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Wearing the duppatta Indian Style (photo post)

November 18, 2008

The salwar kameez originates in the north of India, Punjab to be specific, but now it has spread to every part of the country.

Two incidents I remember vividly. One was when I was in college and the salwar kameez had started to become popular in Pune. In those days unmarried modern girls usually wore trousers or skirts (midis were a rage in the early eighties) and for formal occasions they wore sarees. But by the time I was in college, girls had started to own at least one salwar kameez set and it was popularly dubbed the “Punjabi dress.” I too stitched a light blue one with a geometric design, and it was my first salwar kameez. I remember the pattern as clearly as if it were still in my cupboard. Everyone in my family considered it very elegant and a cross between western wear and traditional Indian wear!

The other incident is about a friend of mine who married into a traditional joint family who had to fight for as long as a three long years before her in-laws “allowed” her to wear the salwar kameez. This was some time ago, and we have come a long way since then, and it’s intriguing to see that today girls in semi-rural areas have taken to wearing this outfit. However, married women in these areas (where the saree is the traditional dress) still do not wear the salwar-kameez as it is considered a “young girl’s dress.”

Actually, the long loose pants and “top” of the salwar kameez can be worn in the most modest manner to please the most conservative people. Even then it is the sari which a married lady is expected to wear. One of the reasons for this is that Indian families, particularly those in semi-urban and rural areas, live in joint families, and it is the older women in the family who dictate what daughters-in-law should wear. However the fact that young girls in the countryside are now wearing the salwar kameez freely means that it won’t be long before married women too start to wear it, it is just a matter of time.

City women in all parts of India have already taken to the salwar kameez in a big way. It is not just about the freedom of movement that the salwar kameez offers but also the fact that it requires less maintenance than a sari and fewer “matching” accessories. Buying a saree involves getting a matching “fall” stitched on the bottom border, getting a matching petticoat and stitching a matching blouse (buying the cloth in one place and getting it stitched in another place). Usually these things are not available ready-made or even in the same shop! So buying a saree can be a time-consuming process. The salwar kameez and duppatta come in a set and can be picked off the rack. And dumped it in the washing machine as well, unlike most sarees.

This post is about how Indian women have adapted the salwar kameez to daily wear to give maximum comfort. It is the duppatta that often comes in the way and there are ways that women deal with it.

(In most of the pictures I have blurred the faces of the people as this ensures the privacy of the people I click.)

In this first photograph, the duppatta is worn in the traditional way, covering the upper half of the body:

Women also have a tendency to push the duppatta right onto their throats as it then removes the necessity of adjusting it all the time. This means that the women are not using the duppatta to hide the upper body (which is what it was designed for) but more as an accessory. At times the pattern on the kameez (shirt) is pretty and then too the duppatta is pushed back. At times the duppatta is flung across the neck and the two ends fall in the front of the kameez like that of the girl in the peach. This not only gives the girl the modesty she desires but also ensures that the duppatta is easy to handle.

For greater freedom of movement, girls and women either tie the duppatta across their bodies as seen in the pictures below or simply fix it in such a way that it doesn’t move. Tying it also ensures better safety for scooter riders. In fact it is necessary to do this as accidents can take place when the flying duppatta gets in the wheels of one’s own or another two wheeler. I have also heard of a case where the victim was traveling in a rickshaw and her duppatta got caught in a two-wheeler which was just on the side.

The most convenient way is to get rid of the duppatta altogether, like the girls have done in the photographs below.

This last photograph shows the most versatile use of the salwar kameez! It is being used as a swim-suit. This is not an uncommon sight in India, as many women are reluctant to wear a swimsuit because of peeping toms around.

(Note:All photographs are taken by me in Mumbai and Pune and are copyrighted to me. Although there was no need for me blur the faces of the people, I did it out of courtesy as some of these are close-ups. By law one is allowed to take a photo as long as the person is in a public place ( this includes celebrities, kids, girls etc.) and this photo can be published as long as it is a part of journal or a news article. However (obviously) you are not allowed to use the photos for the purpose of promoting pornography or say something to hurt the reputation of the person. )

Related Reading/Viewing: Dressing for television news
Can the sari be called immodest?
Are hemlines connected to bottomlines when it comes to air-hostesses?
Colourful clothes of India and what the colours mean – a photo essay
How to (for men) choose the right combinations and accessories in shirts, ties and trousers.

