August 2010


Sri Lankan Style
August 2010




A Sinhalese woman in an Osariya (Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright, 1907)

Sri Lanka is an island filled with diversity, and this is reflected in the distinctly diverse clothes worn by its people. While an established "national dress" never came to be, the wonderfully eclectic mix of designs, fabrics, colours, drapes and tailoring continue to this day.

Words: Manori Wijesekera

While the type of garment worn, and its drape and cut, used to be distinctive of a particular ethnic group, or even the caste and social status of a person, these boundaries have all blurred with Sri Lankans now helping themselves to the smorgasbord of designs from every community and ethnic culture to suit their fancy, or the occasion.

Two garments have always cut across the ethnic divide, making us one: the sarong and the sari. Here again, the draping of the garments used to be distinctive for each ethnic group but these distinctions are now forgotten or employed merely for ceremonial or religious occasions.

The sarong was worn among men of all ethnic groups with a banian, or bare-bodied if working in the field or at home. The Sinhalese wore the sarong in a simple drape, knotted in front. During colonial times in the low-country coastal areas, it was dressed up for formal occasions, sometimes with a shirt, dinner jacket and socks and shoes. The Kandyan male opted for a white cloth and tuppotiya (a long cloth wound repeatedly around in folds around the waist) and a round hat. Upper class Kandyan males also wore the Nilame attire with its jacket made of silk and containing rich embroidery work.

The Tamil man from the Sri Lankan Tamil community wore the sarong, which they called a verti, as a soft white cloth and worn undivided. The Jaffna Tamil male, on the other hand, wore a verti that was dyed a pale pink and worn like a skirt and not draped like the Sinhalese sarong. The Indian Tamil wore a white cloth, often with a coloured border, thrown over the body and across the shoulders in place of a coat. They wore their verti gathered up in neat pleats in front with a corner tucked between the legs and fastened behind in a "taru"

On formal occasions, the Tamil men wore a white shirt with long flowing tails accompanied by the Angavastram, a flat and narrow-folded shawl wound round the waist with the ends brought up over the shoulders crossways so that the two ends fall in front over the shoulders. To complete it, an oval cap in blue, black or red velvet or a coloured turban was also worn.

Relegated to a domestic garment among the upper classes and city-folk during the British period, the sarong has re-emerged in the last few decades as an accepted and even trendy garment for the Sri Lankan male.

The sari and osariya, on the other hand, never went out of style. The osariya is often cited as the traditional dress of the Kandyan Sinhalese woman, but its origins are rooted in South India, perhaps through the influence of the three last Nayakkar kings of Kandy. It is a blend of the ohoriya and the Tamil selai, a fabric worn in sari style.

The osariya is draped like a redde (cloth) with the addition of an elaborate frill or odokkuwa, at the side - the length of this frill varies from region to region. The end of the fall (pota) evolved from the older uthurusaluwa which was thrown over the shoulder by women on outings. The jacket has a round neck and puffed sleeves, worn either long or short.

The Indian sari is said to have been introduced to Sri Lanka in the 20th century by the women in Moratuwa and for a long time it was locally called the "Moratuwa sari". The sari is an untailored cloth, between six to eight metres in length. Originally the Indian sari drape among the coastal Sinhalese women was a loose skirt-like drape but this has gradually evolved to clear pleats in front and sometimes in the pallu.

The drape of the Jaffna Tamil woman's sari consisted of the pallu being wound around the waist and tucked into a fan-shaped frill at the back, popularly called the "tails". Elaborate waist bands were also sometimes worn.

The drape of the sari or selai among the Tamil community a few centuries ago also reflected their social status - the lower social status women wore the selai, where the cloth is wound around the lower body and then thrown over the upper body in a drape in place of a jacket. Women of higher social status wore a ravike with the selai, the ravike being a tight-fitting short sleeved bodice often of velvet or other thick fabric.

The Muslim women in Sri Lanka, traditionally wear the sari in a drape called the Gujarati drape, which allows for using the fabric to cover their heads when needed.

Young girls who were not old enough to wear the osariya or the sari, had their own variation, referred to as a "half-sari". The Kandyan Lama sariya was a two piece dress consisting of an ankle length drape with a wide frill at the side and a tight-fitting sleeveless top with a wide frill around the round neck. The lama sariya was traditionally worn in white fabric, but is now worn in a range of different colours depending on the occasion.

