Looking through time at how Salwar Kameez and Indian dresses have evolved in Indian subcontinent, one can only wonder how this colorful and diverse fashion culture has been created over the many centuries.
The British ruled over India from the mid-19th-century to the mid-20th-century. It’s, therefore, safe to say the modern history of India began after the British Raj.
Talking about modern history, the essence of this post is to shine the spotlight on the history of Salwar Kameez in the modern era. We’ll travel back in time to see how the Indian woman has dressed in Salwar Kameez from the 20th century through the 21st century. Spoiler alert; it’s intriguing but colorful!
Mughal Era Indian Dresses – A Culture Trip of Salwar Kameez
The Mughal Era in Indian history is undoubtedly one of the most significant eras as far as Indian fashion and culture are concerned. That time in history recorded the most significant events that have defined what kinds of Salwar Kameez Indian women wear till this day.
Muslims first arrived in South Asia around the 12th century.
The Mughal, however, conquered Northern India and ruled from around the 16th century to the 18th century. Because of their Turkic-Mongol and Arabic origins, certain elements of that Persian culture and fashion made headway into the Indian way of life. In this post, we’ll describe some of those events and changes.
Mughal & Indian Fashion Philosophy
The Indian people share this philosophical outlook on fashion preceding the Mughal and British eras. This means that most Salwar Kameez were simple. You have to look at the saree to fully grasp this.
The Mughals, unlike the people of ancient India, love splendor and glamor.
Their salwar suit dresses were made from rich fabric and feature elaborate embellishments.
And while the Indians (mostly Hindus) care less about keeping every part of the body covered (thanks in no part to the hot tropical climate), the Mughals (adherent Muslims) covered every skin area except the face. This means that while Indians embraced simplicity in dressing and fashion, the Mughals were more invested in richly woven and embroidered Salwar Kameez. If you look at the Indian fashion scene today, you will see how both of these different philosophies and outlooks have merged.
Introducing the Salwar Kameez
The salwar kameez and its variations till today are a constant theme in Indian fashion. Anyone who knows a bit of Indian fashion history will understand that this was introduced and popularized by the Mughal era kings.
The saree and ghagra have always been the main choices for Indian women before this period. The Salwar Kameez introduction in India started with the Mughal era courtesans who were occasionally invited to the palace to perform the Mujra dance in Mujra dresses. That mujra dress, as it turns out, was the earliest known form of Salwar kameez.
The Mujra dress became later known as the Anarkali dress when it was renamed after Lady Anarkali, the most famous courtesan of the Mughal Empire era. Since then, several variations of the Salwar Kameez have emerged, from the Punjabi suit to the Anarkali, the gharara and sharara, lehenga-style suits, etc.
Indian And Mughal Fashion Fusion
Jewelry making in India also got a boost during the Mughal era.
While the jewelry was made from gold sets and encrusted with rubies, diamonds, emeralds, and other gemstones, the richly woven clothing fabric was embroidered with threads of gold and silver known as zari. This also boosted the Indian textile industry with the production of dyed and printed fabrics that were often exported to European countries.
While the people were mostly hesitant to adopt the Mughal way of dressing, Emperor Akhbar, perhaps the most prominent Mughal emperor, contributed greatly to harmonizing Mughal and Hindu fashion and culture to promote a sense of belonging among the masses. The Mughals made their Salwar Kameez dresses from the finest silk, brocades, velvet, and muslins there are. Their elaborate embellishments and embroidery continue to manifest in Indian fashion today
British Era Fashion: Marriage of East & West Fashion Culture
While the British Era may or may not be classified as part of the modern history of India, it makes sense to spotlight some of the significance of the moment in history since it gave rise to many of the styles, patterns, and designs that are now commonplace in modern Indian fashion.
Before the British, the people maintained a distinctive fashion culture that was exclusively made up of ethnic traditional wear or Salwar Kameez. After colonization, however, Indians were forced to accept the lifestyle and culture of the Europeans in a way that gradually fizzled out traditional wear and fashion.
While the saree, for example, had been originally worn over the body, often leaving the upper body area uncovered, petticoats and blouses were introduced to be worn alongside the saree as can be seen in the modern saree today.
Two-piece suits, shirts and trousers, frilled skirts, and embroidered, among others were introduced to the society relegating the sarees and ghagras to the back seat. With these new dresses becoming the order of the day, ethnic dresses were often confined to royal palaces or special functions.
