Native American History
Century - 1800s

What were the clothes worn by Indians in 19th century?

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2008-10-09 13:27:36

During the 17th and 18th centuries, India exported vast

quantities of textiles throughout the world. The influence of

India's textile export may be judged by the number of textile terms

in use today which have Indian origins: chintz, calico, dungaree,

gingham, khaki, madras, pyjama, sash, seersucker, and shawl are

just a few..

By far the most prized of Indian fabrics during this time period

was Chintz, a cotton fabric usually having a large-scale, floral

pattern applied by mordants (a resist dyeing method). For the

finest chintz, the design was actually painted on the fabric, not

printed. The colors were fast (they didn't fade or wash out).

Chintz was used for both apparel fabrics and home furnishing

fabrics (drapes & bedspreads) (Irwin and Brett, 1970).

Kashmir Shawls

In the mid-18th century a new accessory was introduced to the

fashionable European woman's wardrobe which remained fashionable

for almost a century. This was a shawl produced in Kashmir which is

located in the northern part of India bordering the Himalayan

Mountains. The shawls were originally brought to England by the

East India Company, as well as by travelers bringing home


The finest shawls were woven from the very fine and soft hair of

a Kashmir mountain goat. (This is the fiber we know today as

Cashmere.) The Kashmir shawls were handwoven entirely by men. One

or two men would work 2-3 years to produce one shawl. Thismade the

shawls very expensive (A Kashmir shawl at that time cost the

equivalent of a mink coat today.). However, they were in such great

demand that European manufacturers quickly began efforts to try to

imitate them. A good source of shawl images and info is


Kashmir and paisley shawls can be identified by the use of a

certain design motif which in India is called the boteh.

After European textile manufacturers began imitating the shawls,

the motif began to be called a paisley, after Paisley, Scotland,

one of the largest producers of imitation Kashmir shawls (Reilly,



The phenomenon of the banyan, a gentleman's loose, long jacket

or gown in the 1800's, illustrates combined Japanese and Indian

influences. Trade with Japan was open from 1543 to 1640, and then

closed until 1854. During the time that Japan was closed to trade,

Japanese kimono made their way to Europe via Dutch traders who were

the only ones to have access Japanese ports. Because of the rarity

of kimono in the western world, it became a valued commodity.

Demand quickly exceeded supply. The scarcity of the kimono enhanced

its popularity and led the Dutch to manufacture banyans in India

where they were highly involved in textile trade and export.

The banyan was a loose, full kimono style in the early 18th

century, but later evolved into a more fitted style with set-in

sleeves, similar to a man's coat. It was known as an Indian gown,

nightgown, morning gown, or dressing gown. First used as a type of

robe, it was originally worn for leisure and in at-home situations;

but came to be worn as a coat out-of-doors, in the street, or for

business. Many gentlemen had their portraits made while wearing

banyans. They were made from all types of fabrics in cotton, silk,

or wool (Cunningham, 1984).

For gentlemen, this was a long robe or gown which replaced the

tight coat and waistcoat (vest) worn in public. Trade with Japan

and India affected the demand for gowns made in the kimono style.

The Dutch East India Company was the only trade group to have

access to Japan durign this time period. The demand for these

garments became so great that the Dutch eventually began

manufacturing them in India through their locations there. The

Indian Saree (a.k.a. Sari, Seere, Sadi) boasts of oldest existence

in the sartorial world. It is more than 5000 years old! It is

mentioned in Vedas, the oldest existing (surviving) literature

(3000 B.C.) Patterns of dress change throughout the world now and

then but, the Sari has survived because it is the main wear of

rural India. 75% of the population (now a billion as per official

estimate) wear versatile sari. We can certainly call this cloth

versatile because it could be worn as shorts, trousers, flowing

gown-like or convenient skirt-wise--all without a single


Saree (original--Chira in Sanskrit, cloth) is of varied length.

From 5 yards to 9.5 yards tied loosely, folded and pleated, it

could be turned into working dress or party-wear with manual skill.

For day today dress of middle class women, 5-6 yard sari is

comfortable to manage household chores. Working class tucks the

same length above the ankles and if they have to work in water or

fields, they would tuck the front pleats between the legs to the

back, and tie the upper portion round the waist. This left them

free movement of hands and legs.

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