What is the difference between Ethnic Wear and Traditional Wear?

Ethnic Wear and Traditional Wear

Although used interchangeably, the terms ethnic and traditional do have demarcations that separate them from one another especially in a land as diverse as India. With more than two thousand ethnic groups, close to 22 officially recognized languages, and five major religions, ethnically India is a diverse country but it’s the common thread of tradition that ultimately weaves these diversities into one fabric which becomes India. Let’s talk about the traditional vs. ethnic difference viz-a-viz clothes.


  1. Saree – From Banarasi to Bandhani, from Kanjeevaram to Chanderi, saree is unofficially the most common women ethnic wear in India. There are as many as 15 different kinds of sarees worn across the country and even though they differ in lengths, fabric composition, designs, and even draping styles, the fact doesn’t change that they are still all sarees after all. The difference between women’s traditional wear and women’s ethnic wear here is that despite the overt changes the deep-rooted essence of a saree can be seen across the length and breadth of the country. The role of tradition in the evolution of the modern saree is that the saree in the last few centuries started featuring a fusion of Mughal designs and embroideries with Indian original styles.


  1. Lehenga – The lehenga has come a long way from its origins as ‘Poshak’ as described in ancient Indian texts. The three-part costume is comprised of a bust band (Choli), a light shroud to cover shoulders and head (Dupatta), and finally the bottom part, which starts from waist and has plaids in the middle with a flowy hem (Lehenga). From Anarkali to Ghagra to Chaniya, Pavadai, Lacha and many other variations of Lehengas there hasn’t been a dearth of choices when it comes to women’s ethnic wear dresses in India. Traditionally with the entry of Mughal and other outside influences, the modern form of Lehengas has now evolved into many styles namely – Sharara, A-line, straight cut, mermaid cut, and others. The fabrics now used are satin, velvet, rayon, crepe and not just the age old cotton and silk.


  1. Salwar-Kameez – Traditionally worn prominently in the northern part of the country, Salwar-Kameez came to India in the 13th century with the Mughals. It is still the most common article of clothing worn in Punjab, Haryana, and parts of western U.P. From Churidar to billowing Patialas, salwars have seen a lot of variation over millennia. From long sleeves, padded shoulders, fancy cuts to more loose designs, kameez (Tunic) have had their own journey over the years from famous Bollywood movies to popular fashion. Salwar Kameez today has evolved into a more comfortable and casual occasion-wear. Kameez has been somewhat replaced by short Kurtis and in place of salwars, we have semi-casual trousers, palazzos, and loose pants. Salwar-Kameez can be one of the best contenders to the traditional vs. ethnic wear debate since it started as an ethnic piece of clothing that has now diversified into a living and breathing traditional of the country.


  1. Indo-Western Dresses – It can’t be tracked accurately as to when exactly the two fashion worlds started interacting and exchanging elements from each other but the 1970s could be a good starting point. Regular middle-class Indian women adapted well to the western styles for all kinds of occasions during 70s and the western world too started incorporating Indian designs and patterns into its styles. Cut to the present day and we have almost a touch of Indo-western in most dresses Indian women wear, be it for work or other occasions. From Dhoti Saree and Dhoti Pants to Saree-Pants, from Shirt with Lehengas to crop top and long skirts, there are a plethora of combinations available today in the Indo-western template and that’s why it seems to be getting more and more trendy with every passing year.


The boundaries between traditional wear and ethnic wear have been blurred with time and that has been a feature of the world becoming a global village. That being said, there still are fine differences that exist between what can be called purely traditional vs. what still has retained its ethnic origins. The best part is the variety not just in terms of clothes but even shopping-wise, with the mushrooming of women’s ethnic wear stores online these days.