40 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2008 3:07 pm

    🙂 funny,i thought it was popular through out the country for a longer time

    Vishesh, for you it’s forever! 🙂 – Nita.

  2. November 18, 2008 3:09 pm

    very interesting!!

    My mom stiched me little kurta and salwars sans any chunni!! why does a 5 yr old need chunni..

    then i got reminded of my school.. where we had grey kurta with white cotton chunni folded in a “V” across the chest…

    then came college… chiffon, gorgette, silk.. flowing away!

    but I just despise the way girls wear the dupatta while driving.. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GOOD’OL HELMET???

    I agree, the chunni can be most irritating and a real pain for kids! And if one goes by safety standards on two-wheelers, then they should ban the duppatta! 🙂 – Nita.

  3. November 18, 2008 3:15 pm

    Awesome header picture! Is the second picture on the way to Mulshi? I have realised I enjoy your photo posts a lot 🙂

    In India the sari is considered more modest than any other clothing, and if you are wearing a sari you will generally be considered married!

    IHM, thanks. That picture was taken on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, on the ghat section. And that wearing sari thing…I get so many sarcastic comments from people because I wear sarees rarely! 🙂 – Nita.

  4. November 18, 2008 4:01 pm

    very nicely written…the insight into we Indians is amazing…


    Thanks. – Nita.

  5. November 18, 2008 4:04 pm

    women in saree look amazing but i think for the everyday life, salwar kamez, is much more confortable!!!!

    Oh yes, the salwar kameez is very comfy! More than the saree! – Nita.

  6. November 18, 2008 4:33 pm

    thank you, Nita, this is a very, very nice report!

    I can only admit and agree that the salwar kameez is a comfortable and elegant wear.
    Recently they have become very popular in the West too – a bit “westernised” but still very obviously originated in India.

    I think the kurti has become popular there and yes all Indian origin though some designers don’t want to say so! – Nita.

  7. November 18, 2008 5:30 pm

    Wow. To create a topic out of this and analyze. Very nice.

    Trailblazer, thanks and welcome to my blog! – Nita.

  8. wishtobeanon permalink
    November 18, 2008 6:16 pm

    I love such posts in which you give your observations!

    thanks for the appreciation! – Nita.

  9. November 18, 2008 7:56 pm

    nice photo post….though most of us know this happens…its somehow refreshing reading such posts……its true esp in south that ppl of my mom’s age would not wear salwar at all and the trend is changing soon in my generation, saree is for special very special ocassions….

    Sahaja, my mom would never wear a salwar either! But I know many people my age who don’t either, although people around 10 years younger to me have started to wear it. – Nita.

  10. November 18, 2008 8:41 pm

    Salwar kameez is getting increasingly popular in the west. It often doesn’t have the dupatta and when it does, it doubles as a scarf.

    Hopefully the west doesn’t patent it! 🙂 – Nita.

  11. lallopallo permalink
    November 18, 2008 9:47 pm

    Nita, nice post and thanks for sharing this interesting information .
    I personally feel that not all dresses are for everybody. Dresses in a particular region/culture developed over the years in lieu of looks, skin color, body shapes and other geographical and cultural realities of people of that region. Although Iam not fully sure but my guess is that salwar kameez developed in Punjab due to well endowed bodies of punjabi women of that time and also due to less than warm temperatures during considerable part of the year (in those times).
    Personally, I have always found Indian women , especially from western and southern parts of India, look their best in sarees (perhaps again due to their specific features and body contours). Not to say that Punjabi women dont look good in sarees or that Maharashtrian women cant look beautiful in salwar kameez, but as I said, not everybody can carry off everything as well. I mean imagine a western woman wearing a saree or salwar kameez..most of the times, without any offense to anybody, it looks gross. 🙂

    Lallopallo, thanks. You have brought out a very interesting perspective and now I know why I think that some people look terrible in a salwar kameez, particularly the skinny ones! And I also think some women do not know how to carry themselves in a salwar kameez and this adds to the lack of grace. The same thing happens when we see a western woman in a saree, or an Indian woman in short skirt or trousers. You got to be used to wearing something and then you know how to carry it.
    And I have another reason why Punjabis developed the salwar kameez. If I am not mistaken Punjabi women worked in the fields and needed the kind of clothes which allowed them the freedom of movement.

