In this new sustainable mood that’s swept over fashion these days, the industry’s thought-leaders and activists are encouraging us to ask where our clothes came from. Stories of sweatshops, short-changed weavers and greedy middlemen show capitalism raising its ugly head. But really, where did our clothes come from historically? Why do we wear what we wear?
And what do our clothes tell us about our origins?
There really is no standard Indian dress. For those who argue the sari is an Indian staple, I will ask them to look up Greek influences on Indian clothing. The sari may just be further from us geographically than the salwar-kurta of the Central Asian Timurids.
Among the many influences on Indian clothing cultures, unarguably the strongest has been that of the Mughals. Indian dress before Babur was little more than pieces of drapes. His ‘Baburnama’ notes, “Their peasants and lower classes go about naked. They tie on a thing which they called ‘langoti’, which is a piece of cloth that hangs down two spans from the navel as a cover to their nakedness… The women too have a ‘lang’, one end of which they tie about their waist and the other is thrown over the head.”
The costumes of the Turko-Mongols, during the reign of Babur and
The Mughals had a great love for fashion and textiles. Robes were their favourite gifts, along with jewels and elephants. Their clothes were made of expensive
The Mughals gave many words to the English lexicon, like pyjamas and chintz. All the clothes were scented with rose water. Shawls were so light they could pass through a ring and had poetic names like ‘daft hawa’ or ‘woven air’. Akbar’s penchant for shawls is well-known; he made them the most valuable of gifts, leading to the commercialisation of the trade, something that several regions in India survive on (like Jammu and Kashmir). Jehangir said his favourite item of clothing was shawls.
Interestingly, Mughal women dressed very similarly to their men. They wore kurtas and loose drawstring pants, along with waistcoats and sheer coats (hence so many of them are bare-breasted in those sumptuous miniatures and pahari paintings), so they could ride on horseback. Hindu women began to adopt the Muslim women’s wardrobes, but with a skirt. Hindu dress also influenced the Mughals a little, Shah Jahan’s daughter Roshanara is said to have worn saris.
I’ve just put down a splendid book on Nur Jehan, Ruby Lal’s ‘Empress’. While it chronicles the Mughal queen’s many merits and accomplishments – from building the spectacular tomb, Itmad-ud-Daula, for her father in Agra (the
Nur Jehan is said to have introduced a variety of textiles and embroideries from her home in Persia, the silver thread brocade (badla) and the silver-thread lace (kinari). She introduced some new silhouettes for the dress like the ‘Nur-Mahli’, for the bride or the bridegroom, lightweight wedding outfit that cost Rs 25. She introduced the ‘dodami’ and the panchtolia scarf that would replace the odhni. Her clothing innovations made her quite the fashion queen, and all of Mughal India – Muslims and Hindus – copied her styles.
There are no clear records of how the ‘anarkali’ was born. Probably Nur Jehan invented it herself as one of her many innovations. It isn’t ironic the dress took the name of her husband’s fictional love – the courtesan
Because when one attempts to rewrite history, fiction takes over facts.