Ancient Indian Clothing and Fashion
Ancient Indian Clothing and Fashion

Clothes are being used by men and women to cover their body and decorate themselves for adoration and attraction purpose. The day Eve became conscious about her body and beauty, evolution of fashion has been going on since then. Maybe the first cloth of human was a big leaf or an animal skin; they often changed them according to their moods, because none of those garments were long lasting. Time to time, the elements of garments developed and people of Indian subcontinent became aware of their beauty, style, and fashion just as their Western counterparts.

Adam and Eve Cartoon Illustration
Adam and Eve Cartoon Illustration

Development of medieval and modern Indian fashion can be known from paintings, photographs, and even the travelogues of foreign travellers, but the same of ancient India is not so easy to know, because there is a little information about them. The only source is ancient Indian sculptures of then temples; some rare manuscripts like Vedas, Sanskrit literature hold information about them. Depending on them we can imagine what kind of garments they wore and how they looked.

Ancient Indian Fashion
Ancient Indian Fashion

In this article we’ll discuss about Ancient Indian clothing and fashion. The age can consist of Mehrgarh culture to Indus Valley civilization, From Vedic to Classical age of Gupta, Vakataka, Pallava, Kadamba empires.

Fashioning a Cultural Identity: Indus Valley Civilization Clothing

The Indus valley civilization was a Copper-Bronze Age Civilization extending from modern day Northeast Afghanistan to northwest India, on the banks of two great Indus river and its tributaries. The cities were contemporary to those of Ur of Mesopotamia and Memphis of ancient Egypt.

The Pioneers of Cotton Textiles: The Remarkable Spinning and Weaving Techniques of Indus Valley Civilization

Indian historians stated that the spinning and weaving of cotton originated in the Indus Valley. Indus Valley Civilization was aruably first in the world to make cotton textiles. India is still famous in producing the cotton textiles. Simultaneously goat’s wool was also spun into textiles. They were expert in weaving a range of grades of cotton cloth. Dyeing facilitates that cotton were dyed into a range of colours. For example- Red from madder, blue from indigo, yellow from turmeric etc.

The Symbolism and Functionality of Clothing in the Indus Valley Civilization

Among the artefacts found there, carvings, seals, bronze and clay figurines, it is found that men adorned themselves with rows of necklaces and bracelets and wore knee length skirts which were alike the modern day dhotis. They were interested in dressing their hair in various styles like the hair woven into a bun, hair coiled in a ring on the top of the head, beards were usually trimmed. The fashion of the Indus Valley people consisted of loin cloth for men, wrap skirts and shoulder shoals for women, sandals made of cloth and wood and clothes made of cotton and woollen yarn.

Pictures of seals and other artefacts show us how some Indus people dressed. As it was summer all year round, so people did not need clothes to keep warm. Workmen used to wear just a loincloth which was alike modern-day dhotis. Rich men wore tunics or a robe exposing chest and right shoulder. Women wore dresses that probably covered much of the body, though some might have been topless. Women had elegant hairstyles with braids, buns, beads. Some arranged their hair in headdress shaped like fans.

Adorned in Splendor: The Alluring Jewelry and Cosmetics of Indus Valley Civilization

Both sexes were fond of wearing jewelleries, but the women wore more. The jewelleries were made of gold, silver, copper, bronze. hair fillets, bead necklaces and bangles for men; bangles, earrings, rings, anklets, belts made of strings of beads, pendants, chokers, bangles, chokers, long pendant necklaces, rings, earrings, conical hair ornaments, and broaches were the jewelleries they used to wear. The ornaments were engraved with precious gems like Lapis-Lazuli, jade, agate, carnelian, while poor people wore those made terracotta.  Toilet jars found in Harappa show women used ivory powder and applied face paint as cosmetics.

Vedic Age

The Vedic period marked a significant era in the history of fashion in India. During this time, clothing was considered a sacred object and a source of positive energy. Vedic hymns were recited during the process of spinning and weaving, and the clothing worn was believed to provide the wearer with positive holistic energy. A variety of materials, including bark, cotton, silk, wool, hemp, flax, and animal skin, were used to create different types of garments worn during the Vedic age.

