Dress refers to the use of cloths for attiring. In the Gangetic plains, the references of dress appear in the records of the Rig Veda, Artha Shastra and upanisads. Earlier records in the mahabharata and the ramayana carry important references to fabrics and the attire of legendary heroes, describing their dress for rituals, ceremonies, hunting as well as the attires of holy mendicants and brides. Excavation at ancient sites of the Indo-Gangetic civilisation revealed spinning and weaving gadgets and dyers' vats. Clay and stone figurines and statuary from these sites provide representation of the dress worn by commoners, kings and queens. Medieval writings by the Chinese travelers to Bengal, fa-hien (5th century AD) and huen-tsang (7h century AD) provide details of the clothes worn by the people. The excellent terracotta plaques unearthed at dinajpur and mainamati (8th to 12th century AD) in East Bengal also testify to the social and cultural life of those times.


Stone and terracotta sculptures of ancient India at Sanchi, Bharat, Amarawati, Orissa and the exquisite terracotta of kantanagar in Dinajpur, and Mainamati in comilla, throw ample light on social conditions during ancient and medieval periods. These stone and clay figurative works are a rich source of information of the dresses of the people and the nobility. Female figurines display loincloths of varying lengths held up by cords or girdles and some display shoulder drapes. Men figurines wear tightly clinging dhutis and sometimes shoulder drapes. Headdress and ornaments depict elaborate styles. Some garments bear patterns indicating embroidery or weaving. Warriors and attendants wore tunics, long cloaks, waistbands, turbans, headscarf and kilts. Enormous bangles, armbands, anklets, necklaces and earrings cover many figurines, even where the scantly dressed ones.

Huen Tsang describes garments that are not tailored or sewn. Most people wore white fabrics to beat the heat of the long summers. Men wrapped a length of cloth around their waist, and passed it under their armpits, returning it to drape the torso, hanging to the right. Women’s robes were also wrapped around the body, taking the cloth over their shoulders and heads. Women’s hairstyles show topknots, buns and loose hair.  Men wore caps, either woven or embroidered, and necklets.

In kalidasa (500 AD) references are made to the dress of hunters, ascetics and mendicants. Materials described indicate fabrics for hot and cold weather. silk is mentioned under the name cinamsuki, which etymology suggests that it was imported from China. Descriptions of cloth so fine that it could be blown away by a breath indicate that the production of Gangetic muslin took place in antiquity.


The impact of Muslims on the dress and culture of the subcontinent reached the remotest hinterlands as early as the 15th century. Muslim invaders before the Mughals, the Sultans and Khans wore tight fitting trousers, a long coat tight at the waist but flaring out in a full skirt, and with tight sleeves. Turbans were tied around the head and were five cubits in length. Women's clothes were similar and included caps. Such clothes were referred to as Tartaric (Tatoriyat). The caps of both women and men were four-cornered in shape and ornamented with jewels in a style that is seen even today in Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian States. Women plaited their hair, as was common in Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Central Asia, binding the hair with silk tassels. Both sexes wore belts and shoes, embroidered in gold and silver thread. The judges and scholars (ulema) wore ample gowns (farajiyat) and also Arabic garments.

The costumes of the rulers gradually influenced the local people. The rulers wore Persian dresses: tight-fitting trousers, a long coat tight-fitting at the waist and flaring out into a full skirt. This was held with a waistband or komarband, often made of gold or silver, while the sleeves were narrow and extended up to the wrists.

Embroidery and ornamentation with precious stones were in use. Mughals from Central Asia wore turbans, while Turks wore pointed caps. Caps were of many shapes, conical, with upturned brim, square and triangular. The Persian influence blended with that of earlier invaders and the Indians adopted many dress styles to gain favour in courts.

During the time of Mughal Emperor akbar noticeable changes in dress took place, especially in women's clothes. Both the Mongolian female headgear, a fan-like crown covered in jewels, and the women's cap-turban of Iran were replaced with the veil or dopatta of Rajput women. Skirts and bodice or choli were also worn. Persian influence dominated in jamdani - embroidered patterns, kashidakari, zardozi and chikkan needlework. One article of Muslim male dress that seemed to have been influenced by the West was the achkan or sherwani, a long coat reaching below the knees like an overcoat and closing down the front.

