Minipost 11 – Bangladeshi Fashion

A Shalwar kameeze & orna

I am no expert about women’s preferences in clothes. I don’t really get the whole ‘men’s clothes’ thing. But I know that whilst men in Bangladeshi pretty much dress the same as men in the West, women here wear very different kinds of clothes. Men wear western-style clothes for everyday, usual work but don’t for day labouring or special events where lungis and dhotas and other traditional clothes come in to play. Still, the average Bangladeshi man you meet in Dhaka or any other major town is likely to be wearing a shirt and trousers and maybe a tie and jacket too. Youths will probably wear jeans and T-shirt.

But women wear very different clothes that give, in some ways, a very different message.

Saris and shalwar kameezes are the usual clothes for a Bangladeshi woman. Heavily influenced by Islamic thinking, both of these tend to cover up the body with the shoulders given particular attention. Traditionally, the shalwar kaneeze is for working women and indicates they are subservient or unmarried to some degree. The sense is that they are somebody’s daughter whereas a sari usually indicates they are important and somebody’s wife.

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The reason is largely a practical one. Shalwar kameezes are very practical clothes to wear – light and relatively figure-hugging whilst not clinging to the body (which is not good in hot, sticky weather). Saris, by contrast, are huge, flowing drapes that make it impossible to work and are very hot to wear.

The result is that you see young girls working in shalwar kameezes and important women in the saris. These saris are generally given attention by fashion magazines and adverts but I personally think the shalwar kameezes are more beautiful. Maybe that’s because the socialist in me sees a working woman as honest and therefore more beautiful inside, whereas the woman in a sari is giving the message that she is authoritative and commands people but does not need to work herself. This I find less attractive.

With the shalwar kameeze comes the orna or long scarf which has to be worn either draped around the shoulders and bosom area or worn around the neck like we would in the West with a scarf in winter. This orna is vital to cover the nakedness of the arms and shoulders as well as blocking the view of the chest area – something very important and protected in most of Bangla society.

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the orna is OFF! On the verge of being Bangla porn…

As a man I can tell you that when you get used to seeing women covered up, even a little glimpse of cleavage sends an inadvertent thrill of pleasure (of course, I only notice my wife’s…) and I can understand just why Victorian English Gentlemen used to get so sexually excited by the glimpse of their fiancée’s bare ankle in times gone by!

Take a look at the pictures and see what I mean. Next week I will discuss some of the issues surrounding these types of clothes and the Fashion industry in general.

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A beautiful sari

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About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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32 Responses to Minipost 11 – Bangladeshi Fashion

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  4. lightningpen says:

    Hi, I’m fascinated by this. This is a very important and worthwhile blog for Americans, because most completely misunderstand matters such as these! Please keep writing, I need learn more about India and you have talent!

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  5. Pingback: Minipost 17 – The ways people get here baffle me… | kenthinksaloud

  6. I really like the shalwar kameezes too..😛

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  7. Pingback: Minipost 11b – Bangladeshi Fashion – part III | kenthinksaloud

  8. orples says:

    This was an extremely interesting article. I have to say though, as pretty as these ‘dresses’ are, I am glad I am an American. It’s shorts and a tank top in the summer all the way! I couldn’t stand to be all wrapped up like any of the above on a hot day. I would however wear these beautiful outfits when the occasion actually called for dressier attire.

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    • The heat definitely is a problem! Men are luckier in that we have much more freedom in what we are allowed to wear. That said, Bangladesh is so hot for most of the year that anyone who is not working out in the fields stays inside where there ceiling fans are as much as they can! Shorts and tank top would not go down well here alas!

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  9. wanderfool says:

    Really enjoyed reading this discussion!
    I am an Indian Bengali girl, from the middle class, and here’s what I’ve seen..
    It’s true that Indian women are more influenced by ‘western clothing’ than Bangladeshis. In my Mom’s time (she grew up in West Bengal, the Indian Bengali state adjacent to Bangladesh) they would wear frocks to school and as soon as they grew into adolescence, most would graduate to the saree, even before they got married. Sarees are again of various kinds, so it’s common to see field workers and housewives wearing cotton ones to ward off the heat while working (they are super comfortable and airy garments then!). For a formal occasion, silks are worn, which are exquisitely beautiful, and of course rather uncomfortable.
    Today of course the salwar kameez has become an extremely popular and practical garment across the subcontinent, even West Bengal. Sarees are slowly becoming more of ‘special occasion’ dresses. In the Indian towns and cities, even the salwar kameez has become a tight fitting fashion statement, though village areas still tend to be conservative. Plenty of city women use jeans and tees as casual wear these days, and in time the salwar kameez would be probably relegated to a special occasion dress.

