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Home > Costumes Culture > History and Evolution of Costumes > History of Costumes
History of Costumes

SariCostume like architecture, is one of the most visible signs of a civilization. What a person wears is often indicative of his to her personal and social identity, marital status, occupation and sometimes-even religion. The study of costume of India is a particularly difficult subject. Any such inquiry must take into account an area the size of a continent, which spans 16 ecological zones. It also encompasses a multitude of different peoples, their rich past, extending back at least 5,000 years, and the merging moving apart and meeting again of the many influences that have shaped their culture.

The study of India`s royal costumes and textiles mirrors the country`s complex history and tradition. In the Indian context, the most difficult aspect of an historical study is the near absence of any surviving costume material from any period earlier than the 18th century. Even textile evidence of a more generic nature is disconcertingly sparse. A single fragment of plain madder - dyed cotton cloth, dated to around 1750 BC is all that survives from the entire Indus Valley Civilization.

No material is available from the next 3,000 years, until about AD1200. Indeed, apart from a few pieces from Sultanate and Mughal India, the costumes that have survived date only from the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Indian sculpture and painting from the ancient and medieval periods do illustrate the forms and uses of royal apparel, these often lead us into the realms of pure conjecture. Literary references, too, are abundant and detailed, but only rarely do they conjure up a motif, pattern or style with any precision. For most of India`s history therefore we can only try to elicit from these indirect sources a composite, if general, image of the sartorial tastes of its rulers. For the more recent colonial era, however, a sharper picture can be drawn as a result of the many court garments that survive in museums and private collections. These complement richly the evidence from paintings, photographs and other media sources.

The flavor of Indian costume is sensed through movement, drape and detail. The Indian woman, for example, is never still. Every movement allows her attire to be viewed afresh. She constantly re-arranges its drape over the head, the shoulders and around the ankles. The lifting of the head permits not only a glimpse of her kohled eyes and jeweled hair, but also the detail of the weave of the embroidery, color and pattern, of the fabric. The smallest detail, such as the fine edging of her dupatta or ghaghra, conceived of and revealed in a most enticing manner.

No less important is the association of the color of apparel with custom and ritual. Even today, many women in India continue to wear a specific color for each day of the week. Apart from the codes prescribed for religious observances, the change of seasons and rites of passage are also marked by a change in the choice of color. In Rajasthan, for instance, princesses and peasants alike celebrate the advent of Basant (spring) by wearing yellow.

Equally, the assemblage of an Indian costume includes an incredible amount of jewellery . The hair is ornamented, as are the ears, nose, neck and breast. A girdle adorns the waist, and the wrists and ankles are weighed with gold and silver. Indeed every toe may posses its own ring. As every region and community of India has its own vocabulary of personal adornment, it has not been possible to cover this important subject in depth. However, this attempt to present royal costume and accoutrements in their entirety should provide rich material for scholars to investigate further.

India`s royal costumes were the fruit of affluence and leisure. With the possible exception of those designed specifically for battle, they were not in any way related to clothes for work. Often they were manifestations of Imperial caprice: clothes to be seen in, clothes to be comfortable in or clothes fashioned for the pursuit of pleasure. The rulers of Northern and Western India sought these attributes in the shaped and stitched garment, many elements of which appear to have been imported from regions beyond the sub continental frontier. The dynasties of the South and East on the other hand, appear to have retained a more ancient and indigenous tradition of wearing unstitched cloth.

The dress of Indian men consisted mainly of unstitched garments like the Dhoti, the Scarf or Uttariya, and the Turban, which have never really disappeared from any part of India. This could have led to an erroneous conclusion that the early Indians did not use any sewn garments.

Likewise, for women, the Dhoti or the Sari as the lower garments, combined with a Stanapatta or breast-band for covering the breasts, forms a basic ensemble, and once again consists of garments that do not have to be stitched, the breast-garment being simply fastened in a knot at the back. And the Dhoti or the Sari worn covering both legs at the same time or, in the alternative, with one end of it passed between the legs and tucked at the back in the fashion that is still prevalent in large areas of India.The art of sewing was clearly known in its many intricacies, can be easily established by the representations of men and women wearing stitched garments in early Indian art. Trousers of a close-fitting kind were not unknown in early India, judging from the evidence of sculptures. Kings and soldiers alike are seen wearing it.

The 19th century say the de-emphasizing of the differences in the dresses worn by men and women in one respect and between women of the different communities in another. The situation obtaining at Lucknow where some women wore kurtas and sidha or wide-legged pyjamahs, much in the same manner that the men did, or that which obtained in the Punjab where both men and women wore relatively short kurtas with full but tight-legged pyjamahs, can be observed. The choli-ghaghra-ohbani combination, for instance, an ensemble that had existed for a very long time indeed among the Hindus and was rarely adopted by Muslim women, came to be accepted by a far greater number of Muslim women in the 19th century.

What would be true of the northern plains of India or of areas like Gujarat, of the belt from the Punjab all the way east up to Bengal, may have no relevance to what was happening in the field of costumes in, say, north-eastern India or the south.

Infact, the collection does not take into account the European style dresses that came in from the end of the 19th century and made such deep inroads into Indian styles in the 20th. has been known for the exotic traditional costumes and the rich geographical abundance.

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History of Costumes
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