The salwar kameez bug


Photo of a dress shop in Shimla, India,
by Liz Highleyman.

A few years ago I was thrift shopping on the outskirts of Vancouver, BC, when I saw a rack full of stunning outfits in bright colors with gorgeous embroidery and beading. It was lust at first sight. I wanted them so much, but they were $25 Cdn each, and I honestly didn’t know where I would wear them, so I left them there. And immediately regretted it. I knew they were some sort of Indian clothing, but didn’t really know much more about them.

Then, a couple of years later, I saw a post by Teresa on the Making Light blog, in which she discussed ordering custom-made garments directly from India and Pakistan, via eBay sellers. Specifically, she ordered salwar kameez — an outfit made of a long tunic (kameez), loose baggy pants (salwar), and a long scarf (dupatta). Salwar kameez are popular in India and Pakistan, among other places. They are beautiful on just about any figure type. And salwar kameez, as it turned out, were the suits I saw at the Vancouver thrift store.

So after reading Teresa’s post I thought for a long time about buying a salwar kameez. I kept putting it off, though, because $35 or so seemed like a lot of money for something I wasn’t sure I’d ever wear.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was at Goodwill with a friend, when what should I see but… a salwar kameez. It wasn’t as pretty as the amazing ones I had seen in Vancouver — it was plain spring green cotton with some silver embroidery — but it was pretty. It was marked $7.00 for the whole suit, including a dupatta, but it was also a blue tag, which meant 50% off. $3.50 for a salwar suit! There was no question; I had to buy it. So I did.

At home I wondered how to wear it properly with the dupatta. So I turned to Google, and found this How to Wear a Dupatta web page. I noticed that the model wasn’t Indian — she looks more Irish than anything! This encouraged me a bit, because now that I had the salwar kameez, I wasn’t sure if I, as a non-Indian pale-skinned Northern European type, could wear the outfit without offending someone.

An assortment of kameez fabric

Fabric from my latest purchases

And though I haven’t yet had the nerve to wear one in public — soon, I promise — I have managed to pick up several more of them already, just by browsing eBay and local thrift stores. Today I got three gorgeous kameez for next to nothing at Value Village (see the photo to the left, which shows the fabric) — one of them was the kameez alone (the salwar was apparently with it when it got to VV but gone by the time I found it on the rack), one was a kameez and salwar with no dupatta, and one was the full outfit. The fabric — though wrinkly for the moment — is stunning. The one on the right is peacock blue silk with gold embroidery and beading: very dressy.

So now I just have to wear them. Which is the hard part, because I don’t dress up much, and I will feel very self-conscious. I’m not sure when I will wear them. But I’ve definitely got the bug for these outfits. They are so flattering and pretty — why aren’t they more commonly worn in the West?

(Liz Highleyman’s photo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License. Thanks, Liz!)

27 thoughts on “The salwar kameez bug

  1. Definitely wear them! Indian people will think it’s cool. I was sheepish about wearing mine at first… but I finally wore it to work one day. There are a lot of Indians at my workplace. Most of them never really talked to me before, but that day, they were all “Oh! Jennifer! You look lovely today!” 🙂

    You will also be asked if you’ve been to India a lot.

  2. Yes, megan, you should totally have her bring you one (or many). She can have one custom-made for you if you give her your measurements. Apparently they are really cheap there. I think a salwar kameez would look good on you.

    Jennifer, I’m sort of more worried if all the non-Indian people will think I’m a freak. But I suppose I’m old enough to wear what I want without worrying about it. 🙂 The blue silk kameez, though, is so dressy, with all the beading and gold embroidery, that I really will need to find a special occasion for that one!

  3. Coming in a little late, but wanted to say that I’m a non-Indian, and I’ve got the bug too. I’m nervous about wearing them out also; I did get up the nerve to wear one this past summer without any problems.

