Monday, March 06, 2006

What is in a Dress?

There was time, when we could identify people belonging to different parts of India from their dress, especially the ladies. In the case of men also, it was almost possible, though they all wore a white unstitched cloth (Veshti or Panje or Mundu or soman or Dhothi as it was differently called in different parts of India) in different styles unique to their regions.. During the Colonial rule the trousers coat and suit were introduced in our country. Gradually, all men working in corporate offices and Govt. Offices started wearing the uniform trousers and shirts (to this day, people wear Mundu and shirt to work in Kerala and dothi in West Bengal, UP etc.).Our Parliament showcases, its members wearing the traditional dress of India.The unstitched veshti continues to be the traditional dress for all religious occasions. In Kerala, men are not allowed inside the temples in any other dress than a Mundu. Even wearing a shirt inside the temple is not allowed. They can, however, cover their upper torso with another piece of cloth (melmundu), if they wish.

Now coming to more interesting dress habits of ladies, we can find a great evolution that has taken place. In the South, towards the end of 19th century and in early 20th century (when my grandma was growing up), the girls wore an unstitched colored cloth, by name, "chithadai" just wrapping it around their waist. Those days, girls were married when they were 7 or 8 years of age and sent to their in-laws' house once they attained their puberty. From then on, they wore a 9/8 yards long, colored cloth (pudavai) and covered their upper body with the end of this pudavai. There was no other type of dress known. By the 1920s ladies started wearing a stitched blouse to cover their upper body.

Even then, in Kerala, only ladies belonging to upper class were allowed wear blouses. The working class was not permitted to cover their upper body. I have seen women belonging to this era, who continued not to wear a blouse even as late as 1960s.

In Kerala itself, there was a distinct dressing pattern among the various communities in the early 20th century and it was very easy to identify people belonging to different communities by their dress code. The ladies belonging to the Iyer community (Tamil Brahmins or Palghat Brahmins or Iyers,) wore a 9 yards pudavai with a blouse, the Namboodiri Brahmin ladies wore a mundu at the waist level and tied another mundu at armpit level to cover their breasts and never went out without an umbrella covering their face and upperbody (umbrella made with palm leaves), even inside the temple. The other Hindus wore a Mundu(Onnarayum Mundum, it was called) and blouse with a smaller mundu (Neryadhu) to go over their upper body . The Christian women wore the mundu in a different style with the pleats hanging out at the back with a long white blouse (chattayum Mundum) and a Neryadhu over their upper body. They covered their head only while going to the church. They could also be identified by the thick earrings hanging from their upper earlobe. The Muslims of Malabar area wore colourful pudava as Mundu and colourful, long blouses with long sleeves. They also covered their upper body and head with a colourful "thattam." From around 1940, girls up to the age of their puberty started wearing stitched long skirts reaching up to their ankles and long blouse. Once they attained their puberty they followed their elders' dress pattern (by which time, most of them were married).

After the age of marriage for girls was raised to 18 by a law, the unmarried girls wore a half saree over their long skirts to cover their upper body (by this time, most of the girls were going to schools). By 1950s almost all the girls went to school at least up to 7th standard and a good number of them continued till 10th standard. A small percentage of well to do girls went to colleges. So all the girls, irrespective of their community wore long skirt and half sarees when they were in their teens. Around this time, people started migrating outside their villages and state and went to work in different parts of India and learnt new dress codes. Little girls got colourful frocks and girls started wearing short skirts (below their knees) and blouses until they were 10 or 11 and once in their teens continued with half sarees and long skirts. Around this time, married women of Iyer community started wearing 6 yards sarees on a day to day basis and wore their 9 yard sarees only on religious functions. Women of other communities also started coming out of their traditional dresses (mundus of various styles) and started wearing 6 yards sarees and blouses.(Many women in Kerala had started working as teachers, nurses and a good percentage of those in the metros as administrative assistants by then).

Women in other parts of India were also wearing sarees in different styles unique to their regions. In Tamil Nadu, Iyers wore their 9 yard saree in one style and Iyengars wore theirs differently. The Chettiar women wore their sarees in another style. In Karnataka and Andhra the 6yard saree was worn differently by different communities. In Maharastra there was an 8 yard saree worn something similar to the south Indian 9 yard saree apart from the modern 6 yards saree. Other parts of India had their own distinct styles. I remember, when I was in college, in Vizag, a girl coming from Assam, wearing something similar to south Indian long skirt and half saree(Dhavani or veni it was called), in a different style. Salwar and Kameez were worn only in the northern parts of India, especially in Punjab (it was more commonly known as Punjabi dress), Haryana and Kashmir. By the 1960s, with the popularisation of Hindi Cinema, in South India few girls (daughters of the so called society ladies and really big executives) in big cities started wearing Salwar and Kameez to colleges. We had girls wearing short skirts also in our college. Still Madras, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra retained their "pavadai dhavani" culture.