  12. lallopallo permalink
    November 18, 2008 9:48 pm

    Nita, my comment is going to moderation didnt happen earlier..

    that’s true because I have someone called “dev” in my moderation filter and I realised that this word is in your email id. I’ve removed it from my moderation list now. Sorry for the trouble. – Nita.

  13. November 18, 2008 9:48 pm

    Nita, I enjoyed reading this post 🙂 Still remember getting my first salwar in 2000. It was special! However, I don’t understand why moms-in-law dictate what the daughters-in-law should wear- esp. when salwar kameez actually covers more of your body compared to a sari. Btw, I have seen another use of the dupatta- girls in Pune using it to cover their faces (like a daaku) to protect their skin. 😀 First time I saw it, I was like “Huh? Do they belong to a secret organization?”

    2000 huh, that sounds pretty late! 🙂 And yes the logic of why the moms in law feel the saree is better defies me too…I think people associate a whole attitude with something that is non-traditional and a salwar kameez at one time was thought to be non-traditional in western and southern parts of MH. And yeah, those girls on two wheelers give me a fright too! 🙂 Never used to be there when I was in college although many of us (that includes me!) used to travel by Luna to college. We just braved the sun and the wind and the pollution! – Nita.

  14. Vinod permalink
    November 18, 2008 9:59 pm

    what’s the law in India on copyright of photographs? Is there a deminimis requirement that there be some skill/judgment or is the standard something higher like “intellectual creativity” in the taking of the photo? Will a mere snapshot suffice as a work for copyright to subsist in? Just wondering.

    The copyright rules are there but are not enforced. You cannot take a photo by another photographer without permission. It’s illegal. In fact I have had my photos stolen, twice. One by the Hindustan Times which I wrote about here and another incident just happened a few days ago. But as they were apologetic and agreed to compensate me, I did not write about it. – Nita.

  15. Vinod permalink
    November 18, 2008 10:03 pm

    and this photo can be published as long as it is a part of journal or a news article

    Wow. That’s kind of a meagre protection for privacy, isn’t it?

    Well, that is how it is when you are in a public space, and most people when they are caught in crowds in newspapers don’t mind it at all. If you see news reports there are hundreds of photos of citizens. – Nita.

  16. November 18, 2008 10:06 pm

    Great explanation of the purposes of the saree and the salwar kameez/duppatta, as signifiers of women’s marital status.
    There are many women who wear the salwar kameez here in Canada, far less common are women wearing the saree. The salwar kameez is a wonderful design for comfort, modesty and attractiveness, and the range of fabrics and colours it comes in makes women who wear it like a field of wonderfully coloured butterflies.
    A friend gave me a salwar kameez to wear in the hospital while i was undergoing treatment for leukemia. I loved to wear it and felt like a human being rather than a patient. The duppatta doubled as head covering for my bald head and i felt beautiful.
    There are some fashion shows here in Canada, regularly showing how beautiful and elegant the salwar kameez/duppatta ensemble is, which goes to show that a simple design can have wonderful variations. It is a remarkable piece of clothing, is all I can say. G

    Thanks G. But the salwar kameez is not really a signifier of a woman’s marital status, and sorry if I sounded confusing. You see, the salwar kameez is a dress which is the traditional dress of Punjab state and therefore traditional families in western and southern India do not approve of it if a daughter in law wears anything but the sari. The sari is the traditional dress here, although it is worn different in different states. However this is changing now and has changed in cities. City women, married or not, now commonly wear the salwar kameez as it has now been accepted as a pan-indian dress. Also I think that there a lot of people from Punjab in Canada, if not the bulk of Indians there. – Nita.

