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What is a Kurta?

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  • Written By: Stacy C.
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2016
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A kurta is a very loose fitting shirt, similar to a tunic. It is a traditional, unisex piece of clothing that has its origin in Middle Eastern countries. A shorter version worn only by women is called a kurti. Other countries such as Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom and Canada refer to the kurta as a panjabi. The word "kurta" is of Persian origin and literally means "collarless shirt."

A traditional kurta is collarless and falls to about the knee of the wearer. The sleeves also are loose and hang to the wrists without tapering. The main piece of the kurta is simply constructed of two rectangular pieces of fabric, one for the front and one for the back. They usually open in the front with button or tie closures in the middle of the garment or just off to one side. Occasionally, some styles feature buttons or closures at the shoulder seam instead of down the center.

Despite its long length, the kurta or kurti always is worn with some type of bottoms. It can be worn with loose pants of similar material called paijamas or salwars, and they can be worn with tighter pants called churidars. It even is acceptable to wear kurtas with jeans. This style is especially popular with women. Kurtas typically have not included collars at all, but in recent years, a stand up Mandarin-style collar has been added to some styles purely for aesthetic reasons.

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Kurtas can be quite casual or very formal depending on what material they are made of and how they are decorated. Casual summer kurtas are made of cotton or thin silk. Wool kurtas provide more warmth for the winter months. Formal kurtas can be made out of luxurious material such as heavy silk, and they might include embellishment such as elaborate embroidery and beading, especially around the hem and the opening at the front of the shirt. Removable cufflink-like buttons sometimes are used for formal occasions as well. Many South Asian tailors specialize in custom kurta designs.

The style became popular worldwide in the 1960s and 1970s as Middle Eastern cultures were embraced as part of the hippie movement. Kurtas were not seen much in the 1980s and early 1990s beyond the normal traditional wear. They began to re-enter the fashion scene in the late 1990s and throughout the early 21st century.

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