    I’ve been on a bunch of sites, and lots of them look no different from a Western shirt and pants–especially the ones that have minimal print/patterning, or have boot-cut salwar pants. Maybe you’ll feel more comfortable going out in one if it were in a more “Western” styled cut and color.

    I’m trying to win one on Ebay that’s plain black with pretty white embroidery around the neckline. I want to wear it for Christmas. Once I get more comfortable, I plan on trying some of the brighter, more ethnic colors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a basic clothing style come in so many varieties and colors.

    You are SO lucky to actually be able to visit a salwar kameez shop like the one pictured above. I wish I had someone to bring me back some salwar kameezes from India!

  4. Forgot to add:

    You are so lucky to have found those beautiful suits at a thrift shop for such a bargain–that embroidery and beading look expensive. There aren’t any places to find them where I live. I did, years ago, find some at a bridal shop that was Indian-run. They were only $19.99 and the salesgirl had one on. The salwar had very wide straight legs, like palazzo pants, or maybe yoga pants. I could kick myself for not buying one, as the shop is now closed.

    Those ones you bought definitely look like party/wedding gear. You’ll definitely stand out from all the little black dresses, which is a good thing! I don’t know why they’re not worn often in the West, either.

  5. Hi, RedKat. I didn’t get to visit a salwar kameez shop; that’s someone else’s photo. I’ve never been to India. But since I made this post I have found several more salwar suits on eBay and at thrift stores. 🙂 I got a full suit with dupatta, a kameez and dupatta with no salwar, and a kameez by itself, for less than $10 total last weekend. I still am nervous about wearing them out of the house, though; the first time I wore one in public an Indian-looking man pointed at me in Half Price Books and said something to the woman he was with that I couldn’t understand, and it made me feel really self-conscious!

  6. Aw shucks. Too bad they don’t have shops like that around here. Bummer.

    That man’s comment would have made me feel totally self-conscious too–sheesh! Did you purchase the eBay suits? If you did, were they ready-made or custom-made? Were you satisfied with the fit and quality of the material?

    I ask because I bought two custom-made on eBay (you send in your measurements, pick a style, and they sew to your specifications) but wasn’t 100% satisfied with one of them. The top was way off base and the pants weren’t the style I requested. The other suit was made of material so thin that I had to buy a tank top to wear under it. I know now to request a lining–but I like that suit better than the first one I ordered. I wish I could find an eBay seller that I could stick with.

    I like the Indo-Fusion style salwar suits a lot. They look so much like a contemporary Western-style outfit that I might feel less self-conscious going out in one.

  7. I have bought some on eBay. None were custom but they all fit OK. I did buy a custom suit elsewhere and had a similar problem with thin fabric. It was stiff with sizing at first but as soon as I washed it it became so thin and fine that it has no body and doesn’t hang well on me. (They did say it would need a slip, and I bought one — but both the slip and the kameez are too thin.) The company offers a satisfaction guarantee so I may try to return it; I don’t know yet.

    I would like to get a suit with the straight trousers or maybe even a churidar suit. One of the thrift store ones I got has the straight trousers and they look good but they are a slight bit tight around the thigh (which is never the problem with salwars, ha!). I might let them out. There usually is plenty of seam allowance in these suits. The suit is lavender with silver embroidery — very springlike. I think it would look strange in the middle of winter here. 🙂

  8. Just wanted to say,”Dont feel self-conscious!” These are beautiful outfits that anyone can wear. I wear them all the time, and you get used to people looking. They are most likely appreciating how you look. Most Indian persons are looking wondering if you are Indian too. But it is not offensive, quite the opposite. It is flattering that westerners are willing and eager to wear eastern clothing. And I think once you get used to the comfort of the clothing, you wont want to go back! If you are wanting a better, more cutom fit, there are several sites where you can order the outfits. One of my personal favorites is Check it out, you will really like it. They have all different fabrics, from cotton to silk some warm enough for winter. The thing I like most is you can not only change all the measurements, but the style as well. If you dont like the pant, or the sleeve length, or the collar style, change it! I have never had a complaint about them. And by the way, the fabric of those outfits is really beautiful.

