What is Salwar Kameez?


To the untrained eye, the outfits in the pictures above should look the same. It is a classic combination of a tunic, pants, and a shawl most of us have seen before. Some of us grew up seeing our mothers and aunts wear it

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To the untrained eye, the outfits in the pictures above should look the same. It is a classic combination of a tunic, pants, and a shawl most of us have seen before. Some of us grew up seeing our mothers and aunts wear it, while some of us wear it quite regularly on social occasions, if not at home everyday. Known as Shalwar Kameez or Salwar Kameez depending on which part of the Indian subcontinent you are from, it is a traditional outfit worn all over South Asia.

The women in these pictures are of different nationality and ethnicity, but their history, customs, cuisine and clothing have a common origin. Historically, they are cut from the same cloth (literally). Given the Instagram post, and the responses it received, I decided to highlight the etymology, origin and adaptation of the salwar kameez, to provide some context on how far-fetched, vile and racist their assertions were.

The term shalwar/salwar originates from the Arabic word sirwal, which is also known as punjabi pants and harem pants. It is a form of baggy trousers which can be traced all the way back to the Christian era. Salwar is typically worn in Muslim countries but can also be extensively found in the Greek countryside and Balkan regions (due to the influence by the Ottoman Turks prior to World War II). The trousers were introduced by the Turk-Mongol-Persians to Mid-eastern regions and the great Indian subcontinents.

The term kameez originates from the Arabic word qamis which is loosely based on the Latin word chemise. It is a shift dress or a tunic of varying lengths. Garments cut like the kameez can be found in many modern cultures and in their past history outside of South Asia. In early Roman times, tracing back to 27 BC, men and women wore a seamless shirt called tunica which looks very similar to the modern day tunic or kameez. Tenth-century cotton shirts recovered from the Egyptian desert are cut much like the kameez or the contemporary Egyptian jellabiya or Moroccan djellaba. To the far east, in China you will find cheongsam (Cantonese) or qipao (Mandarin), a feminine body-hugging shift dress, often with long side slits. In Vietnam, the national costume is o di, a tight-fitting tunic worn over trousers which can be traced all the way back to the 18th century.

Salwar kameez is a classic case of cultural exchange followed by cultural diffusion, not cultural appropriation. Cultural exchange is the mutual sharing of information between two or more groups with equal social standing for the purpose of improving friendship and understanding.

As the great Indian subcontinent crumbled under the British rule and white men drew imaginary lines to their liking, cultural objects and ideas evolved due to their forcible adaptation, known as cultural diffusion. The origin and proliferation of salwar kameez is one such article of clothing that has been modified and restyled over time depending on the styles and religions of the particular region it went to.

  • Picture 1: a Pakistani woman wearing a Lawn Kameez, made of floral linen/cotton fabric and cotton palazzo pants, stylised Pakistani salwar. This type of salwar kameez has gained popularity among South Asian diaspora as well, due to its accessibility and affordability.
  • Picture 2: an Indian woman wearing a brocade kameez, velvet shawl with zari and stonework embellishments paired with a silk patiala salwar, native to Punjabi culture.
  • Picture 3: a Bangladeshi woman in a cotton kameez with kantha stitch, an intricate hand embroidery native to Bengali culture which includes motifs of flowers, animals and geometric shapes and colorful applique work with a cotton churidar salwar.
  • Picture 4: a Nepali woman wearing a peplum kameez and a dhoti salwar made of raw silk. What stands out is the bright-colored prints in her orna/dupatta which is called Dhaka (not the capital city of Bangladesh), an exquisite form of weaving colorful threads and patterns indigenous to Nepal.
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