Clothing and Draping Styles in Vedic Era

Both the genders wore a range of unstitched garments consisting of the

  • Antariya (lower garment) and
  • Uttariya (upper garment) and
  • Kayabandh (a stole or sash)
Ancient Vedic Clothing
Ancient Vedic Clothing

These can be made of linen and embroidered in gold and precious stones. Wool, cotton, and silk were also used as dress materials during this time.

Women wore a Patka (decorative strip made of cotton, silk, leather or strips of yarns) tucked into the Antariya at the front and a Pratidhi or Stanpatta which was breast band tied at the back. Men used to wear turban called Ushnisha.

They used to wear these garments in different draping styles. Especially in case of Antariya they wore them in different styles.

  • Kaccha style
  • Hattisondaka style
  • Machhavalaka or fishtail style
  • Chaturkarnaka or two fish-tails style
  • Talavantaka or fan-shaped style
  • Palm leaf style and
  • Satavallika style

Though stitching was not popular during Vedic era, there we can find a cut & sewn garment named Atka similar to kurta or tunic, used to be worn by both men and women.

Vedic Age Footwear

During this period shoes were initially worn by military and rich people. Dyed leather shoes of many colours with thick soles, gold and silver shoes decorated with jewels and horns and peacock feather were used. Poor people used shoes made of bamboo, palm leaves and even wood.

Clothing and Attire of Buddhist Monks and Nuns in the Later Vedic Age

Buddhist monks and nuns of the later Vedic age wore the same garments as common people, but made of only linen and dyed yellow. Silken Uttarsanga or chaddars were allowed, but no skin or patterned fabrics. The nuns or Bhikkunis could wear a bodice called Kancuka. Monks or Bhikkus wore Kayabandh of two types, one very ordinary, and the other woven intricately with edges turned hem stitched.

Jewellery and Accessories in Vedic Culture

Like Harappans, Vedic people were also fond of jewellery. Those were made of gold, silver, bronze, ivory, sankha (mother of pearl) and pearls also. Kings used to wear crowns made of gold as well as Stupa, a cone shaped head ornament. Women wore fillets called opasa and sraj along with garlands of flowers and gold garlands, called Hiranyya-sraj in their hair. Earrings, necklace, especially coin necklace, Bahu or gold armlets, bracelets, ivory bangles, rings, hip girdles were worn by both men and women. Women dyed their finger tips with red juice of lac.

The Textile Technologies and Dyes of the Vedic Age: A Closer Look

In the Vedic age, fine cotton, linen, wool, silk were available. Silk was most probably produced in Bihar and Banaras. Woollen chaddar or Dusa are still available in Punjab. Fluffy blankets (Kovja) were very expensive and used only by rich people. The skins of many animals like lion, tiger, leopard, cow, deer, were used as bed coverings, footwear, and even clothes. Dyes included indigo, yellow, red, black, turmeric and dyed fabrics were often patterned. Clothes had decorative borders of different embroideries. The vedas, later vedic epics and sutra literatures bring us the fact of the use of textile technologies and dyes.

Maharshi Panini, believed to be the founder of Sanksrit language, mentioned about lac, madder, and indigo dyes used to colour textiles. Atharvaved enlightens us about the compulsion of wearing of sacred threads dyed in turmeric colour and clothing made of linen by young men at the time of initiation (upnayan). 

Dyeing was a flourishing art, as evident from the fact that the Bhrigusamhita was written using natural dyes.

Mahavagga III describes monks used to wore reddish-brown vegetable-dyed cloth. However, indigo, turmeric, black, magenta, and crimson dyed cloth were prohibited for monks. 

Linen in Vedic History: A Detailed Overview

Linen has been a part of Indian history for centuries and finds innumerable mentions in holy books like Vedas, Puranas, Upanishads, and ancient literature. This fiber has been described as beautiful, holy, fine, soft, and a symbol of royalty.

In ancient Indian texts, different words were used to signify garments made of different materials.

  • 'ksauma' referred to garments made of linen,
  • 'kauseya' to silk,
  • 'avikayoh' to wool, and
  • 'karpasa' to cotton.

The immortality of linen is evident from the fact that Ayurveda, also known as 5th Veda, the oldest collection of knowledge till date, instructs that a newborn child must be wrapped in linen clothing and a neonatal intensive care unit must comprise of linen bed covering. Thus, its significance symbolizes that of a mother's care, love, and affection. 

