Traditional Indian clothing is something of a complicated matter. Though most Westerners tend to think of India as a unified homogeneous society, the fact is that India is actually several distinct cultures, each with their own histories and traditions that can date back thousands of years, with a diverse range of cultural elements, starting with religion and traditional way of life and going all the way down to daily cuisine and typical dress. The widely diverse array of cultures of in India is far from homogeneous despite Western notions of the land, and the land and its people are changing with the shifts in the twenty first century, quite willing and able to embrace the modern world while retaining their own distinctive identities.
The concept of a single Indian nation was forced on the land by colonial powers and has since created something of a confusion as to the dizzying array of cultures and traditions in the nation. Though many of the separate nations that preceded India were quite distinct, being grouped together did not eradicate these cultures, and in some ways was beneficial as it led to some fairly important cross cultural pollination. With the rise of Indian nationalism at the dawn of the twenty first century, these diverse cultures decided that they would embrace the shared identity they had found themselves with and sought release from British rule. Since then, things have not been perfect and at times quite tense, but people continue to live in the land as they always have.
Traditional Indian clothing draws on the people and their traditions. Like Western clothing, there is a distinction between male and female clothing, though these distinctions are not immediately grasped by foreigners. However, these traditional outfits mean quite a bit to the people of India. Indeed, during the push for Indian independence there was a widespread movement to promote the use of khadi. Khadi is a traditional cloth, used by cultures not just in India, but across the entire Indian subcontinent. Usually woven from cotton, this style of cloth making can also be used for silk or wool and in many parts of the subcontinent, even mass produced clothing gives way to hand woven khadi.
During the push for Indian independence, a number of independence leaders believed that a boycott of British goods, including clothing, would weaken the political position of the colonial British while empowering rural artisans, an important element of the independence movement’s political alliance. Though hand woven khadi has largely given way to mass produced clothing in modern India, it remains quite popular, and many Westerners are beginning to appreciate the craftsmanship it is woven with, making it a specialty export of the countries of the area.
The traditional clothing for women in India varies widely depending on the local cultural norms, religious beliefs and oftentimes the climate. While khadi is a popular fabric across India as it is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. the exact forms it is shaped into will vary between region to region. The most common garmet for women in many portions of India is a sari worn with a choli top. Saris are draping clothing measuring between five and nine yards long and two to four feet wide, carefully wrapped around a woman’s body. A choli is a specialized blouse common in many parts of the Indian subcontinent, with a low neck and short sleeves that can often be cropped to expose the navel and midriff in particularly scorching summers. However, this is merely the most common style of dress for women in India, and many regions have their own styles, though this is the most common.
For men, traditional clothing is either a sarong, also known as a lungi or a dhoti, which is some what similar to a sari save that it covers both the waist and the chest with equal ease and is wrapped around the body in a similar manner. However, men will often wear shirts or jackets over their dhotis. One particular type of jacket that dates back some centuries in India is the achkan, also known as the sherwani, which is usually worn with tightly fit trousers and was the standard dress for nobles during the Mughal dynasty.