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History of Indian Ethnic Wear

India is a land of traditions with a rich cultural heritage. Each culture has its own set of traditional outfits. Indian traditional wear also finds its roots in countries’ centuries-old culture. The history of clothing goes back to the 5th Millenium BC during the Indus valley civilization, where people mainly wore clothing made from locally grown cotton. The present-day knowledge on the evolution of Indian clothing comes from the sculptures, paintings, and other human art-forms found in ancient cave monuments.

Indian fashion saw its first rise in the 1980s supported by few designers. However, with the economic boom and exposure to global fashion, Indian fashion saw a rise in the 1990s. Now the Indian fashion industry has strongly established itself. Indian fashion designers have made their mark in the industry with ‘Indian Couture Weeks’ showcasing the latest trends in all kinds of Indian ethnic wear along with wedding lehengas, sarees in traditional weaves, and unique draping styles, a trendy and elegant range of salwar suits, sherwanis and dhotis.


Traditional Lehenga Set with the Long skirt, blouse and dupatta and modern co-ordinate set with Long skirt and Crop top
Traditional Lehenga Set with the Long skirt, blouse and dupatta and modern co-ordinate set with Long skirt and Crop top

As mentioned in Buddhist literature and Sanskrit literature, the three-piece attire was known as ‘Poshak‘ was used as clothing. The lower garment is known as ‘Antariya‘, the chest band is known as ‘Stanapatta‘, and a veil for the shoulder or head as ‘Uttariya‘. Antariya resembled the modern-day dhoti, where the cloth is wrapped around the waist and another end is passed between the legs and tucked as decorative pleats at the midriff. It evolved into Bhairnvasani– present-day ‘lehenga‘ or ‘ghagra‘. Present-day dupatta or odhani has evolved from Uttariya– a veil for head or shoulders. Similarly, during the 1st century A.D., Choli or blouse evolved from Stanapatta.

Lehenga became popular as attire in the 10th century. The original form of lehenga was stitched from cotton fabric however with the arrival of Mughals in India, it evolved through fine craftsmanship using royal fabrics and rich embroideries.

Traditional Three-Piece Lehenga

Lehenga has undergone transitions with cultural influences affecting the styling and silhouette. Traditional styles of lehengas are three-piece outfits comprising of a long skirt, blouse, and dupatta.

With the changing global trends, plenty of different silhouettes are now available in lehengas. Coordinated sets are the latest trend in women’s ethnic wear with traditional lehenga-blouse taking the form of modern 2 attire; a long skirt and a crop top. The same can also be coordinated with a dupatta. This is a preferred style nowadays which can be easily carried out as occasion wear and looks trendy.

Lehenga style Saree is also a new trend and quite popular nowadays. It comprises of merging lehenga and saree silhouette into one, with saree drapes and pleats resembling the skirt of lehenga and dupatta draped as pallu of saree.

The silhouette of the lehenga has also undergone variations like A-line, straight cut, Fish cut, or mermaid cut silhouettes. While traditional lehengas used to be stitched in cotton or silk, lehengas are now stitched from rayon, satin, velvet, crepe, and other fancy fabrics.

Lehengas are usually worn during special occasions like weddings, festivals, or parties. For winters, lehengas with heavier fabrics like silk, velvet, or brocade can be worn whereas for summers, lighter fabric-based lehengas like silk and crepe, georgette can be worn.


Kantha Pure Linen Saree
Kantha Pure Linen Saree

The origin of the saree dates back to the Indus valley civilization and is considered one of the oldest forms of garment across the world. Sari has been described in Sanskrit as ‘Śāṭī’, meaning a strip of cloth. The ‘Sari‘ also termed as ‘Saree’ can be defined as an unstitched single piece of garment varying in length from four-and-a-half to eight meters. It is draped around the lower part of the body, gathered into pleats in front and the other end draped as a pallu over the shoulders. The women’s attire described in Buddhist literature as ‘Jatakas’ and ‘Sattika‘ in Sanskrit literature can be deemed to be similar to modern-day Saree. The present-day knowledge on the evolution of Indian clothing comes from the sculptures and paintings in ancient cave monuments. These sculptures show goddesses wearing a cloth wrapped around the waist similar to the modern-day sari. Even lehengas are considered to have their roots in this attire.

As mentioned in Buddhist literature and Sanskrit literature, the saree evolved from 3 piece attire during the 6th century B.C. The lower garment is known as Antariya, chest band known as Stanapatta, and a veil for shoulder or head as Uttariya. As mentioned in Pali literature, between 2nd century B.C. to 1st century A.D., Antariya and Uttariya merged into a single garment, serving the purpose of a two-piece garment into one, know as a present-day sari.