  17. November 18, 2008 10:08 pm

    “Even then it is the sari which a married lady is expected to wear.”

    Not only that, some are still expected to cover their heads with pallus, whenever they step out of house!!

    Salwar kameez rules! Sari makes driving, travelling and many more active work cumbersome. Salwar kameez is a good dress for workplace + driving two wheelers + journey. Though sari is epitomised as the Indian women’s dress and ladies are judged by society on that, I feel sari exposes more than it covers! I have seen ladies wearing sari being more ogled at than those wearing salwar kameez.
    There are still many many families where a woman is not “allowed” to wear jeans or salwar post-marriage! I just cant understand why all these stupid rules apply to women? I for one know that I’m not going to give up my comfort for some illogical definitions of a married woman after my marriage.

    Reema, this covering of head etc is not mandatory in MH, but more in the north I think. And yes I agree, the salwar kameez rules! 🙂 But I find it irritating when people respect women in sarees more, I have seen this in shops etc. – Nita.

  18. November 18, 2008 10:29 pm

    Even my mom tells me that Salwaar Kameez is much more comfortable than Saree. I believe her. 🙂

    The saree ties you up, binds your legs! – Nita.

  19. November 19, 2008 1:01 am

    I will have to complete reading this fascinating article in a few hours, but in the meantime I am not able to view all the photos. Do you have the photos saved in any other program, like flickr, picasa, etc? This is a great story idea…

  20. November 19, 2008 1:06 am

    Interesting post, But I have a feeling that the time saved in going through the ordeal of completing a saree is used as the extra time for making decisions while shopping for salwar kameez. So overall the time duration may be the same. There is also one way of wearing the dupatta that I have seen. Wearing it like a belt while dancing.

    Dinesh Babu, yeah I guess. Also one needs to wash a salwar kameez everytime one wears it, but a saree can be worn several times without washing! That makes it last longer too and this means we shop more for salwar kameezs than saris! Also the belt thing I have seen too. – Nita.

  21. lallopallo permalink
    November 19, 2008 3:01 am

    Thanks Nita.
    “If I am not mistaken Punjabi women worked in the fields and needed the kind of clothes which allowed them the freedom of movement ”
    Ya, I guess so..

  22. November 19, 2008 5:22 am

    Nita, I’m back and got to see all the photos!! I have a few points I’d like to share.
    I love these kinds of social/cultural snapshots. We get to learn different things about different parts of India.
    There are indeed a number of uses for dupetta..
    The observation on using salvaar for swimsuit is indeed good to bring out. As a westerner who visits Kerala every year, I see this when going to the beach and totally understood the need for girls to do it. When I tell my American friends here they say, “How can they swim? I could never do such a thing? Why would a woman constrain herself so much?” Beside the fact I understand why girls do this in India, I argue that wearing a bikini actually is very constraining as only certain body types and personalities can really pull this off and feel comfortable. (I am not one of them!)

    Next, I argue the modesty of salvaars compared to sari. Yes, sari can expose the mid drift, and if not worn properly much more. However some modern salvaars even if worn properly expose much more. A picture could tell a thousand words here! I have seen salvaar tops with deep neck, that even when covered with thin and see through dupettas are much more alluring than a poorly worn sari. Mix that deep neck along with high cuts on the sides of the top, all the way to the mid drift, then a chudidhar pant that is not only skin tight but see through! Put together, this outfit, which I have seen many Indian girls wear in India and here in US, is much more alluring, revealing and difficult to wear than a sari!

    Lastly, to lallopallo.. pls be careful to make swiping generalizations. I am a western woman, an American.. I love to wear both salvaars and saris. In fact, I own over 60 saris and 10 or so salvaars. Yes, I prefer saris and find them to be much more comfortable and feminine than most western dress I have worn. In fact, I have been asked to teach Indian girls to wear sari because it’s a dying art and girls aren’t wearing it anymore minus weddings and other special occasions. I implore India and Indian girls to try to wear all varieties of Indian clothes, including saris regularly so that these traditions can keep passing down the generations. India is one of the few countries keeping traditional dress for modern lifestyles. It’s really amazing.