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    • Thank you for giving your view from Bengal. I love this area as it is where my mother was born and raised until 1947. It is very interesting to note the slight changes between West Bengal and Bangladesh. I suspect it will be a long time before the shalwar kameez ceases to be worn in Bangladesh because of the religious culture where a women is expected to remain covered up. Even saris and shalwars are frowned upon by some here! You are right that the shalwar kameez is definitely becoming a fashion statement – especially in Dhaka but also, increasingly, in the northern villages such as where I live. Things are changing fast!

      Thank you for your comments – they were well appreciated – welcome to my blog!

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  10. Pingback: Minipost 11a – Bangladeshi Fashion – part II | kenthinksaloud

  11. Ruth Subash says:

    Loved this mini blog! I do find that in India I can wear tighter fitting outfits, lower cut and sleeveless if it is a salwar kameez! Tailors do stitch outfits so they are tight fitting so if you put on any weight they no longer fit!

    Generally in India women cover both shoulders as sari blouses have short sleeves as do most salwars.

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  12. Masrur.Saif says:

    I am partially disagree with your post Ken Bhai. I’ve seen lot of hard working women labors wearing Sarees. Specially women who used to smashes bricks into pieces to make concretes wear saree. Also the hard working farmer ladies in paddy fields grain mills wear saree. I think saree doesn’t hamper their works.
    My mom is a very very hard working woman at home, who used to do all the house hold works for us from almost 6 a.m. to late midnight, I’ve never seen her wearing a Shalwar Kameez so far. Also my grand ma who is above 70 never wears a shalwar kameez in her life time(so far I know!).🙂

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    • I think that is a good point Bhai and maybe I have not quite made myself understood. Firstly, this is the tendency and there are exceptions. Secondly, I wrote that saris indicate a woman being MARRIED. I think I can be pretty certain that no woman working in a field wearing a sari will be unmarried. My ayahs work in saris – but they are both married. The sari indicates higher status – such as marriage – and though you CAN work in one, it is much harder – as my ayahs would tell you! For this reason, most married women at LAMB actually wear shalwar kameezes because they are much more practical even though it can raise eyebrows. My wife only wears a sari for special occasions and teaching sessions.
      So sorry if I caused you to misunderstand the status – I’ll try to clarify that in next week’s minipost! Thanks for writing🙂

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      • Masrur.Saif says:

        Ah… I don’t misunderstood your post bro…. I was just sharing my experience. Though I would prefer Shalwar kameezs over Sharees for working women, I couldn’t think my mom or grand ma wearing salwar kamiz instead of sari….😛

        BTW, the class you are talking about of wearing sarees expresses a state of being married are ‘generally’ middle classed Bengali society (I am a person of this society). To my observation, the very rich class & the very poor class people are out of this kind of tendency. I’ve seen in rural places at my childhood during mid 80s children (female) used to wear ‘froks’; when they are grown up, they start wearing sarees (despite of being married). The tradition of shalwar kamiz is very recent in our country (may be not more than 50 years)!🙂

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        • That is interesting to know how old it is.

          I have to disagree with you about the middle class using saris as an expression of marriage but not the poor. We work with the very poor here in Dinajpur – people from the grams with little or no education. They all follow this principle in general. Our youngest children wear ‘frocks’ but when they become young women (jubotira) then they wear shalwar kameezes until they marry. After that, most will wear saris unless there is a good reason not to (such as being a nurse). I don’t really know about the rich as I don’t know any! But, by definition, if they are rich then they would probably wear saris not to indicate marriage but to indicate power – which was one of my points in the post!🙂

          An interesting discussion Bhai – thank you🙂

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  13. clownonfire says:

    This was a really good read, especially for a Westerner who never set foot outside of North America. Thanks for sharing, Ken.

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  14. mamadestroy says:

    I was really fascinated by this post. I knew many women (or were we really girls?) from India and Bangladesh when I was in college. In general, they wore Western clothing, but if it was ever a special occasion they would wear their traditional dress. They always looked so beautiful to me, with the colorful, floating fabric. The absence of cleavage never occurred to me. And until I read this I always thought of saris as bearing the shoulders, and of the women’s long graceful arms and shoulders as being a part of the effect, but you made me realize that it was actually only the Indian women who sported the one shoulder look. Thank you for bringing a little more cultural awareness to a girl from Upstate New York.

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    • My pleasure. I’m no expert myself, so this is just my observations but, yes, generally Indian women have less restrictions and so in Bangladesh the shoulders are covered. That said, Western and Indian style is influencing women in Bangladesh more and more. It is quite ‘outrageous’ what some women are wearing in Dhaka now!

      Keep reading – next week I’ll look at some of the issues with these clothes! Good to hear from you🙂

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  15. Lol..Funny to think that women in saree are authoritative and commanding than the ones in salwar kameeze..:D

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