Why the lungi is fading away from the Indian fashion scene

Sep 29, 2013, 07:07 IST | Waleed Hussain

The lungi was once the favourite piece of 'homewear' for men across the country. But first came the powerlooms dealing a death blow to artisans who made hand-woven lungis. Then came the trackpants and pyjamas. Waleed Hussain pays a tribute to the lungi and wonders whether future generations will get to see, let alone wear, this very comfortable piece of clothing

For the fair-skinned Westerner, the hand-woven cotton sheet with chequered designs, is a fascinating piece of attire but for the South Asian, more so the Indian, that soft open-ended garb is called the lungi. Yes, it’s that free-flowing cloth that Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone wore in their blockbuster Chennai Express and grooved to in the Lungi Dance.

Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone brought the lungi back in focus with their now-famous Lungi Dance in Chennai Express

The lungi has been one of the oldest traditional items of clothing that have been worn by both men and women across India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Traditionally, it was worn by people living in regions that had hot to extremely hot climate. The soft cotton fabric -- that is used to weave the lungi -- ensures that the wearer remains cool. Even fishermen prefer the lungi as it’s easier to fold and dries up pretty quickly.

According to historians, the lungi has been around for a few hundred years. Wardrobes across India had a variety of colours and styles marked for specific occasions like white for weddings, blue for casual gatherings and chequered patterns for home wear. The cloth was woven by hand, and artisans passed on the art from generations to generations. Factories, workshops and cottage industries prospered for centuries -- that is before the power looms took over.

A forgotten yarn
So why is the fine art of weaving a lungi dying a slow but sure death, at least in this part of the world? A recent visit to one of the last remaining shops in downtown Mumbai that still sell the item, showed that a hand-woven lungi retails for anything between Rs 400-600, whereas the power loom lungi is priced from Rs 150-350. In short, while a master-craftsman or a traditional hand weaver can only produce one lungi per day in a workshop, the powerloom can mass-produce about a 100-200 lungis per day. The lungi’s tryst with the Industrial Revolution has robbed it of its charm and spelt the death knell for the craftsman.

“The first step in the decline of the lungi weaver started when the powerlooms took over. The weavers were unable to match the mass production as well as the cheaper rates of the loom products,” shares Ishtiyaq Ansari, a Malegaon-based manufacturer. “The karkhanas (workshops) in Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and even West Bengal were soon out of business as the machine-stitched lungis flooded the markets and took over the export business as well,” he says.

A buyer checks the lungis on display at a shop in Mohammed Ali Road. Pics/Sameer Sayed Abedi

Gradually, the weavers and artisans began looking for employment elsewhere and the workshops started closing down. That was not all. The quality offered by the power looms was slightly inferior to the hand-woven product, which irritated consumers and reduced its demand. 

“In the early ’80s and ’90s, we had three shops that retailed in garments, one of them exclusively for lungis. The margin was good and the demand was excellent. In fact during Ramzan, we would set up extra stalls to sell lungis,” recalls Sajid Shaikh, who retails in Bhendi Bazar. “However, in the last two decades the demand for lungis began to dry up and we had to reduce the stock in the store and began to sell hosiery and kids wear. Now, we have completely stopped selling lungis, and the store now has only kids wear,” Shaikh adds.

A generational issue
They say every son looks up to his father as his hero and aspires to be like him -- right from wearing daddy’s shoes, to using his aftershave, his brand of shaving blade and of course his style of clothing. This rang true, at least in part for many children in the ’80s and ’90s who followed their father’s example and inherited the habit of sporting a lungi at home.

“My father always wore the lungi at home and that is how I got the habit too,” avers Sayed Aziz, a garment seller. “We used to sell lungis earlier in the ’90s but gradually the profits began to dry up and we had no option but to look elsewhere. Now, we have moved on to retailing western wear and bags,” he says with a smile.

Ashfaq Mansuri, a wholesaler and stockist, says that doing business with the lungi is still profitable but only in ghettos. “The demand for lungis is limited to certain areas and regions. For instance, Muslim-dominated pockets in Bhendi Bazar, Madanpura, Antop Hill, Kurla and Malvani have a steady demand for lungis. But I haven’t received an order for lungis from Nepean Sea Road or Peddar Road in a long long while,” Mansuri laughs.

Clearly with the moneyed Mumbaiite moving on to tracksuits or pyjamas, the lungi -- once even considered a fashion-statement by westerners who came to India and saw them for the first time in the 1970s and early Rs 80s -- is fighting a losing battle.

The lungi debate
I think men look sexy in a kurta pyjama and very few traditional outfits can match up to them. The lungi really is a rural man’s garb and I have rarely seen it take centre stage in an urban setting. It is popular in both North as well as South India but isn’t much of a head turner in Mumbai. I really don’t see it making a comeback as a hot-selling item even though Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone sported the lungi in Chennai Express.
-- Skimmy Gupta, stylist

It’s a pretty fast-paced life that we lead in Mumbai, and the lungi really takes a lot of effort to wear and handle considering it has no stitching. Track pants, bermudas and shorts are the comfort wear that people, especially the newer generation, prefer to wear. Chennai Express may have brought the ‘Lungi’ back into the public eye, but not many will actually ‘dance’ to it.
-- Rishit Jhaveri, trader

The best part about the lungi is that it’s very light and comfortable. My father still wears one at home. But the new generation prefers to avoid it fearing they may be made fun of or ridiculed in public.
-- Prashant Rao, line producer

I agree that the lungi has lost out to the popularity of shorts and track pants, but the real killer was the pyjama that buried it decades ago. The pyjama became a comfortable as well as fashionable statement and the lungi just couldn’t claw its way back on the fashion scene. The lungi is still worn in many South Indian homes in the city but very rarely do we see it step out in public.
-- Kaushal Agarwal, businessman

How to wear a Lungi
There are many ways to wear a lungi. An open lungi can be tied around the waist with a knot or the open ends can be crossed over and stuffed around the hips. The closed or stitched lungi can be worn by bunching up the excess cloth in front of the stomach. Another way to wear the lungi is to make pleats and neatly fold them around the waistband. The lungi can be left to hang its entire length or folded up till the knees to make walking more comfortable. 

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