    Jennifer, thank you and I am glad you liked the post. Yes, you are right about any outfit being as alluring as the woman wants it to be. About the swimsuit I know what you mean. It is not the girls’ fault as not all swimming pools have a clientale used to women in swimsuits. I have swum in that very pool with a swim-suit and have been ogled at like crazy! But somehow I chose to bear it, but nowadays I prefer not to go that particular pool. But I have a choice, another pool I can go to, but not everyone has that choice. – Nita.

  23. November 19, 2008 9:36 am

    i wear a dupatta with almost everything — with skirts, jeans, trousers – especially when i am filming. It is more convenient than a cap, it is a hand towel, a ghungat, a scarf …. and where needed – a bed sheet or a pillow 🙂

  24. lallopallo permalink
    November 19, 2008 10:01 am

    Jennifer, Iam sorry if my comment offended you. I did say ‘most of the times’, meaning that it can look good also. Plus, what I wrote was based on what I had seen myself or observed from other people’s reactions. It has nothing to do with western women or their’s just that I feel certain clothes are meant for certain types of people only..Many a times, I find western clothes not looking good on Indian women..and Iam sure many people will agree with me on this..that again has nothing to do with Indian beauty..
    But, Iam glad that you like wearing sarees etc and Iam sure it looks great on you. 🙂

  25. sanjay permalink
    November 19, 2008 10:09 am

    hey nita nice topic
    my parents being from punjab
    my mom n sister still go crazy when they go shopping in ludhiana or amritsar searching for the
    trendy salwar kameez n stuff
    but i personally feel women lukz the best in a saree.

  26. Anonymous permalink
    November 19, 2008 10:41 am


    Interesting article.

    I agree with Jennifer’s comments on the sari and her request to all Indian women to continue wearing their tradtional dresses.

    Women in quite a few asian societies have given up on their traditional dresses (eg Phillipines/Thailand) which is a pity.

    As an Indian women living overseas for several years now, I totally agree with Jennifer’s comments and suggestions. I wear salwar kameez to work esp in the summer! I continue to wear sarees for most Indian functions! It would be a pity if we indian women give up wearing sarees which i think is a very feminine and graceful dress

  27. November 19, 2008 12:33 pm

    Nice post, Nita!
    I think the salwar kurta has many other advantages. It is the most comfortable feminine dress actually. It can be both casual and formal. It allows free movement of the body, and does not feel tight at the knees or waist. You can walk fast, even run, without tripping over. You can travel in crowded public conveyances in ‘awkward’ positions without (unintentionally) exposing your cleavage, back and midriff! In traditional styles, it protects one from winter wind and sunburn. 🙂 And though the dupatta is a garment of modesty (it is as important to put on the dupatta in most of the places in India as some other ‘garment of modesty’ is important in some other countries), it also doubles as a stylish scarf of some sort.

  28. November 19, 2008 12:43 pm

    Hehe! You’ve gotta teach me netiquettes! I’m gonna get into trouble one of these days for publishing photos of drunk girls! 😀

  29. November 19, 2008 4:23 pm

    quite a thing about salwar kameez!! 🙂

    hey BTW, i knew that it is legal to take photoes as long as the person is in the public place but that was suppose to be international law. Do we also (in INDIA) abide by the same? (am curious!)

    yes very much so. You will see mags and newspapers routinely doing this and actually publishing photos without permission as permission is not necessary. Same with a tv live camera in a public place, say a football match. it becomes wrong when photos are misused. It is important not to name people without their permission. This is critical, you cannot name the person as it is a violation of privacy. – Nita.

  30. Joss permalink
    November 19, 2008 5:50 pm

    I have really enjoyed reading this post and all the comments on it. By chance last night I was watching Bhoothnath, in which Juhi Chawla is seen wearing a dupatta in an unorthodox way. She wears it round her waist in one scene, and over one shoulder as a sash in another scene. I have never seen such a style before but it looked good on her.