  9. Well said Sameera .Indian dresses are really too good when you wear them. I have bought some Indian dresses (Salwar Suit and Saree ) from ebay, but recently I had come across a new seller at ebay , ” nimishan ” who designs her dresses her self. They are really beautiful and reasonably priced. In fact she is very courteous and even got color of the duppata changed on my request and shipped much before her stated time. I would definitely suggest her to all.
    This is her collection

  10. Hi everybody! I just wanted to say that I am so happy to see that you guys love salwar kameez as much as I do! I am white and I wear mine everywhere. I have a lot of friends who are Indian and if you really want a place to wear it where you won’t feel out of place- go to a gurudwara (a Sikh church) and wear them there. You could wear them to a Hindu Temple, but they normally wear Saris (absolutely beautiful but difficult clothes) so you won’t blend in like you will in the Sikh Temple. Anyway, I’m really glad to find you guys and good luck with all your clothes!

  11. The woman in the photos showing ways you can wear a dupatta is Mel who owns Pardesi Fashions. She is wonderful to work with, especially if you are new to salwar suits. The suit I purchased from her is wonderful; fits so well you’d swear a tailor actually measured me in person. I highly recommend her.

  12. I am a 43 year old Englishman and I often wear sarees, salwar kameez and lenghas at home. I have a large collection of dresses, but mainly sarees along with blouses and petticoats.

    I find sarees very comfortable to wear, no matter how warm or cold it is and no matter the type of cloth it is made of, chiffon, silk etc. I normally have the pallu pinned to my left shoulder, but sometimes let it slip off instead. I love the way the pleats are kicked out in front of me when I walk and the way it covers my whole body, very sensual to wear. I do not wear bra under blouse and also no undergarments are worn under petticoat. I have been wearing sarees now for number of years, do not understand why I read that Indian women find them uncomfortable to wear even on a daily basis, I certainly don’t feel that way when I am wearing a saree.

    One thing I would like to experience is to be in the company of an Indian woman while she is also in saree, any suggestions?

    I do all daily chores in saree, cooking, cleaning and spend nearly all my time when not in work in saree. When cleaning, I normally wrap the pallu around my waist and tie it in so the pallu does not get in the way. I have mastered draping a saree now to about 10 minutes, which I think is good. Would love to experience also a wedding saree, to see how heavy it is, though these are very expensive. I am quite happy going into saree shops to buy more sarees, never get questioned who they are for. I am in one of my favourite sarees writing this, a blue satin bandhej saree with resham, sequins and kundan work with heavy border along with matching blouse.

    I do not want to wear western dresses, even though I am western and not Indian, only sarees and lenghas and occasionally salwar kameez suits, these are the dresses I feel most comfortable in.I have got used to picking up the pleats when going upstairs, as I did step on the pleats when first wearing saree, pulling saree apart. I have often slept in my sarees too, though when I wake up the pleats are normally wrapped around my body. I like the lenghas too, the way they cover my body is very nice, again, nothing worn under the lengha. When in salwar kameez, usually wear these when washing sarees or sarees are being dry cleaned.

    I normally also wear bangles on my wrists, I have a good selection for my sarees and wear shoes if going out, otherwise, bare feet. I would like to try different draping styles for the sarees, so I will be open for advice on that too.

    I would like to hear from you if you have any thoughts about this, and if you can give me any tips about wearing a saree on a daily basis.

    Thank you.

  13. I ran across blog accidentally, and now I want to puke. Stop exoticing and objectifying my people and our culture. Why should you be considered a freak for wearing Indian clothes? Should I be considered a freak for wearing “American” clothes? You’re making absolutley no sense. If you’re going to buy them, wear them with pride and pay full price. If not, leave it alone, don’t rip off another brown person, and stop trying to “impress” or “flatter” your Indian co-workers with your fakeness. People work hard to make those outfits. You might as well pay the actual price. Judging by their intricacy, you’re getting a deal anyway.

