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History of Shalwar Kameez

Updated: May 20, 2023

History of Shalwar Kameez

Tunics paired with loose trousers were the standard for dressing up throughout medieval Central Asia. As the Timurid-Mughals moved to hotter regions, the fabrics began to change, and local aesthetics were incorporated. The shalwar kameez took shape from this merger, as did the anrakha.

What we know as the Angrakha today is a cousin of the national dress of Uzbekistan. The tunic, made from lighter and thus more flowy fabric and slightly altered silhouettes, gave birth to a dress now a favorite for ethnic formalwear for all desi women. A variant of it is also in vogue these days in Oman.

At first a symbol of royalty, the attire from the Timurid Mughal court gradually spread to the people. Indians at the time, at large, wore unstitched dresses at the time, sans the ethnically Pakhtun and Baloch, who had their own ethnic wear, which was stitched, likely due to proximity to Persia and Central Asia.

The shalwar kameez, now in its various forms and fashions, is the national dress of Pakistan, also donned by Afghan men, and a staple for wardrobes of men and women alike in India and Bangladesh. A lesser-known variant of the Shalwar Kameez is its Omani cousin, the Silwar, Lihaf, and Kandura, and its variants are worn in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Like the Pakistani kameez, the Kandura hangs just below the knee, although the exact length varies from region to region. This also applies to the Tajik national dress for women, and it's Uzbek cousin, the kurta poijoma.

Besides being a symbol of faith for Muslim women, headgear was worn as a form of identity amongst the Nomadic tribes of the region - each tribe and clan had its own kind of headgear. Tajik and Uzbek women have retained their tradition of skullcaps attached to colorful shawls known as lachak, or headscarves tied behind the head. In Oman lihaf, is what we call a dupatta in Pakistan. Whilst Pakistani, Indian, and Bengali women wear a dupatta for style, or to cover their head, sometimes along with a chaddar, a larger piece of fabric used to wrap around oneself, the Lihaf in Oman is more often seen paired with a fitted headscarf.

In Oman, as well as Pakistan, the patterning of the intricate metal embroidery itself often found on formal ethnic wear can be traced back to zardozi work (from the words zar, gold, and dozi, embroidery, in Persian), which was introduced to India by the Mughals in the 16th century. From present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the motifs migrated across the sea to Oman, and their echoes can be seen today.

The dress truly has a remarkably rich history, as do the countries where the shalwar kameez is worn, lying at the cusp of so many civilizations. The heritage of the dress makes it all the more fascinating. On a side note, several Omani photographers have caught my eye as of late - I can only imagine the wonders we could do in the fashion industry if collaborations were to occur!


This blog has been written by Komal Salman.

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