Even in the 1970s and 1980s South Indian women living in various parts of our country continued to wear their own traditional dresses (saree mostly) and the younger girls, though were wearing half skirts and blouses to schools as per the school uniform codes, were wearing long skirts and pavadai dhavani during religious and social get togethers, which were more often those days. People still had time for each other and enjoyed visiting friends and relatives even on week days (now a days, the men folk are mostly in their work places till late in the evening and non-working women are busy with their childrens' studies and TV serials).

By 1990s with more numbers of women taking up employment, there came a revolution in the dress code. A very good percentage of women started wearing salwar-kameez to work and by the late 1990s this became a more common dress than saree. Even women in rural Kerala started wearing salwar-kameez in place of long skirts. Around this time, it also became a common practice among women all over the country to be attired in their night gown while at home. In rural Kerala, this became their everyday dress, whether working in the fields or working as domestic helps or shopping. This brought a socialistic change in dress code, as both the mistress and the maid were dressed in night gowns.

By the 2000s, with the soft ware boom and many young girls visiting or migrating to western countries on work or for studies or after marriage, the under 30 women in India very naturally moved over to jeans and shorts and short tops and the like. They were of course, restricted by stringent dress codes at their work places. One of the big software companies had this in their appointment letter. "Ladies may wear only sarees and blouses or salwar kameez with dupatta or formal western dress. They will not be allowed to come to work in jeans and tops." I asked the girl, who had received this appointment letter, if she would obey this dress code, if this were ordered either by her mother-in-law or husband. Without batting an eyelid, she replied, "I would, if they would give me a fat salary as this company is offering." So, it all boils down to what one is getting in return.

But to this day, women want to look in their traditional best on their home visits or during religious functions or weddings. Yet, it is shocking to see some women in our country while imitating the West seem to have forgotten their (Western) culture of still maintaining a dress code for every occasion. Each country has its on special dress codes for weddings or social functions or funerals, especially. Even the NRIs living in these countries meticulously stick to the dress code. In India, on the other hand, we see people wearing jeans to temples, religious functions, funerals. There is a nonchalant attitude among them. When I see such inappropriately dressed women, especially women who are past their prime(who have grown up in traditional orthodox families), I am not able to understand, what makes them to forget their culture and make themselves laughing stock.


Anonymous said...

Hello, very interesting article. I am having a few questions about traditional dress of the working classes during the late thirties early forties. Would you be able to email me at

Ammupatti said...

Hi anonymous

what r your questions?

Anonymous said...

Hello, and my name is Torre, sorry for the "Anonymous", but I didn't sign up. We have a photo of a girl from that time period. Early 1940's from Malappuram. It was loaned to us from a friend (the original Photographer...who took the photo at the age of 25 years old), and since we (my wife, who is from Andhra and I)will be in the area visiting our own family,we thought we might try to find her in hopes of giving her this very old photo (We know she may still not be alive). All we have is a photo however, no name, and then only the town (Malappuram) that she was from. Around her neck in the photo she is wearing a an elaborate necklace made of dark round circles...and then there is a single white Cowry shell that serves as an accent to the rest of the dark necklace. The Necklace is wrapped, what looks like, maybe 5 times around her neck. From your Thoughts above, I am identifying her as being part of the Working class as she is only wearing the mundu and not the blouse. Any ideas as to where we might begin in tracing her origins down. Unfortunately the photographer, who is still alive, but not from that region. Unfortunately he does not remember the name of the girl or his guide (the girls older brother).I've included a link to a photo of cowry shells so you can see how I am defining a "single white cowry shell" below:
Thank you for any ideas.

Anonymous said...


My name is Rohini. Came across your blog while browsing. It is very informative write up. When I read the last paragraph, it is exactly what my mother says. While she has no problems with us wearing churidars to work, she is very particular that we should not forget our customs and traditions for festivals and religious occasions. She makes sure that all women in the house (including herself) wear the 9 yard sari in traditional madhwa style for such occasions along with traditional jewellery like nose ring and ankle chain.

Ammupatti said...

Hi Rohini

I think many people of my generation feel similarly. All said and done, though we have nothing against the modern way of dressing, we also feel that we should not forget our customs and traditions. This is the only way we can pass on our traditions to our future generations.

Best wishes