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What is a Salwar Kameez?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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A salwar kameez is a loose suit consisting of a top or kameez and a pair of flowing pants, called salwars. It is used as traditional dress in many South Asian nations, where it is worn by both men and women because it is modest, in line with Muslim values, while also allowing full freedom of movement. Although variations can be found all over Asia and the Middle East, the traditional style is worn in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan by people of all religions.

To wear a salwar kameez, a person starts with the pants, which are traditionally loose, although more modern designs are slightly more form fitting. The salwars are knotted around the waist or held up with an elastic band, and the kameez is pulled down over the head. A traditional top is also loose with long sleeves and a tunic-like shape that covers the thighs, with slits to allow the legs to move.

The pieces can be made from a wide variety of fabrics, including silk, gauzes, and linen, although cotton is the most common. Most are embroidered around the neckline and cuffs, although fancier ones are abundantly decorated with embroidery and made with patterned fabrics. Men wear it plain, while women often throw a shawl or dupatta over their heads and necks for modesty.

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Modern salwar kameez can get quite racy, with plunging necklines, transparent fabrics, and daring cuts. The wide variation in designs allows women to wear one for any occasion, ranging from daily use to attending weddings, while men have some flexibility with styles as well. Women who wear more modern kameez usually wear camisoles underneath for modesty, and some modern people wear a kameez over jeans or flowing skirts for variation.

In India, many women prefer this outfit to the sari, because it is a more practical garment. Wearing a sari takes practice and a certain amount of poise: not necessarily things that impoverished women have in plenty. Controversies have erupted over high-ranking women wearing the salwar kameez, rejecting formal saris, as some people in India view it as a lower class garment or associate it with Muslims in Pakistan. The suit appears to be crossing class and cultural borders all over South Asia, however, despite these barriers.

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