Modern dress The end of the 19th century and the advent of the 20th century brought changes both in male and female dress styles. The effects of the Second World War in particular led men to adopt western cuts of shirts and trousers and suits and ties. The pyjama of Muslims and the dhuti of Hindus were frequently worn with western collar-and-cuff shirts. The kurta or punjabi, or the loose tunic, continued as formal wear, topped with waistcoat and a chadar or shawl on the left shoulder, but increasingly men donned western suits for office and state and official functions. Shoes also were laced and buckled in the western style, but pump shoes and sandals continued to be worn with indigenous costumes. Caps of different designs, either of plain cotton or embroidered, were worn by Muslim men on festive occasions. The sola tupi or sun-hat of the British was worn by Bengali officials, who also dressed in western uniforms of khaki, white or navy blue in various capacities.

Baby frock

The 1980s saw new trends in men’s fashions. The influence came mainly through satellite television and increased travel. There was a conscious evolution of the classical Mughal styles, in which designers adapted elaborate dresses to meet contemporary needs. Punjabis with buttoned-up collars became longer, and the embellishment of exotic needlework or blockprint patterns enhanced the cut. Combination punjabi suits developed to men’s three-piece ensembles. The third item was the left shoulder shawl or the graceful sleeveless long cloak with slits on the sides and finely embroidered. These are usually made from expensive silks, tassars and textured woven fabrics with gold braids or gold and silver embroideries. Since the 1990s, fashion designer men’s wear has taken over as formal evening wear at weddings and festivals, reducing the use of western-style suits among the young elite.  

As cultural functions demand indigenous dress, the kurta-pyjama or punjabi-pyjama are still in common use, with or without waistcoats. For office and workplace trousers with open-collar shirt are commonly worn. Working class people of all religions still prefer the lungi-genji, the sewn sarong and short-sleeved cotton vest, as a daily garb. Both rural and urban common people wear the climatically suitable lungi-genji or lungi with shirt, which has been the unofficial national dress of Bengal for centuries. Middle and upper class men wear the lungi at home, usually with stylish punjabi.

Western influence on urban Bengali women's dress entered in subtle ways at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. While the sari remained the same in drape, the blouse took on western styles, for instance, puff-sleeves or tight-fitting sleeves up to the wrists, made out of rich materials such as velvet, satin and brocade. The necklines, too, were scooped out wider and lower as in European dress and came to be fringed with laces, brocade braids, and various decorative borders. Post World War II changes brought in printed mill cloths, saris and blouses of the same material. The traditional handloom saris continued to be worn by ordinary women, as they were cheap and durable.

The upper and middle class women wore the expensive silk jamdani and benarasi saris for weddings and festivals, and fine hand-loomed cottons at home. The innovation of artificial silk provided rich looking clothes at prices affordable by those in the low-income bracket.

The period from 1945 to 1975 did not see much change. In the 1980s, information and visual communication media caused sudden extraneous changes. Access to sari fashions from India led to a demand for change in weaving textures, colours and embellishment. Designer saris, embroidered in nakshi kantha embroidery, brush painted, and tie-and-dye saris became fashionable. Blouses varied between the U-neck, which placed emphasis on the sari, and the conventional round open neckline exposing shoulders and neck for gold or silver jewelry.


The decade from 1990 to 2001 saw an upsurge in sari fashion-shows that showed designers using the time-tried method of combining the classical with the contemporary. Fine cotton saris turned out from mills provided new colour lines and exotic patterns. Working women wore a range of hand block prints and hand-painted saris for daywear. Rajshahi silks for daywear in screen print and batik were followed by evening and party saris of the famous heavier Balaka silk, in rich hues of peacock and turquoise blue, rust and maroon, jade green and golden yellow. A significant entry into women’s dress from the 1990s has been the shawl. This practical 3-piece ensemble has become popular among women of nearly all age-groups. Once considered taboo for married Bengali women, the salwar-kameez is now worn by girls attending schools, colleges and universities as well as by housewives and women in different professions. In response to the demands of a more active outdoor life, women have adopted this dress for comfort.