Exploring Indian Women’s Dresses During the British Era
Have you ever wondered how Indian women dressed during the British era? Well, that’s important because we always have to look back at history to be able to explain current occurrences and events.
And as expected, certain events during the British era not only shaped how fashion changed in that era but also provide a pointer to the state of the Indian fashion scene in today’s India. Together, let’s travel back together on this journey through a grim period in our history.
Overview of Fashion In British India
Sometimes during 1858, the East India Company forcefully took over control of India. And while European settlers have initially embraced the customs and costumes of the Indian people before this moment, this sharp turn in history led to the subjugation of the Indian people’s culture as a result of colonization.
The Europeans systematically frowned upon Indian customs and Salwar Kameez and the people were led to believe in the superiority of British culture and fashion, and hence, embrace them. For members of the upper class, fashion choices revolved between elements of both Mughal and Victorian fashion. This means that along with ghagras and sarees, the people also adopted skirts and gowns.
New fabrics like lace, satin, and chiffon were introduced to the population. And while the saree was always loved enough to survive the travails of that moment, the dresses evolved to being worn with blouses and petticoats as against being the single piece initially.
The Indian people fully assimilated the fashion and culture of the Europeans. The men started wearing two-piece suits and shirts, among other Western-inspired dresses to reflect the reality of the moment. Traditional dresses like long embroidered coats were then relegated to ceremonial dresses that were seen only at royal palaces and special functions.
The Rise of The Khadi Movement
Mahatma Gandhi started the Khadi movement in 1918 during the British era to steer the people away from over-reliance on foreign materials and mill-manufactured textiles.
The movement advocated for local patronage of locally made handspun khadi Salwar Kameez.
This, according to Gandhi, would help the people achieve self-sustainability and self-reliance. As was expected, the khadi revolution helped provide employment for many members of rural India and soon became a symbol of patriotism that extended beyond just fashion.
Using a spinning charkha, artisans and craftsmen made the khadi material that was then used to style sarees, suits, kurtas, pajamas, and several other dresses worn at that time. One of these popular khadi products is the Nehru jacket that gained prominence in the 1940s as the favorite dress of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, a prominent anti-colonialist figure and later on, India’s prime minister for 17 years.
Significant changes in the fashion and culture of the Indian people occurred during the British era. The exposure to Western fashion led to a further hybridization of both cultures towards the end of the 20th century. While much of the modern-day changes to Indian fashion happened after Indian independence and freedom from British rule, the key events of that British era continue to influence Indian fashion, Salwar suits and dresses, till today.
Post-Independence Dresses of The Modern Era
The movement for self-determination by the Indian people signaled a shift in the lifestyle of the people which was also reflected in their taste and sense of fashion. This led to the emergence of the khadi movement.
Khadi paved the way for the people to move away from the overreliance on Western materials and styles of fashion. Suits, pajamas as well as sarees, kurtas, and other homespun clothes were now being made from the native khadi material. The Nehru jacket popularized by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the products of this revolution.
The period after independence, however, saw a hybridization of both Western and Indian culture. New fabrics such as nylon and polyesters were introduced into the markets. Skin-tight kurtas with their short length became a thing. More short blouses and sleeveless tops flooded the markets. Polo neck dresses and checkered shirts also came roaring to the scene. Denim, leather jackets, sunglasses, and more were introduced into Indian fashion. Long salwar kameez dresses were also favored in place of churidars and short kurtas.
Headgears became less common as they were now only being worn by members of the royal families and people in rural areas. By the 2000s, however, global brands like Nike, Puma, M&S as well as designer labels like Fabricoz, Sabyasachi, Manish Malhotra, and more dominated the scenes releasing modern dresses with a touch of traditional fashion.
Navigating the Bollywood Factor
Today, the men and women of Bollywood continue to wield their great influence on the fashion and lifestyle of the Indian people.
The industry continues to gain more popularity nationally and globally and some of its biggest stars are constantly influencing the choice of dresses that Indian women are wearing in this modern era. Discussions like this bring to mind scenes like the red jacket Shah Rukh Khan wore in ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ as well as Deepika’s beautiful dresses for Bajirao Mastani.
The showbiz industry continues to dictate the tune for the Indian modern fashion scene where you will find all kinds of dresses from ethnic Patiala suits to embroidered sarees, salwar suits, anarkalis, dhotis, jodhpuri suits, sherwanis, kurta, blazers, jeans, dupatta, etc. Today’s fashion choice perfectly embodies the incredible evolution of Indian fashion from the Indus Civilization era to the modern-day.