  14. Oh, and why is there an Englishman wearing sarees and salwars? Dumbass, those are for women’s clothes. Haven’t ya’ll taken enough?? And now you want to mock us? You’re nasty. No one sleeps in sarees, that’s bad for maintaining them, and wtf??? Put on some damn undergarments. See, its people like you that perpetuate stereotypes about people of color. You try to be like us, people assume that you learned from us, and then they assume that you’re actually just like us and that’s how we are. So, I guess, thank you for contributing to the perpetuation of stereotypes and the degredation of not only Indian people, but the entire human race.

  15. Get the chip off your shoulder. Indian (and salwar kameez are by no means strictly Indian) clothing is still a bit out of the mainstream in the US (for non Asians, at least), so people who wear it do have to worry about the social reaction they might receive. Of course, one should be strong enough to just wear she likes without worrying what people think, but that is hard sometimes. (On another blog I read someone was mentioning that people threw a hamburger at her when she, a Western woman, was wearing a saree on the streets of her hometown. She is actually Hindu so it was especially offensive.) It isn’t “objectifying” or “exoticizing” the culture to be aware that the clothing is a little out of the North American mainstream and to worry about whether that will affect you if you wear it. God knows that people worry if their Western clothing is out of style or if people will like it, so what is the difference?

    And I don’t believe anyone here was “ripping off” anyone. Where did you get all that? I got a bunch of suits at thrift stores, but I’ve actually bought three of them since from actual salwar shops (eShakti and S2 Fashions). One of them I didn’t like but the other two are lovely. But, anyway, buying clothing from a thrift shop isn’t ripping anyone off.

    FWIW, I have gotten really good comments from people when wearing my salwar suits out in public lately. I still feel a little self-conscious (one reason is that I am a jeans-and-t shirt wearer otherwise, so it feels more dressy than my usual clothing anyway — I’d feel just as self conscious if I was wearing an actual dress) but people seem to like the outfits.

    I assume that John the Englishman is a cross-dresser, and I am not going to judge him for it. Though he could be posting just to raise a reaction like yours. But you are right, sleeping in a saree would have to be bad for it!

  16. I am a non-indian who is actually married to an Indian. I have worn salwar kameez, lenghas, and sari’s. Even to this day I can understand some of hesitation in wearing the clothes. These clothes are very different than what North American’s are used to.

    I used to wear them a lot more often to work (and I am never trying to impress the indian community at my work) but I have received dirty looks from some of the indian men. It made me feel a little uncomfortable but in all reality, I wear what I want to wear. I like the salwar kameez outfits because they are very comfortable and very pretty.

    As for paying full price (per the indian’s response), my husband goes to the market where you can buy clothes, food, jewelery, etc. and he actually will bargain the price for something that I want. So even he is not paying full price. It doesn’t make him cheap, he has told me that is how you buy items there as well as in India.

    I say to all those, wear them because they are comfortable. If you get dirty looks, ignore them. Most indians think it is great that we are wearing them.

  17. I think only Indians born in North America such as “Actual Indian” may give you bad looks…….people who are actually from India really appreciate westerners wearing their clothes, they don’t find it offensive at all.

  18. Ok,and who are you to speak for Indians? I hate it when people do that…. its amusing sometimes, but other times, not really. I’m not offended by all non-Indians wearing Indian clothes. Intent is important. I get annoyed at people who wear Indian clothes for the sake of “being exotic” or trying to “flatter” an Indian by showing that they are “accepting”. Otherwise, I know plenty of non-Indian people who are usually married to Indian people that wear Indian/South Asian clothes and I’m fine that with. Its a beautiful thing.

