Ancient Indian Clothing - What did people wear in Ancient India? answers questions
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Indian Clothing

Indian market
Two women wearing saris

People in India wore mostly cotton clothing. India was the first place where people grew cotton, even as early as 2500 BC in the Harappan period.

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

Bibliography and further reading about Indian clothing:

India Paper Dolls Indian costumes Eyewitness India Ancient India India Sari

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). Easy reading.

Eyewitness India, by Manini Chatterjee (2002). Written for kids.

Ancient India, by Virginia Schomp (2005). Written for teens. 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.

More on Indian costumes and activities

Indian food
Indian people
India-related projects
Ancient India home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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