Young Tamil girls had the Pavada thavani, a variation of the selai. This was a skirt and a tight fitting jacket with a piece of selai cloth draped across the upper part of the body over the jacket, to hang half way down the skirt. It was sometimes worn with a jewelled belt.

Another distinctive female garment worn amongst the Sinhalese women, especially along the coastal areas, is the redde and hatte (called the Cloth and Jacket in English) introduced by the Portuguese, thought to be a modification of the Javanese Kabu kain. The redde is an untailored cloth, usually about two and a half metres in length, wrapped around the waist and tucked in at one side. It was often worn with a white linen blouse (the hatte) with a round or V-shaped neckline. On special occasions, the quality of cloth was richer and the design of the jacket had more embellishments.

Among the women of the south, there was a special variation of the hatte - the kabakuruttu, a white jacket with a V-shaped neckline, often edged with dainty pillow lace and wrist length sleeves. The front and back were cut in one piece and fastened in front with pins. It was worn with a black cloth for regular work wear, or a printed cheethai fabric on special occasions.

The redde and hatte were worn amongst all Sinhala women with the Kandyan women adding a manté or a frill at the neck of the hatte. It's a garment ideally suited to our climate and is still the preferred garment for every day wear in rural areas.

The redde and hatte were further adapted during colonial times, to form a long skirt called the saya and a blouse longer in length than the hatte. The lungi, or female sarong, which is a redde-like tailored garment worn with a blouse, was another variation of the Cloth and Jacket, which were popular among the Jaffna Tamil women and in the south and is now seen among older women across the country.

The older Moor women wore a camboy and jacket, sometimes with a guaze-like fabric tucked under the armpit as a veil. In earlier times, Malay women used to wear the sarong and baju (a shapeless jacket-like blouse) or the kabaya with sometimes a shawl-like fabric to cover their heads or faces. The sarong evolved into a tight or loose fitting garment tailored to fit the lower body. They had two distinctive sarong-based forms of dress: the Baju karung, a type of sarong with a loose long blouse with long sleeves, and the Sarong kabaya, a sarong combined with a more fitted blouse that had a front opening and long sleeves. Scarves and shawls were also used by some women, to cover their heads or wrapped around their shoulders.

The Portuguese had a strong influence on the clothes of almost all communities in Sri Lanka. Prior to their arrival, much of the cloth that was locally available was woven to fit the exact size of the fabric needed. The Portuguese however, introduced the cut-and-sewn style of western dress. Their influence on attire was far-reaching, as can be seen by the number of Portuguese words related to clothes which entered the Sinhala and Tamil vocabulary: for example, the Portuguese word for trouser was Calsan, while in sinhala it is Calesan; the Portuguese word for shirt is Camisa, which is the same word used in Sinhala.

The Dutch did not have a great impact on the clothes worn during their colonial rule, with the Portuguese-introduced attire continuing to prevail during this period. However, the Dutch did influence the clothing industry by increasing the amount of textiles imported to the country, thereby increasing the diversity and variety available for the new industry of tailoring.

The British colonial period introduced many garments which were ill-suited to the Sri Lankan climate: the three-piece suits and hats for men, and gowns with crinolines and layers of petticoats for women, accessorised with hats, gloves and umbrellas.

With independence came a resurgence of interest in "indigenous attire" and "national clothes" for both men and women. Since then, each community has evolved what they loosely consider to be their form of "national" attire, and these are worn on formal occasions and for religious and ceremonial functions.

Without a narrowly defined and legally recognised National Dress, Sri Lankans are free to choose from any attire from any of the ethnic communities that make up this diverse island. This cross-community borrowing of styles is perhaps the best example of the rich heritage of diversity and complementarities that make up our unique island nation.

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    A Malay gentleman (Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright, 1907)

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    A Tamil woman in a sari (Photography: Lakshman Nadaraja)

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    A man wearing a sarong and banian (Photography: Lakshman Nadaraja)

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    A Tamil family, each in their traditional attire (Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright, 1907)

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    An angavastram completes the attire of this Tamil gentleman (Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright, 1907)

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    Tamil girls in traditional attire (Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, Arnold Wright, 1907)

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    A lady and gentleman from the Kandyan era (Photograph courtesy: Sri Dalada Maligawa)

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    Young Sinhalese boys in white sarongs (Photography: Lakshman Nadaraja)

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