5000 years ago, people in India were using textile to cover their bodies; this was during India’s earliest civilization (Indus valley civilization). A priest wearing a printed shawl is depicted in a fragmented sculpture from the Mohenjodaro civilization (Fig.3). Cotton grown locally has long been the most common fabric used in Indian clothing. India was a pioneer in the cultivation and use of cotton as early as 2500 BC, during the Harappan era. Evidence of ancient Indian clothing can be found in rock-cut sculptures, cave paintings, and human art forms discovered near the Indus Valley Civilization.
People covered their bodies with a piece of cloth called antariya that was worn in a kachha style and fastened with a fabric band called kayabandh during the Mauryan and Sunga periods (321-72 BC). And uttariya was used to drape the upper body over the shoulder. (Fig.1)
The Kushans invaded Punjab in the first century A.D. and established their empire. The Maurya empire’s political stability was replaced by a never-ending struggle for supremacy. The cultural and linguistic divides were enormous. The only thing that kept people together was trade. The Kushan period is worth remembering because it demonstrates how clothing gradually evolved from unstitched to stitched garments. The purely draped garments were replaced by cut & sewn garments (Fig.2). The earliest foreign influences in costume were found in the military. Coat-of-mail–made of metallic wires, probably iron, woven into gauze known as jalaka. Improvised versions of this are also seen.
During the Gupta dynasty, stitched clothing became popular. This period was also known as the Classical Period or the Golden Age. In all of the arts, a remarkable degree of balance and harmony was achieved, as well as an efficient administrative system. The stitched garment gained increased status with the Kushan rulers in India and Central Asia, and was now closely associated with royalty, as they ruled much of the subcontinent for more than a century. The Gupta king saw the value in adopting a dress that had come to be associated with royalty (Fig.4). Kushans are depicted on Gupta coins in full Kushan attires, including coat, trousers, and boots. On informal occasions, they continued to wear antariyas, uttariyas, and kayabandhs, but they were becoming less common. The finest textiles, printed, painted, dyed, and richly patterned in weaves and embroidery, were available during the Gupta era. Prints from this time period were among the first to be produced as traditional prints. Calico printing improved dramatically during this time. During his time of writing in the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus admired the equality of Indian cotton:
‘There are trees which grow wild, the fruit of which is a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness, that of sheep. The Indians make their clothes of this tree wool.’
During the Mughal dynasty, luxury clothing complemented art and poetry interests. Men wore a variety of royal dresses during the Mughal era, including jama, patka, chogha, pagdi, and turbans. Mughal women adorned themselves from head to toe with a wide range of ornaments. Peshwaj, Yalek, Pa-jama, Churidar, Shalwar, Dhilija, Garara, and the Farshi were common costumes.
Rajputs emerged as a new Kshatriya community in the 7th and 8th centuries. Rajputs maintained a traditional way of life that reflected their martial spirit, ethnicity, and chivalric grandeur. The aristocratic dresses (court-dress) were the main costumes for Rajput men, which included angarkhi, pagdi, chudidar pyjama, and a cummerbund (belt). Angarkhi (short jacket) refers to the long upper portion of garments worn over a sleeveless, form-fitting cloth. The Jama, Shervani was worn as an upper garment by Rajput nobles, and the Salvar, Churidar-Pyjama (a pair of shaped trousers) was worn as a lower garment by Rajput nobles. The Dhoti was also popular at the time, but there were several different ways to wear it. The Tevata style of dhoti was prominent in the Desert region and the Tilangi style in the other regions.
Women were depicted in Rajput paintings wearing transparent fabrics draped around their bodies to capture the sensuality of the female figures. The Sari (wrapped around the entire body with one end thrown over the right shoulder) or Lengha (related to Rajasthani traditional dress) was the main attire of Rajput women. Women preferred Angia on special occasions (marriage). Kanchli, Kurti, and angia were the most popular after marriage. The Puthia, a pure cotton upper garment, and the Sulhanki, a cotton lower garment, were worn by young girls (loose pyjama). Polka (a half-sleeved top that ends at the waist) and Ghaghra (a voluminous gored skirt made of line satin, organza, or silk) were worn by widows and unmarried women. Another important part of clothing is the Odhna of women which were embroidered on silk.
Thames & Hudson, ‘The Worldwide History of Dress’ New York: 2007
Kumar, Ritu. ‘Costumes and Textiles of Royal India’ London: Christ book, 1999 (DLC)
Academia.edu ‘The influence of British Raj on Indian Fashion’ by Dr Toolika Gupta. Online at
https://www.academia.edu/66925515/The_influence_of_British_rule_on_elite_Indian_menswear_the_birth_of_the_Sherwani (retrieved on 4th Feb 2022))
Purushu Arie ‘Clothing in ancient India’ Online at https://purushu.com/2018/06/clothing-ancient-india.html (retrieved on 5th Feb 2022))
BBC News ‘Dressing the Indian Women through history by Toolika Gupta’ online at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30330693 (retrieved on 5th Feb 2022)
DOC BOX ‘History of Indian and Western Costume. Unit 2: Ancient civilizations. Quadrant 1 E-Text’ Online at https://fashiondocbox.com/Accessories/93148046-Subject-history-of-indian-and-western-costume-unit-2-ancient-civilizations-quadrant-1-e-text.html (retrieved on 6th Feb 2022)
Textile Value Chain ‘History of Indian costumes’ Online at https://textilevaluechain.in/in-depth-analysis/articles/traditional-textiles/history-of-indian-costumes/ (retrieved on 5th Feb 2022)