Saturday, September 6, 2003
S L I C E  O F  H I S T O R Y

A royal way to dress up
Pramod Sangar

Silk, brocade and fine muslin were used by ladies of the royalty
Silk, brocade and fine muslin were used by ladies of the royalty

THE ladies belonging to Mughal aristocracy wore dresses which were prepared or stitched in the royal karkhanas. The material used for the dresses was simply marvellous and was the ‘wonder of the age’. Francois Bernier remarks that the royal karkhanas were manufacturers of silk, brocade and "those fine muslins of which are made turbans, girdles with golden flowers and drawers worn by women, so delicately fine as frequently to wear out in one night." He further goes on to add that "this article of dress which lasts only a few hours may cost 10 or 12 crowns and even more, when beautifully embroidered with needle work". John Baptise Tavernier on another occasion says, "Some calicoes were made so fine that you could hardly feel them in your hand, and the thread when spun is scarce discernable." The superiority and fineness of cloth meant for the royal ladies forced Tavernier to admit that "when a man put it on, his skin appeared as plainly as if it were quite naked." Once Aurangzeb remonstrated his daughter for not being properly dressed, as "her skin was visible through her clothes — but she vehemently protested that she was wearing not one but seven James (suits) on her body". This muslin (cloth) was so delicate and fine that when it was spread out on grass and dew fell on it, it was no longer perceptible. Bains, a famous author of textile history in his masterpiece History of the Cotton Manufacturers, admitted that "they (muslins) might be thought of the work of fairies or of insects rather than man."


Before Akbar, the Persian dress was commonly used by ladies of the royalty. Mughal Emperor Humayun introduced a new design of overcoat which was cut at the waist and open in the front. He wore qaba in many colours according to his astrological fancies. This was also given as present to the nobles and important personages on various occasions. Muslim women of the upper class usually wore loose drawers, a shirt and a long scarf, with the usual veil or shroud. Another significant aspect was that blue colour was used for mourning, and the ladies usually avoided it, except in certain special cases. Women were fond of bright colours and prints. The printed or painted cloth, made at various centres of the textile industry, was highly sought after by the Dutch and the English traders in India. The nobility evolved a common dresscode for itself.

Akbar made several experiments in the sphere of women’s costumes. This process was given impetus by the entrance of Rajput princesses in his harem. His liberal mindedness, and policy of ‘Sul-i-kul’ allowed them to follow their own style of dressing. The main item of wear for the Rajput ladies (which is still prevalent in Rajasthan and Haryana) was angiya or a tight-fitting bodice. It could be half or full sleeved. Its length diminished with time. Below the angiya, lehnga was used. To the two ends of the izarband (binding cord) were attached bunches of pearls to add elegance and grace to the dress. Last came the odhni, which was used for covering the upper part of the body and head and became highly popular with the Hindu and Muslim women alike. The same type of clothes were probably worn by ladies in the cold season, except that over them they added a woollen qaba and a fine shawl manufactured in Kashmir.

Akbar brought changes in fashion by ordering that the court dress be made with a round skirt and should be tied on the right side. He also introduced the fashion of wearing the shawl doubled (doshella). His innovative mind was always eager to develop or create something new and, therefore, he invented certain new dresses. Abul Fazl has made a mention of several dresses, with their detailed descriptions in Ain-i-Akbari.

In the time of Jehangir, his chief consort Noorjehan developed certain new styles and created a ‘sensation’ in the art of dressing. She made new experiments and came out with several dresses for women, known by names such as ‘Nur Mahal’ dress (for bride and bridegroom) and do dami for peshwaj (gowns).

Anna Harriette Leonownes, who travelled a good deal in India during the 19th century, gives a graphic description of the dress of a Muslim bride: "She wore a purple silk petticoat embroidered with a rich border of scattered bunches of flowers, each flower formed of various gems, while the leaves and stems were of embroidered gold and silk threads. The bodice was of the same material as the petticoat, the entire vest being marked with circular rows of pearls and rubies. The hair was parted in the Greek style and confined at the back in a graceful knot bound by a fillet of gold. On her forehead rested a beautiful fashion star of diamond."

Peitro Della Valle, an Italian traveller, who visited India during in the time of Jehangir, made an interesting observations about the dress of people in northern India. He has recorded: "The garment which they wear next to the skin serves as both the coat and skirt, from the girdle upwards, being adorned upon the breast and hanging downwards they wear a pair of long drawers of the same cloth, which cover not only their thighs, but legs also to the feet; and it is a piece of gallantry to have wrinkled too many folds upon the legs. The naked feet are not otherwise confined but to a slipper and that are easier to be pulled off without the help of the hand this mode being convenient in regard to the heat of the country". He had all praise for the Indian ’ and further says, "I was so taken up with this Indian dress in regard to its cleanliness and easiness that I could have one to be made for myself, complete in every point, and to carry with me to show it in Italy".

The traveller further remarked that the "Indian gentle women commonly used no other colour but red... and for the most part they use no garment, but wear only a waist coat, the sleeves of which reach not beyond the middle of the arms. From the waist downwards they wear a long coat down to the foot (lehnga). When they go abroad, they cover themselves with a cloak of ordinary shape."

The clothes of the women were identical to that of men except for the colours.