The Ultimate South Asian Style Guide: Salwar Kameez
Salwar kameez are the most popular garment in India and Pakistan, after the saree. Wearing pants makes it easier for a woman to manuever the hectic lifestyle of large South Asian cities, while still remaining modestly covered up and fashionable.
The term "salwar" refers to the trouser pants of the outfit, while "kameez" is the word for long, collarless tunics. "Salwar" is a Bengali term, but the spelling "shalvar" is Urdu and other spellings such as "salvaar" are also known. "Kameez" can also be spelled with a q, as in "qameez."
The kameez tunic dates back to 10th century Egypt, where men and women alike wore the loose-fitting garment to conduct physical labor outdoors in the heat of the desert. The modern day Egyptian galabia is said to have evolved from this primitive tunic.
Many cultures, including the vast Roman empire, wore the seamless, long shirts with or without loose trousers for daily activities. Royal and noble people would wear embellished or decorated versions of the outfit, while peasants and common men wore simple, cotton garments.
Culture & Community
Today, the salwar kameez is a popular outfit amongst India. Its versatile design allows it to become the casual churidar or the wedding-appropriate, fancy anarkhali. It is a more comfortable alternative to the saree, due to the convenience of the salwar pants and modest coverage of the design.
Pakistani women wear longer frocks on top of the kameez, which gave way to the anarkhali design. Pakistani brides often wear an anarkhali at least once during their wedding rituals, often for the mehndi, when displaying the arms and feet amidst loose cloth is ideal for henna application.
Indian brides follow a similar pattern, wearing decorated salwar kameez (and more recently, anarkhalis) to their mehndi and sangeet events. The anarkhali is rarely worn at the wedding reception, as the bride often opts for a feminine, full skirt outfit, like a lehenga or saree for this event.
In the United Kingdom, the salwar kameez is known as the "Punjabi suit" amongst Indians. This name comes from the high-fashion popularization of the outfit by the Punjabi community, which first decorated it with beading and detailed embroidery for formal wear.
Many Indian school uniforms for girls are based off the salwar kameez. Young women wear these outfits in cotton or linen to look professional and smart while keeping covered and also cool in the hotter months.
The salwar kameez is still an outfit that spans social classes and groups. Both upper class and lower class women will be seen wearing this outfit, differing only in design and material depending on the wealth the woman has. Silk, satin, and more expensive fabrics can create outfits for formal events, while cotton and linen provide daily wear for South Asian working women.
Most salwar kameez are designed to be modest articles of clothing, with loose salwar pants that do not reveal the shape of legs and short-sleeved or 3/4 length kameez with a high neckline. However, modern designs are more revealing, with tighter pants and deeper cut necklines. The sleeve length now varies by personal preference.
Churidars are a specific salwar kameez where the salwars are cut closer to the body, loose at the top and narrow at the ankle. This design allows for the contours of the legs to be revealed. The fabric is stretchy and leaves extra room when sitting, making this variant of the salwar kameez comfortable enough for daily wear. The comfort and style of churidars made them very popular in the 90s in both India and the diaspora.
Anarkhali suits have grown into popularity after their fashion statements in Pakistani fashion shows and culture. The kameez is the defining point of the outfit, as the tunic top is in the form of a frock with a flowing skirt and long sleeves. The sleeves can vary to preference, but the anarkhali always has a full skirt. The salwars are cut more like tights, close to the legs, than trousers in order to show off the dress. The outfit's slimming design has made it popular amongst many brides for wedding attire.
Churidars, anarkhalis, and all other forms of the salwar kameez are worn with a dupatta, a loose piece of matching fabric that acts as a complimentary scarf. The dupatta can be styled in many ways - from the head covering worn by many brides to a fashion statement draped over one arm.
A model shows off her dupatta from Ritu Kumar's Panchvastra collection
Like sarees, salwar kameez range in designs from simple monochrome to heavily detailed embroidered and beaded outfits. The design will vary based on the salwar kameez's purpose, with modest cotton clothing appropriate for laborous attire and decorated outfits for formal wear.
Materials commonly used in the salwar kameez are cotton, silk, and satin. Light fabrics are preferred to heavy ones, as the inclusion of pants in the attire make salwar kameez a warmer garment than the loose saree. Anarkhalis have popularized Georgette and tulle, which are used to add volume to the kameez skirt.
Netted fabrics add volume to this Falguni & Shane Peacock anarkhali
Patterns are often inspired by religious and cultural motifs, such as peacocks, paisleys, and florals. Styles have changed over the years, but timeless designs include such motifs embroidered at the bottom of the kameez or at the sleeves.
Floral designs on a salwar kameez from Nomi Ansari's Rang Barsay Collection
Brides can be seen wearing some form of the salwar kameez at wedding events such as the mehndi, or even the reception. Celebrities also love how the outfit compliments any figure and often choose a salwar kameez suit for red carpet events.
A bride wears a loose-fitting, colorful salwar kameez to her mehndi, from A Modern Punjabi Wedding
A pretty pink churidar worn by a bride to her reception, from Aanchal & Manvir's Wedding
Bridesmaids often wear matching salwar kameez to weddings as well. The outfits are complimentary for all body types and are easy to alter.
Soha Ali Khan wore this stunning magenta and yellow anarkhali, custom designed, of course, to her mehndi ceremony.
Whether your style is more churidar or anarkhali, you can't go wrong with a salwar kameez for your own wedding or as a guest. The versatile outfit can be decorated to the stars for a glamorous look or simple and breezy for utmost comfort. Salwar kameez are a classic staple to any South Asian wardrobe.
Check out the rest of the series on South Asian fashion:traditional South Asian saree, mekhela chador, Indian men’s pants, shararas and ghararas,Indian men’s hats, lenghas and half-saris, Indian men’s jackets, sherwanis, women’s salwar kameez, nauvari (nine yard) saris