Sinlung /
20 September 2012

Fashion From The Northeast

By Sonam Dubal

Fashion identity is more western in most parts of the Northeast—simply because Western music plays an important role in the lives of the youth.
Fashion identity is more western in most parts of the Northeast—simply because Western music plays an important role in the lives of the youth.
The Jainsem is an integral part of the traditional dress of the female folk of Meghalaya and is worn chiefly by the women of the two communities of Khasi and Khynrium.

The Jainsem is an integral part of the traditional dress of the female folk of Meghalaya and is worn chiefly by the women of the two communities of Khasi and Khynrium.
The main garment of the Mizo, the puan, which simply means cloth, has always played a central role in the social fabric of the community.

The main garment of the Mizo, the puan, which simply means cloth, has always played a central role in the social fabric of the community.

The term Northeast itself is a misnomer. It comes from the larger term: the Northeastern states, which is better known as the Seven Sisters. Besides boasting a multi-ethnic background, each state has its own distinct identity that is dictated by the religion practiced there.

On a broader scale the Christian faith is practiced in Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland; Hindism in Assam and Tripura; and Buddhism in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The Christian faith moulds people naturally to Western styling, so here it has its own identity too–for instance, the church going mid-length dresses, skirts and blouses, hats, bows and gloves. The Jainsem is an integral part of the traditional dress of the female folk of Meghalaya and is worn chiefly by the women of the two communities of Khasi and Khynrium. It is adorned by a big colourful shawl made of wool. The main garment of the Mizo, the puan, which simply means cloth, has always played a central role in the social fabric of the community. It has transcended its mere functional aspect as a garment worn by women– and men too, in earlier days–to play a crucial role in the performance of rites, rituals and other special occasions like births, deaths, and weddings.

Fashion identity is more western in most parts of the Northeast—simply because Western music plays an important role in the lives of the youth here. It is a huge influencer of trends. This is not just with the advent of globalization but was true even decades before. In the 1970s, it was more iconic as popular culture or rock (life and) styles influenced these trends in terms of fashion. It influences trends in terms of a hairstyle or accessory like the leather jacket, shades, shoulder bag or bandana casually strewn over their head. here a natural swagger is a uniqueness of their own which is inherent in their aesthetic.

Shawls here are also important and have a story of their own. The more popular ones are from Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Assam. The patterns and stripes are different and often reflect the tribe that weaves them. These shawls can be gender specific too: for instance, the Ao Naga red black and white warrior shawl is only to be worn by men.

Craft and textiles also play an important role in the everyday life of the people in this region. For instance, the highly prized thu, a handcrafted bamboo basket, is used for storing clothes. Ecological awareness is a reality among most here, especially with their proximity to nature, and so preserving and recycling craft in their day-to-day life comes naturally here. Textiles from this region are unique too. Every state has its own distinct loom. Among the states, Assam has one of the most beautiful textiles popularly known for its muga and eri silk which has evolved interestingly today.

Dance too has a relationship with textiles. The traditional Manipuri style of dancing embodies delicate, lyrical and graceful movements which enhance the audience in its beautiful and colourful costumes and presentations. The graceful Gandharva Manipuri dance, which is evocative of the Raas Leela, has dancers wearing costumes like the long and flared embroidered skirts from the waist, translucent veils, and long peacock feather crows that add radiant appearance. While the Bihu dance in Assam has boys wearing a churia (dhoti), chapkan (shirt) made of silk, tangali (belt) and gamocha (towel) on the head. The girls wear gitigee (kind of headgear), agoo (mekhala) and Lagu Richa (chaddar). The garia by the Tripura community celebrates the the beauty of vibrant design and drama on textiles. One also sees this in the Chang Lo or Sua Lua dance of Nagaland with their dramatic costumes of the traditional Naga warrior and finery of womenfolk.

Interestingly, the shape or silhouette of traditional wear from Assam like the mekhla chaddar and puan from Mizoram have closer links to the sarong or lungi and blouse or jacket worn in the south East of Asia, though the textile used is more indigenous. One can see the traces of this in the Burmese and Thai traditional wear. This connect to Asia has always fascinated me and so I have always tried to bring this out in my collections that often resonate Pan-Asian influences. Growing up in Sikkim, the Buddhist play of textiles in silks and brocades have always held their fascination for me.

Historically, fashion in the Himalayan belt came from the royal courts and trace back to the kingdoms in Tibet. The bakhu, a loose cloak type garment that is fastened at the neck on one side and near the waist with a silk or cotton belt, and honju (blouse) were first worn in silks and brocades. But now with the times changing is worn in crepe prints and lighter silks and georgettes.

In the Northeast, though cultural identity has changed over time for each of the states, there is a deep-rooted understanding and respect for each other’s differences. Globalization, in one way, has helped in assimilation and acceptance of changes amongst the people of the region. With openings both for studies and professional employment, there has been a movement of the youth working and living in the bigger cities. Even though it seems to have displaced them at first, it has changed the face of urbanscape, thereby reflecting a more diverse India.


Dubal is a Delhi-based fashion designer

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