It was the revered Mahatama Gandhi who made the humble dhoti world famous. For Gandhi wore his dhoti ( and apparent nothing else but a woolen shawl for warmth) for an audience with King George V of England.
When asked how he could possibly contemplate meeting the monarch clad in nothing but a length of cloth draped over his loins Gandhi simply said, " Why not? The King wears enough clothes for the two of us."
He was right. No wonder that the Englishman in his suit and vest in tropical Singapore was a stark contrast to the Indian cool in his cotton dhoti.
A century ago, Indians from different regions and castes wore their sarees and dhotis differently form one another but over time, differences blurred. Costumes worn by other Indians fell into two other main groups. There was the (Indian) Skirt and blouse group and the salwar and khameez group.
The basic garment is a single piece of unsewn material for draping. This material is known as the dhoti for men and saree for women. The dhoti, a lower garment for men is graped to form front pleats. Indian men wear it with an upper garment such as a shirt or kurta (a loose, long-sleeved shirt). But there are as comfortable as wearing the dhoti alone.
Worn by older girls and married women, the saree is a piece of cloth of either six or nine yards of material. It is wrapped around the waist several times, pleated in front and draped over the shoulder. A short, fitting blouse known as a choli and a petticoat is worn with the saree.
Through the years, the saree has remained unchanged, A length of unsewn material cannot change, but the material itself can change. In the old days, sarees were made of natural fibres like silk and cotton but polyster is now a favourite. However, the style of the choli has changed somewhat. Right up till the 1910s, women wore the saree without the choli--but the saree was tied in such a way that nothing was indecently exposed!
The choli appeared around the 1910's tot he 1930's, with high necklines and long sleeves. This eventually gave way to shorter sleeves, lower necklines and a shorter blouse altogether.
From the 60's onwards, the blouse has even become shorter and today, we have bare-backed and heavily embroidered blouses. Now in the 90's the blouses have become longer with the sleeves ending at the elbows.
This combination is mainly won by Gujerati, Tamil and Malaylee girls. A sewn ankle-length full skirt, the pavadai, is the basic garment in this group. It is worn by girls who have reached puberty with a short choli and a cloth (known as dhavani) of about 2 metres draped over the shoulder. Younger girls wear the skirt with a long blouse -- the khamees--without the dhavani.
The origins of this costume goes back to the days of India's Muslim rulers. The salwar are pyjamas-like pants worn by both men and women.
Males wear the loose salwar for informal wear and tight salwar for both formal and informal occasions. It is accompanied by a kurta-- a long tunic with slits at the sides.
Women wear a salwar-khameez-dupatta ensemble-- the latter is a long scarf. More commonly known as the "Punjabi suit" (because it is worn by the Punjabis), this costumes has been adopted by most Indians in Singapore regardless of whether or not they are Punjabis.