    I’m sure that if I were to wear salwar kameez and dupatta for any more than ten minutes it would end in similar places. Or on the floor! I agree with lallopallo that Indian dress on western women often looks wrong, because they don’t know how to hold themselves well enough. But I can’t believe it is impossible for us achieve this look! Likewise, dressing right for your shape is hard in any culture, and I’m sure Indian women wearing Indian clothes sometimes get it wrong too. Just as western women often make bad buys when choosing western clothes. We can’t all be Princess Dianas or Dipika Padokones.

  31. November 19, 2008 10:34 pm

    this is one of those typical things only a women can choose to write about.. 😉

    as usual, very well written, albeit a lil long one..

  32. November 19, 2008 11:18 pm

    After a series of serious posts on the economy, american elections and politics, this one comes as a breather from you 🙂 Well written.

    I think thimes have changed especially in cities where I am able to see a 18 or 19-year old girl and her mother both in salwar kameez. People gives preferrence to their opinions now. Even in villages things are changing slowly.

  33. November 20, 2008 11:11 am

    good one. Didn’t notice that there are too many ways to wear them !!!
    Like you said, its an accessory to many now and not to cover the upper body. Well its fashion.

    Oh, so you mean that we can take photographs of the public and use it in a blog? (if its used decently)
    I didn’t know that. I thought that taking photograph of people without their consent was against the law.

    It is certainly not correct to use it in a commercial advertisement without paying the models, but there is no law against using lots of faces of anonymous people. And in a public place yes it is legal to take photos of people but again if you show a person’s face clearly, I think that person might or might not like it. However I have observed that people are thrilled if their faces appear in newspapers or live tv.! But there is the matter of courtesy, it can offend some odd person, but he can’t do a think about it as its legal. – Nita.

  34. November 20, 2008 10:42 pm

    Regarding the posting of photos…legalities on our college campus here in US (coming from our publications office)…
    Any photo, no matter how many people are in it- if they are posing for a photo- modeling or sitting as a group for a class- all need to sign a release allowing the college to use this photo for publications/net, etc. The release allows the college to use the photo in any publication/campaign from there.
    However, if it is a crowd of anonymous people, as Nita mentions, not posing, but in everyday situations (going to class) or public (sporting events, concerts, etc), these do not need a release.

  35. openlight permalink
    November 21, 2008 1:27 am

    nice article indeed.

    Salwar kameez has gone from being humble punjabi dress to an convenient and fashionable attire for indian women and is available to all strata of society.

    Designers are coming up with more vivid collection using it .

  36. November 22, 2008 2:53 pm

    Unlike a saree and blouse, the salwar and dupatta can come in contrasting and bright colours, which adds to the variety. But other than that, there is not much of difference between various type of clothes. If someone dresses in a certain manner to achieve certain results and expect that to last for ever, it may not happen. Also, it is not the dress which beautifies women/men. But it is the person who beautifies the dress. And, men know this!

    Destination Infinity

  37. November 23, 2008 11:22 am

    wow …
    the header is awesome ..
    do u use wide angle camera ???
    nice article 🙂

    Arvind, thanks. I have no idea what a wide angle camera is! 🙂 But at times I stitch photos together but not this one. This one is a straight one shot, and I stuck my head out of the window, and took it out but shoving my hands as wide out as possible. Didn’t realise it would come out good. – Nita.

  38. November 25, 2008 9:22 am

    Nice post, Nita. My selection criteria while choosing an outfit is to ask the question if the outfit is comfortable when I wear the outfit at home and if the answer is yes then the next step is to go and wear the outfit outside the home.

  39. pss4005seh permalink
    November 25, 2008 10:35 am

    I today came to know that there are so many styles of wearing a duppata..really good collection…

  40. ASTAR permalink
    July 26, 2010 10:23 am

    Covering face wid the dupatta is amazing.If u know, please suggest me the steps for doing that.What is the reason behing it???Kindly explain.

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