Linen is produced by a particular kind of grass known as flax. Maharishi Panini, who considered to be the founder of the world’s most ancient language and literature Sanskrit, also explains the word flax (uma) in Astadhyayi in the same context. References of linseeds cultivation in Vedic age are found. Atharvaved enlightens us about the compulsion of wearing of sacred threads dyed in turmeric colour and clothing made of linen by young men at the time of initiation (upnayan). Maitrayani Samhita also describes the use of linen garments.

Linen in Later Vedic Age and Sutra Age

During the epic age, spinning and weaving were considered a highly perfected art. According to the Valmiki Ramayana, linen was frequently used as ceremonial cloth during this period.

Stories from Later Vedic and Sutra Literature Depicting the Use of Linen

For instance, when Dasaratha’s Queens welcomed their daughters-in-law and took them to the temple, they were clad in linen. Similarly, on the auspicious occasion of Rama’s proposed coronation as Prince of Ayodhya, Rama himself clothed himself in linen, and queen Kausalya and royal courtesans of the palace were also dressed in linen. This shows that linen was used for ceremonial purposes by all ranks of society.

In another instance, King Bharat redone himself in linen before visiting sage Bhardwaj, leaving aside his usual clothing. Even King Rawana’s dead body was dressed with linen at his cremation. Therefore, it can be said that linen was present from cradle to grave during the epic age.

Later Vedic literature illustrates that fine linen made from the fibers of flax was reserved for elites and special occasions. The Mahabharata indicates that Yudhishthara donned linen during the Ashwamedha, a king’s ritual for imperial sovereignty. Yudhishthara was presented with linen as a special gift by the people of the eastern region, including Kalinga, Pundra (Bengal), Vanga, and Tamralipta (Ganguli, 1896).

Grihya Sutra Kandika describes that a regulations prescribed in 500 BC directed the youths to wear garments made of linen or hemp (sana) fabric on the day of initiation of studentship.

Mahavagga III describes the King of Kashi presented 500 linen blankets to the Buddha. Texts also state that Buddhist monks and nuns were permitted to accept linen fabric as a gift. King Pasenadi gifted a soft fine linen shawl to a nun.

The Lalitvistara, a Sanskrit text of Gautam Buddha's life, which is believed to be as old as the 3rd Century CE, described linen as white cloth known as 'pandudukula.'

The NisithaCurni explains the process of making linen: the flax plant is soaked in water and pounded with a wooden beater to extract fibers.

The Acaranga mentions that Sakra presented Lord Mahavira with the finest linen cloth, which was so light that it could be blown away by a gentle breeze.

Mauryan & Sunga Dynasty

Mauryan Empire was founded by Chandragupta Maurya in 322 BCE, existing until 185 BCE when Pushyabhuti Sunga assassinated the last Mauryan king Brihadratha established Sunga Empire. The Mauryan Empire covered almost all over modern-day India except some parts of Southern and North-Eastern parts, Bangladesh, territories of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan.


Mudrarakshasam by Bishakhadutta, Arthasashtra by Chanakya, Indica by Megasthenes, Buddhist literatures, Stupas, and other remainings gave information about this empire.

Clothing in Mauryan & Sunga Dynasty

Men and women continued to wear unstitched garments like in Vedic Era.

The main garment was Antariya made of white cotton, linen or muslin, sometimes embroidered with precious stones and gold. Women wore Antariya in different styles. The Antariyas were made of opaque to more transparent fabric. They mainly wore the Antariya in kaccha style or wrapped it around the hips tightly to form a tubular skirt which we call lehenga style. May be this was the initial form of ghagra.

Kayabandh was used to tie the Antariya at the waist, and it was knotted at the center front. Both men and women used Patkas and Kayabandh in a similar way.

The Uttariya was worn in several ways. Very elegantly by riches who draped it on both or one shoulders. The common men tied it on their head for protection from sun, or tightly around waist to leave their hands free. Sometimes they used this piece to wiping their face and body while sweating.

Though there are mentions of shoes but there is no evidence except of soldiers who wore Persian boots.

In remote villages, jungles, poor people of low caste, hunters, and shepherds used to wear simple Antariya, turbans made of coarse varieties of cotton, grass (kusa), skins and fur.

