Salwar kameez - the traditional attire’s journey over the ages
Mention the salwar kameez to any Indian lady today and she would give her own take on it. For something that has been around from traditional times and been a wonderful substitute for the Indian saree on many an occasion, this two piece dress with covering piece called dupatta or chunni and worn mostly by women in India and the Asian subcontinent, has also evolved fashion-wise.
Today if we were to merely glance at what is offered in this attire, we get to see the upper portion Kameez decked up at neckline, body and borders. Neckline could be U, V shaped, curved semi-circular or some fancy variation with adornments. Body could be plain or coloured, with light motifs and patterns or heavy floral embroidery and latest designer prints. Borders could be plain, single or multi-coloured, with embellishments.
Salwar, lower portion accompaniment to kameez, plain or decorated, same, matching or contrasting colour to Kameez generally has the same fabric as the kameez.
Women wear the salwar kameez, with the accompanying shawl or scarf known as dupatta or chunni, more as an accessory that can be discarde at will, it originally served to cover the head in the Gurudwara or temple and also when family elders were present.
And what about it being a style statement?
With neck adornments that could be motifs or bootis, thread embroidery, zari work, mirror work, colour stripes, kundan work, patola weaving, ikkat salwar suits, naksi, resham work or some decorative design, the body could be plain, or with digital, dabu, block, batik, designer prints of floral, geometrical, abstract, free hand patterns. Borders are attractive and with their own variations in single or multi-colour, single motifs or engaging prints, latest fancy block prints or traditional embroidery weaving.
Colours are very important for a good match and could be vibrant, pastel, subdued or a healthy mix of organic colours, pigments or chemical dyes. Materials like pure silk, tussar silk salwar suits, dupion, gicha, cotton salwar suits, jute, art silks like georgette, chiffon, crepe silk, net constitute salwaar kameez fabric.
Can the salwar suit be called traditional any more or would it classify more as a fashion line of clothing?
Yet for those who have observed the changes over time, and with a sense of the dateline, the nostalgia of the styles that existed in different periods since they got to be familiar with the Punjabi suit, is quite a bit.
Just for old times’ sake and lovingly tracing the garment’s gentle changes since the 1940s when the word stylish fashion had just come into vogue for the Indian populace, we present the journey of the salwar kameez mostly in images.
The 1940s and the 50s
Prior to the 1940s, paintings, portraits and pictures gave an idea that the salwar suit was loose and voluminous billowing clothing that was meant to provide cover, comfort and ease of movement.
A traditional attire of the Punjab, Himachal and J &K with their regional differences, the salwar kameez was still a North Indian form of clothing, as good as the saree in most other parts of the country. One can observe the ‘salwars’ and the looser ‘patialas’ paired with long kurtas almost beyond the knees, the dupatta covering the head or covering the front part of the kameez and slung over either shoulder in many a picture. It was still very much traditional.
Essentially for this three piece dress, endless variations were possible by changing the size and shape of the trousers or the tunic. Synthetic fabrics had just begun to emerge with the dupattas taking the lead in this attire and soon fine muslin was fast getting replaced by sturdier cottons and silks.
The 60s and the 70s
Yes, fashion had crept in silently and then became more overt with reigning Bollywood heroines displaying them in their movies and getting their huge fan following, especially the college-going girls and the youngish ladies to do likewise. Especially stars like Sadhana with her ‘new’ skin-hugging outfits set a new trend especially in the Hindi movie ‘Arzoo’ with the fitted chudidar and of course it came into its own in the 60s when it was worn with an extremely fitted kameez and a diaphanous dupatta.
The then leading actress of the South, Jayalalitha in her portrayal of a modern educated woman also sported this costume and created waves. Even the legendary Asha Parekh sported with this quite often in her movies. It is said that one of her south Indian fans was so enamoured by her new look that she got her half sarees (the southern equivalent of the northern three piece) modeled into an Asha Parekh-like wardrobe.
Salwar-kameez or at times the churidar-kameez was in vogue, where the salwar was more loose and the long stitched churidar conforming more to fit and curling up into ‘chudis’ when the free end was pulled up. Maintaining the traditional silhouette and embellishments like zari, gota and sequins, also made it possible to incorporate new fabrics and prints as well as collars, laces, trims and the like. A change could be noticed in a kameez that ended above the knee, loose salwars and a dupatta. Bhanu Athaiya, the then popular and later Oscar -winning costume designer of Bollywood had introduced styles in some of her movies.
Loose salwars and knee length flared kameez with plenty of embellishments had emerged. Patiala salwars had minimal pleats and a drawn cord.
More than the kameez it became a kurta with the loose salwar slowly replaced by the increasingly popular pyjama as a bottom. The kurta assumed fashion changes like flared cuts, long sleeves and puffed up and padded shoulders. Accessories had come into the vogue like voluminous hair-do, large earrings, heeled pumps and others.
The ‘matched‘ sets also were ‘just seen’ with block printed versions also having a ‘matching’ dupatta. Churidars became more popular than the salwar for many an occasion.
It was the time when there was a sudden change in the economy and many conventional ideas took a backseat - so too with fabrics. The bolder attitude of the generation gave way to a radically changed.
salwar kameez that became more sheer and strappy in design. It was about this time that the dupatta was skimpier than usual and had started becoming a redundant piece to be carried along slung around the shoulders but to be discarded if one pleased. Madhuri Dixit in ‘Dil Tho Pagal Hain’ wore this outfit and it became an instant hit with the market.
The 2000s and onwards
With a turn of the millennium, with more experimentation and spread, short kurtis with the loose salwars were the in-thing. Bollywood splashed further with Rani Mukherjee’s brash patialas in Bunty aur Babli, Kareena Kapoor’s effortless, white salwars in Jab We Met and Deepika Padukone’s hip churidars in Love Aaj Kal.
As usual Bollywood led the way with Kareena Kapoor and Rani Mukherjee making a case for ‘patialas’ paired with ‘kurtis’ or even T-shirts, minus ‘dupattas’. On the other hand the traditional ‘Anarkali’ also re-surfaced with cosmetic changes and a market eager to lap up the ‘new’, saw it as an exciting avatar.
The past few years gone by
The euphoria has stayed till date and the Anarkali gets its extra attention and ‘red carpet’ moments time to time. At the same time you also have offshoots like short ‘kurtas’ and loose pants courtesy Deepika Padukone in ‘Piku’ to keep up the ‘fashion quotient’. And in more bolder climes one gets to see the kameez or tops slit high up like never before, the neckline lower maybe, pants or something slightly loose giving the salwar a rest.
Yes, the three-piece salwar suit has definitely come a long way when it comes to change of look and who knows how far it will go hence on. But one thing that can be said is that there is a limit beyond which change cannot be possible, for then if the fabric does not even vaguely resemble a salwar kameez any longer, it cannot be called that anymore and a new line of clothing would have come into existence.