If you take a closer look at my photos from India, especially the ones from Hyderabad, you will notice that almost all Indian women wear traditional Indian clothing (mostly saris or salwar kameez), whereas almost all Indian men wear Western-style clothes (trousers plus shirt).
I was very impressed that women were able to ride motorbikes, carry out all household chores and even do heavy-duty construction work wearing saris. At the same time, I found it a bit disappointing that men were not wearing traditional clothes. It seems that men would only wear traditional Indian clothing (Dhoti, Lungi or Kurta) for more official occasions.
The most traditional female Indian clothing is a sari (saree). It is a strip of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine meters in length that is draped over the body in various styles (the most traditional saris are 9 m long). The sari is usually worn over an ankle-length skirt called "petticoat" and a blouse called "choli". Cholis usually are short and end just under the breasts. They may be backless or of a halter neck style and have short sleeves. In contrast to pettitcoats, which are plain, cholis are usually decorated with a lot of embellishments such as mirrors or embroidery.
There are many styles in which saris can be draped. The most popular of them is the nivi drape:
As you could see on the video, in the nivi style one end of the sari (the undecorated one) is tucked into the waistband of the petticoat. The cloth is wrapped around the lower body once, then hand-gathered into even pleats (usually 5-7 pleats, each around 5 inches/12cm long). The pleats are tucked into the waistband of the petticoat in a way that the bottom part of the sari just barely touches the floor. After one more turn around the waist, the loose end of the sari (called the pallu) is draped over the left shoulder. The pallu may either be left hanging freely, tucked in at the waist, or used to cover the head or the neck. Typically, the pallu is left handing freely, which highlights the beauty of the sari as the pallu is often intricately decorated.
If you watched the video till the very end, you saw the Gujarati style of drape, in which the pallu is draped from the back towards the front. Personally, I do not like this style and I find the nivi drape much more elegant and female.
Here is another video showing how to tie a sari, in case you would like to practice :)
In case you think that figuring out how to put on the sari is the difficult part, you are wrong. The difficult part is figuring out how to walk in it and how to wear it gracefully.
The very first sari that I ever wore was my wedding sari. As soon as I bought it I started practicing draping it nicely around myself. After just a few tries, I felt confident that I could do it pretty well. But then I realized that also walking in a sari, and especially sitting down, without disturbing the drape is difficult! It is particularly difficult in a wedding sari, which is heavily-decorated and weighs several kilos. Additional challenge is that a sari should always be floor-length, which might mean that you will have to re-drape your sari if you are planning on switching between wearing high-heel shoes and being barefoot. Just something to remember if you plan to visit other people's houses and will be removing your shoes... I guess that explains why most Indian women wear flat-heel shoes.
If you are a first-time sari buyer, my advice would be to pick a sari that is light and made from a synthetic and soft material. The softer the material, the easier it will be for you to drape it around yourself. Usually, this kind of a sari would be called a "work sari" and would not be too expensive. Do not forget to get a matching pettitcoat and a choli for it as well!
Once you start feeling more comfortable wearing saris, you should go ahead and buy yourself a traditional silk sari. They come in a variety of colors and patterns, and are worn during official ceremonies and social gatherings.
Below are a few pictures of my wedding sari. As you can see on the first two photos it took several people to help me put it on before the ceremony:
On this photo Neeta, my sister in law, is putting a safety pin through my sari to make sure that it won't open during the ceremony:
Here is my wedding sari in the full glory. The part that is hanging over my shoulder is called a pallu:
Sitting on the floor in a sari is not easy! If you watched the videos carefully, you will remember that twice the material is draped around your waist. If you do it too tightly, you won't be able to sit down:
Another challenge during an Indian wedding ceremony is that it involves a lot of cycles of walking and sitting down. Moreover, the rim of my sari and of Anil's dhoti got tied together, which meant that we had to synchronize standing up and walking... Good practice before the marriage ;)
Here, Neeta helps me grab my sari in a way that it will not fall apart if Anil pulls it too hard:
During the religious part of an Indian wedding ceremony it is still expected that a woman wears a sari. However, as soon as this part is over, it is acceptable (and common) for women to change into other, more-comfortable outfits, e.g. lehengas (also spelled lehnga or lengha). Lehengas are long, heavily-decorated elegant skirts worn together with a choli (the same blouse that is worn under a sari) and a scarf (called dupatta).
On the picture below is the lehenga that I wore during my wedding party. As you can see also Anil changed his clothes and here he is wearing a kurta and a churidar:
In my experience, the use of lehengas is reserved to fancy parties (like wedding parties). I did not see a single Indian woman wearing a lehenga anywhere on the streets.
In Southern India, around 95% of women wear saris, and the remaining 5% wear salwar kameez. The salwar kameez is more popular among younger girls and teenagers, whereas saris are more popular among adult women. It seems to be that most Indian women living in the US only wear saris to the temple and for parties/events, and during the remaining time they either wear salwar kameez or kurtas over jeans.
The salwar kameez is a dress similar to shirt and pants worn by westerners. It consists of loose trousers (called the "salwar") topped by a long loose shirt (the kameez). It is always worn with a scarf called a Dupatta, which is usually drawn around the shoulders and over the bosom (as I learned, covering the breasts is the primary purpose of wearing a dupatta). When needed, the dupatta can also be used to cover the head.
Here I am wearing a salwar kameez I borrowed from Arjumand:
What you can not see at the picture above is that the trousers - salwar - are often super-wide at the top:
And even when you tie them tight, they are still puffy:
Luckily, the blouse (kameez) that is worn above them is long (traditionally knee-long) and covers the weirdly looking part of the trousers.
In some outfits other type of trousers - tightly fitting churidars - are worn instead of salwars. Churidars can be worn both by men and women. They are usually stretchy and, therefore, close-fitting. They are also longer than the leg - the excess length falls into folds and appears like a set of bangles resting on the ankle (hence the name "churidar": "churi" means a bangle, and "dar" means like).
Here I am wearing churidar trousers and kameez blouse:
Front view, a dupatta complements the outfit:
The churidar is usually worn with a kameez (tunic) by women or a kurta (a loose overshirt) by men.
Kurta can be worn both by men and women. It is similar to the kameez, but it is more loosely cut. Usually kurtas are knee-length, do not have collars, have straight wrist-length sleeves, and open to the front. They are traditionally worn with loose-fitting salwars, tight-fitting churidars, or wrapped-around dhotis. But nowadays they are also worn with jeans. They can be worn both as casual everyday wear and as formal dress (E.g. Anil wore a marron kurta and a cream churidar trousers during our wedding party - check out the photos above.)
Other type of clothing that is commonly worn by men during formal gatherings is a dhoti. It is a rectangular piece of unstitched cloth, usually around 7 meters long, wrapped around the waist and the legs and knotted at the waist. It can be worn by itself or under shirts, t-shirts, or anything else.
In southern India the garment is worn at all cultural occasions and traditional ceremonies. Hence, during the religious part of our wedding Anil and the priest (pandit) wore dhotis (check out the pictures above). I was told that draping a dhoti is as difficult as draping a sari, but I did not have a chance to check it myself.
Lungi is a similar piece of clothing to a dhoti. It is also worn by men, though only on informal occasions. Unlike dhotis, which are linear like sheets, lungis are sewn into a tube shaped like a skirt. The standard adult lungi is 115 cm x 200 cm, when open. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, almost all Indian men wear Western-style clothing.