Women mainly wore Uttariya on their head and styled their hair with braid, bun with garlands of flower or gold. As regards male headgear, they used to wear turbans. Like Vedic people, in this period too, both men and women wore lots of jewelleries, like earrings, bracelets, necklaces, armlets, belts. Earrings or Karnika were of three types, a simple ring or kundala, flower like shape or karnaphool, and a circular disc earring. Necklaces were of two types, Kantha, a flat and broad one, and a long one called Lambanam.  Women wore girdles called Mekhala. Anklets, rings were worn. But there is no evidence of nose rings in this period. Materials of these jewelleries were often found to be gold, silver engraved with precious stones like corals, rubies, sapphires, agates, crystals.

Military Costume

Soldiers of Mauryan Empire wore sewn uniform like Persian soldiers. It consisted of a sleeved tunic with cross straps, and leather belt to carry sword. As lower garment both kaccha style Antariya and Persian trousers were worn. This mixture of foreign and indigenous garment is an earlier and interesting example of evolution of Indian fashion.

Ascetic Clothing

The Brahmin sadhus would wear a shaped kilt-like garment made of strips sewn together which was tied at waist. A rectangular cloak covered the left shoulder and right side remained exposed.  Women ascetics would wear same garment. For men hair and beard were allowed to grow. While Buddhist monks normally generally shaved their head and beard but covered the head with a headdress. The dresses were Antaravasaka (lower garment) and Uttarsanga (upper garment) made of rags patched together and dyed red or yellow. In the Jain monastic order, monks and nuns wore white costume comprising of cloak and a robe. They covered their head nose and mouth with white gauze to ensure they might not kill any organism. Normally they shaved their head and beard.

Textiles & Dyes

From fine to coarse varieties of cotton were available in India. Cotton, silk, wool, linen, jute fabrics were available. Among silks, tussar and Muga were in demand. A rain-proof woollen cloth was available in Nepal. A glazed cotton cloth, similar to Kinkhwab was in great demand and was exported to Babylon long before Mauryans. There were fine muslins often embroidered in purple and gold and transparent which latterly came to known as Shabnam. All varieties woollen cloth was available. Coarse for head-dress and fine varieties for shawls and expensive blankets.

Kushan Age

The Kushans established their empire in the first century AD and were contemporaries with the Satavahana (Andhra) and western Satraps (Sakas) kingdoms during part of the second century AD. It spread to encompass much of modern day regions of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India.

In the north-western part of India, the coarse cotton and wool were used for making tunics and trousers for horsemen, hunters, foreigners, and doorkeepers. In central India textiles were of lightweight cotton, Tulapansi. Both indigenous and foreign skills were plentiful but still very expensive.

Antariya and Kayabandh: Traditional Lower Body Garments

Antariya were very rarely decorated and when they were, they appear to have been embroidered. Turban cloths for rich men were often diagonally striped with every third line made of pearls. This bejewelled material was also used to cover beds and seats. Many other geometric patterns of checks, stripes and triangles were also printed and woven.  Like other eras, people wore Antariya in kaccha style, the end that was passed between the legs has been tucked in at the back. The other piece remained looped to mid-thigh in front and the end tucked in a small frill at the centre. Kayabandh would be worn to secure the Antariya at the waist. They also wore a five-stringed pearl or bejewelled hip belt, called Mekhala to hold the Antariya and Kayabandh in its place.

Introduction of stitched garments

Some figurines show women often wore a narrow calf-length skirt stitched at the centre-front border called Ghagri. This is an example of the earliest form of a stitched garment for women.

Dhoti Style Sari

Some female figurines have been found to show women often wore Antariya as half sari and half kaccha style, that we call now dhoti-style sari.

Traditional Upper Body Garments and Accessories

Kushan style tunnics were worn as blouse.  There was a tunic, Stanamsuka,  fitted  with long sleeves, a simple round neckline, and flaring at the hemline. The pravara or chaddar, a large shawl, continued to be worn by both sexes as  protection against the cold and it was known to have been perfumed with bakul,  jasmine and other scents.

Jewellery in Kushan Age

Women loved to wear various kinds of jewelleries; like, Hara, Kantha, keyura(armlets), kangan or bangles, bracelets, earrings different styles, nupura or anklets of elaborate design, anguliya or rings, mukuta or crowns to adore their head.

