By the Vedic period, women wore one very long piece of cloth called a sari, that they wrapped around themselves in different ways. The word "sari" comes from a Sanskrit word that just means cloth. Saris are first mentioned in the Vedas, about 600 BC. Rich women wore saris made of silk from China, but most women wore cotton saris.
There were many different ways of draping saris - to dress up women wore them like skirts with a top part thrown over their shoulder or worn over their heads as a veil. Working women often pulled their sari up between their legs to make a sort of pants. Women who were fighting with the army tucked in the top part of the sari in the back, to free up their arms for fighting. Most saris were five or six yards long, although some saris were nine yards. Younger women generally wore brightly colored saris, but widows and other women in mourning for someone who had died wore only white saris.
How to put on a sari
Men also wore one long piece of cloth called the dhoti, which was generally white. They wrapped the dhoti (DOE-tee) around their legs to make sort of pants like the working women. Dhotis though were shorter so they didn't have the part that covered the chest and shoulders. Men also often wore long cotton cloths wrapped around their heads as turbans.
With the Islamic invasions around 1000 AD, Persian fashions in clothing entered India and became popular especially in the north, though they never replaced the sari or the dhoti. Both women and men began to sometimes wear trousers with long tunics over them down to their knees. The trousers are called churidar or salwar kameez. Women generally wore churidar with a long veil or scarf over it.
Indian women who could afford it usually wore a lot of silver or gold jewelry, especially earrings and nose-rings. Sometimes they also put a spot of red on their foreheads called a bindi (BINN-dee) as a decoration.
Learn by doing: practice putting on a sari or a dhoti
More about Indian cotton
More about silk
More about Ancient India
Traditional Fashions from India Paper Dolls, by Ming-Ju Sun (2001). Written for kids. Includes two dolls and sixteen costumes.
India and Sri Lanka (Cultures and Costumes), by Conor Kilgallon (2002). For kids.
Eyewitness India, by Manini Chatterjee (2002). Written for kids.
Ancient India, by Virginia Schomp (2005). Written for middle schoolers. Very good for reports.
The Sari, by Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller (2004). For adults, a great discussion of what it's really like to wear a sari.