  19. Came accross this blog by chance. Interesting, and I’m glad I’m not the only westerner in love with eastern clothing. So here is a question for “Actual Indian” – I’m not indian, I’m not married to an indian, I don’t want to “be exotic” or “flatter” anybody. I just love saree’s. I think they are all incredible works of art and that they flatter a womans figure like no other clothing can. I have worn them at home and find them very comfortable (no, I do not sleep in them). And, when I wear them I once again feel like a real woman – gracefull and sexy and modest at the same time. I have not worn them in public for the simple reason that I do not want to offend anybody – so my question is: is it really wrong for us, beauty deprived westerners, to wear clothes from the east? And would real indians actually be offended? I’m so sick of jeans… and the western “grubby/sloppy” look.

  20. Girl from Canada, that is exactly the reason I like to wear them — I think they are beautiful and flattering, and they don’t force me to show off skin I’d rather not. It has nothing to do with being Indian or exotic or anything like that. In fact, occasionally when I have seen Western clothing styled similarly (long before I ever saw a salwar kameez), I liked it too. It’s just a style that is attractive to my eyes.

    I wore a salwar suit from S2Fashions to a wedding in August and felt so much more comfortable than if I had been wearing a traditional Western party dress. Weddings are stressful to me anyway (because I am shy) and so feeling comfortable is important. In my salwar kameez I felt comfy but looked very dressed up, appropriately so for a wedding. It was nice.

  21. Lol. Why would I be offended by someone who was comfortable wearing whatever? I just meant that you can tell when people have alternative motives and that’s what can be offensive and annoying. But
    yes, I love how sarees can make a woman of any shape and size look good.

    Litlnemo: That’s interesting. To weddings, when I’m wearing Indian, I never wear “less” than a saree. Salwars are not usually considered to be dressy enough for an event that’s as big as a wedding. Thats probably one of those cultural things though.

  22. It is indeed probably cultural. The Pacific Northwest is one of the most informal areas of the US, and this was not a formal event, so the women wore dresses or nice pantsuits, but not extremely fancy clothing. The salwar suit I wore had a kameez with a crepe overlay, embroidery, and little crystals sewn on, and was yellow and hot pink (it is this outfit); in it, I felt more dressed up than many of the other women there, who certainly weren’t wearing clothing with crystals, or such bright colors. The color made it stand out a lot, I think. If I were to attend an Indian wedding, I guess I’d ask for advice first on what would be correct, because I am used to much less formality than I imagine an Indian wedding would require.

    I think a lot of Indian clothing that isn’t intended to be “dressy” is a little dressy by US standards — the embroidery (sometimes with metallic thread), sequins, etc. are probably why. Also, a salwar kameez basically looks like a dress, with pants, to the American eye.

  23. I am Indian and live in the USA. I got sick and tired of wearing the same wardrobe to school while growing up. So I wore silwar kameez for the first three months of 8th grade. All the girls loved it. Funny thing is, when I started wearing pants, they all laughed at me 🙁 Anyway, my friend who went to another school near by wore (for some time) an even more traditional clothing which is particular to south india called “dhavani”. Now that, I could never do. Anyway, as I attended college, I noticed two indian women professors who only wore the sari to work, even in the winter time (ouch huh?, it’s too cold for a sari). I am simply amazed at women like that. No matter where they live in the world,they don’t want to forget their haritage. peace.

  24. Ha ha ha…u guys are so fond of the salwaar kameez which has become a nightmare for me! I’m an indian girl in love with western wear and when i’ve to wear this salwar kameez post-marriage when my in-laws visit- I JUST HATE IT. I wish i would not have to! Its all a matter of perspective and choice, perhaps. Given an option i wouldn’t TOUCH the clothing, when I have my pair of jeans around!

  25. FWIW, I wear salwar suits every chance I get and even make my own. They’re lovely and comfortable.

    Oh, I’m American of Northern European descent, so I can’t pull off the glorious array of color that our Asian sisters can, dammit, but I do make salwar suits in my own palate and think they look pretty good.

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