Female Guards Costume

Costume of female guards of this period was quiet interesting. They would wear tunics with long tight sleves, loose trousers as Antariya, Kayabandh on waist. They wore simple jewlery for their work like a long necklace, bangles, nupura.

Kings & Riches Clothing

Kushan kings and rich merchants would often wear Chugha, a calf-length coat richly embroidered with long sleeves. They would wear a kurta like under garment under it. Antariya was a baggy trousers, calf-length padded boots, called Chugha. This was completely foreign style,of Scythic origin. Scythians and Iranians wore a third garment along with tunics, that was a short cloak called Caftan. It could be made of cotton or woollen or leather. Occasionally chugha was worn over the upper garments.

Military Costume

Soldiers wore tunic of Kushan style, kaccha style Antariya, mauli or turban on head. Their armour was of Tibetan style. Along with this was worn the scythian pointed cap of felt, bashylk, or  peaked helmet or head band with two long ends tied at the back.  Although, the clothes were simple, they were often adorned with stamped gold or metal plates, square, rectangular, circular, or  triangular sewn in lines or at the central seams of the tunic. As this was a period of mixture of different races, because different foreign races came to India for trade, spreading their power, it was obvious that their culture and clothing would influence on indigenous people. So we can see clothing became a mixture of foreign and indigenous style.

Satavahana Dynasty

Satavahana or Andhra Empire was for 460 years in unbroken continuiuty. It ran parallel to the Kushan Empire. Foreign influence  through foreign trade brought difference to the way of life.

Clothing and Accessories in the Satavahana Dynasty

Costumes were a mix of indigenous and foreign garments. Kanchuka or tunics with long or short sleeves were worn by attendants, stablemen, hunters. Kayabandh, Antariyas, turbans were worn continually. Women used short antariyas, large uttariyas with elaborate broad borders covering their heads and back, tikkas on foreheads, series of conch or ivory bangles.

Jungle women wore rolls and headbands with peacock feathers attached. Village women wore their hair in simple bun or braid or top knot with a loop of flowers attached on head. Men would wear turban or Ushnisha in a variety of ways.

In case of jewellery and accessories, all old varieties continued to be worn. Sandals, decorative footwear continued to be worn like Vedic age. So like Kushan era, people of Andhra Empire also dressed in mixed styles.

Gupta Period

The great Gupta empire existed fromthe early 4th century CE to last 6th century CE. At its zenith it covered much of the Indian subcontinent. This period was the golden age of art, culture in every field in every way. It was the finest age of finest textiles, printed, dyed, weaved, embroidered.

Availability of Fabric and Textile Arts in Gupta Period

Huge ranges of different qualities of fabric were available in ancient India. The art of calico improved with time, and delicate embroidery on fine muslins continued to be in high demand. Brocades of Deccan and Paithan were like the modern-day Jamiwar and Himru fabrics. The diversity of fabrics was a result of the country's vast geographical and cultural diversity.

Clothing in Gupta Era and Adoption of Stitched Garments

With the Kushan kings, stitched garment became popular. Gupta kings adopted these costumes, that is, tunics, chugha or coat, trousers and boots, though Antariyas, uttariyas, kayabandhs continued to be worn.

Rich women wore fine cloth, ghagri  and Uttariya, while the attendants might have upper body left uncovered, ghagra as Antariya. Some women would wear a choli-typed blouse called Cholaka. Male attendants would wear an ankle length tunic and a long sleeved upper garment, a round cap with border and a plume sits on his head.


Bejewelled crown, tiaras, turbans studded with pearls, sapphires, precious stonss were worn by riches. Women wore Kantha, pearl necklace called Muktavali, keyura, valaya, ivory bangles, angulya or ring, nupura, cocnch-shell bangles, bead necklace, girdles .

So now we can see the sewn garments were now already popular among mass. Different kinds of new garments were noticed along with the traditional Antariyas, uttariyas. Huge varieties of qualities of cotton, silk, linen, leather, woolen fabrics were easily available. Printing, embroidery, dyeing everything improved day by day. The foreign trade, especially export business was mainly based on rich Indian textiles.

 In our next topic we will discuss the evolution of fashion in India during medieval and modern era.

History of Fashion and Clothing in Medieval and Modern India