This has led to a whole range of products in cotton day-dress, using all the formats of block print, hand and machine embroideries, screen print and dressy evening combinations in lace, silk, brocades, tissues and velvets. Jamdani dopattas, Tangail hand-loomed dopattas and muslin dopattas or orhnas are worn according to the choice of dress.

Women's hairstyles have witnessed noticeable changes since the 1980s. Women traditionally made their long hair up in a coil or khopa, and girls wore braids and plaits, but now they took to varying their hairstyles. Access to media has brought in other fashions and beauty parlours now offer services to trim and perm hair to suit the latest international trends.

Urban women's dress fashions are subject to change on an annual basis, but the sari remains a perennial favourite.'

Dress of the tribal people The tribal communities of Bangladesh usually make their own clothes for their dresses. Almost every family has a loom. In the chittagong hill tracts the fabrics made by the tribal people in their own looms are very colourful. They make sheets, thin towels, dress material, carpets and carrying bags. Traditionally, tribal people have used cotton produced by them on the hill slopes and they themselves have made the yarn for weaving and used natural colours for dyeing. These days, however, they buy yarn and dyes extensively from the market. Dresses for women are full of attractive and colourful designs.

Dress of Chakma woman

chakma women cover the lower part of their body with a piece of loincloth pinon like lungi with unstitched end. This measures 4.5 cubits by 2.5 cubits. One end of the pinon has designs and is called chabuki. While wearing the pinon, chabuki is always placed on the left. The upper part of the dress is called khadi and measures 3.5 cubits by 2.5 cubits. There are two types of khadi - ranga (colourful) and chibiktana (plain). The ranga khadi is made up of various colourful designs and is usually worn by young girls. The chibiktana khadi is for common use and has no designs. These days Chakma women also wear blouses along with pinon and khadi.  

Many Chakma women wear khobong on their heads. The costume of Chakma men is rather plain. They usually wear a long loincloth. Chakmas preserve their traditional designs on a piece of cloth called alam to help future generations pick up designs from it. The main dress of marma women is called thami, which is like a lungi with an unstitched end. The thami is full of colourful traditional designs. Marma men wear a full-sleeve or half-sleeve blouse or angi. They also love to wear a white turban or khobong. The men wear lungis made of coarse cloth and a shirt without collar but having several pockets. The older men wear white turbans.

tripura women these days wear renai, which is like an open lungi measuring 4.5 cubits x 2.5 cubits. Renai has broad black borders with red field. Tripura women wear risa at the chest, which is an unstitched piece of cloth 3 cubits' 0.50 cubits. It displays a variety of designs of birds, butterflies, flowers and leaves. They often use tatting with tiny beads at both ends. Elderly women wear a white cloth as turban. Tripura men wear a loincloth, a thin towel and a white turban. Originally, Tripura men used to wear a turban and a piece of cloth to cover their body up to the ankle. In winter they wear a jacket-like dress.

Dress of Tripura woman

tanchangya women wear five kinds of dresses: pinon, khadi, junnasilum, fa-dhari and khobong. Their pinons have no borders but have colourful designs on red ground. Their pinons have broad black borders but with a short width. The khadi worn by Tangchangya women at their chest is similar to the khadi of Chakmas. Their khadi is of two types-phool and ranga. Tangchangya women also wear junnasilum and fa-dhari above their waist. Junnasilum has delicate work at the neck and shoulders. Fa-dhari is like a broad belt with delicate works in light-coloured thread. This holds the pinon tight. Tangchangya women wear khobong as a turban. A white khobong has delicate work at both ends. It usually measures 3.5 cubits × 0.50 cubits. The men of this tribe wear simple dresses without designs.

Mru women wear only wanglai. It usually has a breadth of 9 inches. They wrap it around their waists. It is made of a black piece of cloth with colourful embroidery on one side. Mro women do not wear anything at their chest. They however wear a wrap called wancha, which they buy from the market. Mro men wear a narrow piece of plain cloth called dong. They also wrap a white piece of cloth around their heads. Mro women use tapung made of coarse cloth woven in their own looms to carry their babies on their shoulders.

Chak women wear a dress called nafiyi, which is like pinon. It has a black ground with white borders on top and bottom. They wear boidoi puju as a blouse. It is made of white and black yarn. Chak women wrap around their head a cloth known as bankeubang. Their men wear lungis and shirts and wrap khobongs around their heads.