The Evolution of Sari can be traced back through different civilizations:

Indus Valley civilization:
The women during this period used to wear long pieces of clothes similar to loincloths. The cloth would be draped around the waist and one end of the cloth would be passed between the legs and folded and tucked behind to give more movement to the wearer.

The Aryans:
Like Indus valley civilization, they adopted the tradition of wearing cotton weaves. The fabric worn around the waist by women was known as ‘neevi’.

Introduction of Pitamber:
The neevi and kanchuki were the main outfits for the women. As the quest for the affluent people to wear elegant clothes, the dyeing of clothes originated. The natural dyes were used to dye the clothes. Yellow silk neevis were called Pitamber and purple silk shawls as Patola.

The Mughal Period:
The pallu to cover the head or as a veil may have been introduced. The 3 piece clothing of unstitched garments or stitched garments was carried by Mughals in India.

The Modern Age:
Hand-painted clothes were replaced by hand block printing. At the beginning of the Portuguese and British era, sarees were hand block printed using vegetable dyes. The European themes influenced the introduction of multiple prints on the sarees.

There exist more than 80 variations of draping a saree from pleatless Odia and Bengali styles, the Kodagu style, the Malayali style, and the classical style. The saree comes in a variety of fabrics ranging from cotton, silk, Kanchipuram, Banarsi, Linen, Raw silk, Mangalgiri cotton, etc. These also come with a variety of hand embroidery and prints – Kantha, chicken work, shisha, tie and dye, etc to name a few. It is one of the leading attire on the ramp during fashion shows, in Bollywood, and equally famous among working and non-working class.

Read more details about the famous silk sarees of India, originating from various regions of the country.

Salwar kameez

Angrakha kurta
Angrakha Kurta Palazzo Dupatta Set

The salwar kameez is believed to have originated in the Mughal era and has strong Persian influence. The outfit consists of loose pants (salwar), tunic (kameez), and paired with dupatta. One of the most popular styles of salwar kameez is Anarkali suits. It is characterized by a long flared kurta, with 6-8 Kalis flaring from the waistline, either ankle length or floor length. It usually has a lot of rich embroidery work giving it an elegant look.

The outfit can be made from a variety of fabrics like cotton, silk, velvet, georgette, chiffon, rayon, etc. The garment comes in a variety of silhouettes with prints or embroidery that creates different looks.

Various styles and forms can be seen in salwar kameez now. The outfit is preferred by both urban and rural women and is considered the most comfortable garment to wear. It can be worn as casual, formal, or party wear.


Sherwani is the most popular attire for Indian men especially for weddings and during family functions. The origin of Sherwani can be traced back to the Mughal era. It was the dress code of Turkish and Persian nobles and later on evolved as the traditional dress for the common man.

It can be defined as a long coat, buttoned up to the collar, and lengthwise it is usually below the knee. It is teamed up with kurta and salwar or churidar pajama. The fitting is of utmost importance, it fits close to the body thus giving the elegant look.

Nowadays, sherwani comes in a variety of styles and designs. The emergence of Indian fashion designers and the influence of Bollywood movies has resulted in various versions of sherwani with a variety of fabric, colors, and silhouettes. Modern sherwanis are often teamed up with dhotis, patiyalas, or fitted trousers.

indian traditional wear

Nehru Jacket

The origin of the Nehru jacket dates back to the pre-independence era. At that time, it was popularly known as ‘Band gale ka coat’ or ‘Achkan- a coat-like garment worn during high-end ceremonies by the nobilities’ in India. The Nehru jacket is named after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. It is a less formal alternative to the sherwani and is an important part of the Indian man’s wardrobe.

The jacket has a straight fit hip-length coat with a mandarin collar and button in the center. This gives it a formal yet elegant look. Initially, these jackets were usually made from khadi fabric. Owing to changing fashion trends, nowadays fabrics like linen, silk, cotton blends, velvet, etc are also used. These jackets showcase different designs and patterns. They are often embroidered in shimmering threads of gold, silver, copper and are popular as festive or wedding wear.

With ever-increasing changing fashion, its history is difficult to encompass in one article. With the influence of global fashion, even Indian fashion is becoming more versatile. However, Indian ethnic wear is becoming stronger than ever with lots of emphasis on the revival of local crafts and handlooms. These attires carry our traditional culture and will continue to be an important part of our wardrobes.


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