheritance. It also promises that we must keep abreast with the march of time. The same phenomena, applies to costumes as they represent one of the facets of a culture. From the Jacket:

Costume is a cultural visual of the people. It provides the vital clue to their customs, tastes, aesthetic temper - in other words, their way of living. The community decides as to what to wear and how to wear. It also decides about the distinctions to be made on the basis of sex and age, class and castes, religion and region, occasion and occupation. There is community sanction too on what part of the body to be covered, or what to be left bare, how to conceal and how to reveal. Costume is truly a kind of a dressing-table mirror of the time and the people. Man's thinking changes, so do the styles and dress. He imitates the old as well as adjusts to the new needs, tastes and circumstances. Foreign conquests, exotic ideas and new influences also bring in changes.

This book which is sufficiently illustrated depicts in detail the dress transformation that had taken place over the ages in our country, known for its diversity.

About the Author:

Shri Arabinda Biswas is a well-known educationist who has many books on education to his credit. Throughout his varied career as a civil servant, he never missed an opportunity to study culture, especially the costumes of the country. As he toured through different regions he would observe and collect visual material on costumes as a hobby.

This is the author's first book on the subject. His other books include: Indian Educational Documents since Independence, Education in India, Encyclopedic Dictionary and Directory of Education (2 vols.) etc.




I. Introduction 1
II. Through the Ages: Harappa to the Mauryan Times 5
III. Through the Ages: Second Century B.C. to Eleventh Century A.D. 10
IV Through the Ages: The Era of the Sultans and the Mughal Emperors 18
V. Through the Ages: The British Period and After 29
VI. Cotemporary Scene I: Northern and Western Regions 37
VII. Cotemporary Scene II: Eastern Region 50
VIII. Cotemporary Scene III: Southern Region 62
IX. Rural and Tribal Costumes (North) 73
X. Rural and Tribal Costumes (South) 82
XI. Dance Costumes 89
XII. Coiffures and Cosmetics 94
XIII. Traditional Ornaments 100
XIV. Fabrics and Their Aesthetics 110
XV. How to wear Sari and Dhoti 114
XVI. Epilogue 120
  Glossary 127
  Index 133


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