Lushei women wear renai like a lungi to cover the lower part of their body. Its ground has striped designs made of white and black threads. Like Tripura women, Lushei women wear risa at their chest. It is usually 10 inches in breadth and has designs made with coloured threads. Lushei women and men wear junnasilum as a shirt.

Murong women wear wanglai for the lower part of their body. The wanglai is 9 to 11 inches in breadth and while wearing it they keep 4 to 6 inches on the left side near the waist empty as a matter of custom. They also use a piece of cloth like risa to cover their chest. Their men wear nengti, which is a narrow length of cloth. Some of them also wear lungi.

Rakhain men wear lungi and women wear angi of colourful designs. Some of them also use blouses similar to angi in design.

Dress of Garo woman [Courtesy: Bangladesh National Museum]


garo women wear the gena, which is their ancient dress. It is an unstitched piece of cloth like lungi that covers the body from the waist to the knee. It has colourful striped designs. The Garo dress dakmunda or ganna dakka is like gena but it extends below the knee. Dakmunda is a designed piece of cloth made in handloom. It covers the entire lower part of the body. These days dakmunda cloth is made in various designs and colours.  

Dress of Rakhain woman

The eyes in the designs reflect a religious belief. When necessary, Garo women also wear full-sleeve vests. They also use gamchha or a thin towel as a wrapper. Educated Garo women, many of whom now live in the plains, prefer to wear sari.

santal women traditionally wear panchi and padhan. Panchi is like a lungi, which hangs from the waist up to just below the knee. Padhan is a wrap or scarf to cover the body. Some women split their saris into two and use the two parts to cover the upper and lower parts of their body. These days Santal women wear the whole sari without splitting. Santal men wear dhuti or loincloth and the boys wear nengti. They also wear vests.

Dress of Santal woman

manipuri women wear fanek like a lungi to cover the lower part of their body. The fanek usually has no designs. They use the fanek at home or while going to market. Another dress that they wear for the lower part of their body is laifanek. Its ground has stripes of two colours and the borders have different designs. The border designs are made these days by machine and not by hand. This dress is generally brought from Assam. The blouse that the Manipuri women wear is called furit. It is of higher length so that it can be tucked under the fanek. Manipuris weave their own cloth for making blouses. They often make designs on the furit in their own hands.

They also wear a scarf called fifup over their furit. The scarf is worn in a way that reminds one of a sari. The scarf that they wear at home is rather plain and has a thin border. The fifup worn at wedding or festive occasions is woven with a fine yarn and delicate designs are done on it while it is still on the loom. Its ground is as fine as muslin. At weddings and dances Manipuri women wear a bright gorgeous dress called polyi. Its lower border is broad and has works of jary and chumki. They wear the furit and the fifup along with the polyi. Manipuris use a broad hand-woven gamchha or thin towel called khudai. Manipuri men wear it at home like lungi. The dhuti used by Monipuri the men is called feijong. It is usually worn while they go to market or for attending ceremonies. The furit that the men wear is like a plain shirt and is made of cloth woven in the loom. They also wear a long shirt. These days, educated young people of the tribe wear shirts and trousers. At Manipuri weddings, men wear a turban called koiyat. A loose panjabi or kurta that they wear is called the pujat.  

khasia women wear as a blouse ka-jimpin, jamata or nimakti. They buy cloth from the market to make this dress. The dress for the lower part of their body is called ka-joinsem or chusem. It is worn like a lungi and is usually made of printed cloth. Once upon a time the ka-joinsem worn at festivals used to be made of silk or muga yarn. The women wear a sleeveless long dress called jamapo. Usually this kind of dress is made of cloth of a single colour. The scarf worn by Khasia women is called chusut. It is knotted over the left shoulder after it passes under the right hand. Khasia men wear a pocketless dress called fung marung, which is like a fatua. With the fung marung they wear a lungi. Both women and men wear a belt at their waists. Their ancestors used to wear a kind of cap and turban. The wealthy men used to wear knickerbockers, socks, boots, waistcoats and caps. [Parvin Ahmed and Zinat Mahrukh Banu]