From the smallest villages to the busiest cities in India, the salwar kameez is the essential three piece attire for Indian women. Consisting of a pant, a top and a scarf, this dress is comparable to the western style of jeans and a t-shirt. The free flowing outfits can be seen paired with sneakers, flip flops, sandals or high heels throughout the country.
What is a Salwar Kameez?
1. Salwar-bottom, loose fitting pajama-like pant. The top of a salwar is gathered at the waist held in place either by a drawstring or by an elastic band. The typical style has a widely flared leg leading to a narrow horizontal band at the end. Newer, modern styles preferred by the younger population have a narrower cut with an appearance similar to leggings. Many different styles of fabrics, prints and embellishments are popular among wearers and regions of India.
2. Kameez- top, also known as a kurta. A traditional kameez is a straight, loose piece of fabric with long sleeves and a tunic-like shape extending to the mid-thigh or as low as just above the knee. Slits on both sides allow the legs to move unimpeded. The neckline, sleeves and bottom edge are usually decorated with embroidery or some other form of embellishment.
3. Duppata- a scarf. This is a rectangular shaped piece of fabric worn in the front with the sides falling at the back from over the shoulders. As with the salwar and kameez, duppatas are worn plain or embellished. The duppata is used as a measure of modesty as well as function. It aides in covering the face for modesty where this practice is still common among India or in the desert during a heavy wind.
The salwar kameez combination was a traditional dress of Afghanistan and Pakistan before it crossed into North India sometime in the 1900’s. Until the 1970’s, individual styles didn’t deviate much from the simple straight side-slit tops matched with wide legged bottoms. Then an explosion of individuality in new fabrics, designs, colors, cuts and lengths appeared on the women of India. What was once an everyday garment associated with the country’s lower caste, the salwar kameez of today is more popular than ever. Many modern women, including the younger ages, prefer the salwar kameez to the saree for various reasons. Some argue it is a more practical garment, that wearing a saree takes practice. North Indian women will point out the cooler winter temperatures are not as agreeable to the exposed design of a traditional saree or sari. Some people in India still view the salwar kameez as a lower class garment or associate it with Muslims in Pakistan. However a growing trend among women in India involves ditching the saree in place of salwar kameez styles made in silk or other fine fabrics for weddings and other special occasions.
A salwar kameez (also known as a Punjabi suit) can be made from a wide variety of fabrics. Cotton is a staple choice for everyday use as well as linen and silk in the summer climates. For winter, satins or heavier gauge cotton is preferred. Other choices include chiffon, organza, taffeta and premium silks for special occasions. Salwar kameez designs today are heavily adorned with embroidery and sequence work around the neckline and cuffs enriched with beads, threads and zari work. Patterned fabrics, block printing (famous in Rajasthan) and patchwork designs are newer styles beginning to emerge. Women are now experimenting with new neck designs ranging from plunging necklines, to one side cut and even off-shoulder. Transparent fabrics, crepe, georgette, crushed velvet and even jute and khadi are becoming commonly seen materials. And a very popular look around India is the kameez worn over jeans mixed with or without a dupatta.
Female tourists are often advised by guide books and other online travel sources to purchase a salwar kameez upon arrival to India. This is in an effort to “fit in” or avoid appearing overtly sexual. As I wrote about in 10 Tips for Women Traveling in India, “in an effort to fit in you have effectively made yourself stick out even more. To some men you appear to be actively looking for an Indian mate or quick relationships. And to beggars or touts you are instantly marked as a target for shopping.” Purchase a dupatta and kameez in the local market instead. Or, have one custom made in traditional Indian fabric. Mix it with khakis or jeans for a comfortable compromise in style and cultures.