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A History Lesson On Salwar Kameez

The most worn South Asian clothing is the salwar kameez. Its popularity grew from neighbouring country Afghanistan a few hundred years back and any good fashion history book will tell you that the salwar and kameez was invented to protect one's body from dust storms.
Yep, that's me. Pakistani me.

A History Lesson
A salwar *my dictionary has listed it as shalwar but I prefer salwar, - is the trouser portion of the two-piece suit. It's meant to be baggy nearer the top, lined with buckram for stiffer bands around the ankle, traditionally sewn with pleats or loops for a belt for masses of gathered fabric near the waist. And the kameez is a simple full sleeved tunic, typically with side splits for movement. The headscarf (hijab) has many different names depending on which region of Pakistan you're from or which heritage.

Saucy Salwars
Today you see a very different statement being made with the salwar kameez. While in Afghanistan its design hasn't changed pretty much (thankfully), over in India, the celebrity industry has impacted how an otherwise modest dress, is seen the world over. Pakistan has copied many of the shorter, tighter and elaborate kameez designs, while many women in Bangladesh still wear the sari.

India itself has emulated Arab fashion, so you see more 'genie' or 'aladdin' trousers - the wide pants with cuffed ankles - and extravagant embroidery and weaves in the kameez.

'East meets West' In British Fashion
Here in Britain, always an observer of changing trends, I see my peers wear a varied range of salwar kameez styles from the extremely long tunics to cropped trousers and sleeveless tops. Other materials are used to substitute parts such as lace for full sleeves and rows of sequins for the low-cut necklines. The decorative portions, which are the cuffs, hemlines, neckline and sometimes the mid-back, are cut-away in intricate crafted patterns to reveal a little more skin.

It's practical, beautiful and ornate; even the simplest of salwar kameez are often covered in glass and wooden beads, mirrored squares, glorious pearl buttons and tailored to cuts that reflect the age-old Mughal fashion period.

Salwar Kameez And Me
I'm a traditionalist in that if something is invented and works best in its original form, it need not be altered. Above I'm wearing one of my very few cherished and traditional salwar kameez from Pakistan; a navy blue cotton kameez with buttoned sleeves and teal/brown wooden beads along the neckline, inspired by Egyptian shapes. It's full sleeves, roomy, smells of orange blossom and I can ride my bike in it. It cost me a staggering £60 (yes, that is a lot for one suit). The fabric was dyed in those ha-yooj (huge) clay vats so every wash rinses out a little blue colour.

For textile studies I tried out pattern-making (making clothes from templates) and my family run several tailoring businesses. My mother used to be and still is a professional seamstress, so did my father - in poverty, he would mend his family's shoes and sew their Eid clothing.

Technology For Abayas
I also wrote a thesis on the history of Islamic clothing, which is why I have random facts about ethical fashion. I put forward the ideas of hijabs with built-in adhan microchips, waterproof jilbaabs for outdoor prayers in the rain, multi-pocketed utility belts and zipped niqabs. Back then, 'Muslim fashion' literally meant salwar kameez from migrant families and the jilbaab industry was still brewing in the Middle East.

So What Is Islamic Fashion?
From verses in the Qur'an, to the Prophet Muhammad's way of life, peace be upon him, we learn there is no "one garment" that constitutes Islamic fashion. There is a distinction however, between what is allowed in the Shari`ah (Islamic law) and what is "unislamic". Needless to say, a Muslim man and woman have areas of their body which Islam asks to cover up, this is known as "awrah". In the Shari`ah, a woman's head to toe excluding her hands and face, and a man's navel-to-knee need public censorship.

But how do they cover up and with what? This is the more grey-er area allowing room for cultural preferences and personal tastes. T-shirts, kaftans, dresses, suits, thobes, saris, jeans, hijabs, salwar kameez. Each shows a very different level of smartness and history, but they are all allowed in Shari`ah (so long as they're not tight, ugly or revealing - good presentation is also a virtue). It's just a fashion statement for many, for others it's a way of life.

More from Asia:
Bali/Thai earrings
Pakistani Weddings - What Really Happens
Formal And Casual Eid Outfits
Review: Maysaa.com Fusion Muslim Clothing
Mughal Gown Development


  1. We'll get the information together for a post insha-Allah.

  2. Haris Zubaidi07/11/2011, 03:15

    greeting. I am
    from Muslim Indonesia.

  3. Haris Zubaidi07/11/2011, 03:15

    greeting. I am
    from Muslim Indonesia.

  4. Very nice post.....


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