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The Indian Choli: An Overview


Bhairavi –bhairavi@kyngesbridge.org

Indian Garb Workshop

History or Blowing up the “No Bare Midriffs in Period” Taco Stand

When I first began pursuing an Indian persona, I ran into several wide-spread myths. The first of these was the infamous “midriffs aren’t period” argument. Spawned as backlash to the prevalence of cabaret-style Middle Eastern costuming, it only took a small amount of research to learn that this argument simply does not apply to Indian garb. Period Mughal miniatures are some of the more commonly seen examples of Indian art, and reveal a wealth of midriffs (and more) revealed by short to the point of pointless cholis.

The second myth is that the choli was something introduced by the Muslim conquerors of India, as a way to get the shameless Hindu women to cover themselves.  This is probably due to the proliferation of Mughal artwork and the inaccessibility of other examples of period Indian painting. However, even a quick glance at the Ajanta cave paintings of the Gupta Empire (300-900 C.E.) shows several examples of different styles of choli. It seems most likely now that the choli was actually developed as an answer to the more modest Buddhist fashion sense as that faith grew stronger in the Indian subcontinent.


  • Styles
    • Short Side-laced Cholis
      • This is the most common style seen throughout early period. The basic shape is that of a very short T-Tunic, with lacing in place of the side seams. They generally have rounded necklines just large enough to fit your head through and short sleeves that cover the very top of the upper arm. Some appear to have trim or decoration around the bottom hem and sleeve hems.
    • Apron-front back-laced Cholis
      • To date, the only period examples I have found of this type of garment are from the Ajanta Cave paintings. There are two examples I know of, one with long sleeves of dark blue bandhani[i] with a white body, and another with short sleeves of an all over bandhani pattern. In at least one of these pictures, the artist has drawn fabric ties coming off the back of the garment.
    • Mughal/Late Period Cholis
      • Mughal cholis seem to mostly be variations on the short choli. They generally have rounded necklines, and range in length from the underbust to barely below the nipples. A few Mughal paintings depict women from behind or turned to the side, and it seems that the cholis of the day were likely back-laced. They appear in a wide variety of solid and patterned colors.


§         This pattern is a personal favorite of mine. It’s extremely easy to put together and can be made with or without an apron front with a very minimal amount of fabric. It also offers a lot of support for fuller figures. Dinah has this to say about the pattern: “I developed the pattern based on a miniature (dated right about 1600, but I do not remember the exact date)  in Smithsonian magazine a few years ago. I originally drew up the pattern for myself (I happen to be a size 40G bra) and have been sharing it sense then.”


    • Traditional Garments of Udaipur, Banswara and Dunagarpur Choli Pattern
      • This book is a modern costume resource, and hence, the pattern is likely modern as well. However, the construction does have a slightly more period “flavor” than some other commercially available modern patterns. If none of the other types of cholis listed here provide the support or coverage you desire, this could be a passable alternative.


Rear view of figure from Buddhist Altarpiece – 800 A.D.

Worshipper – Ajanta Cave XVII – 5th century

Dancer – Ajanta Cave I – 6th century

Scanned image from Ancient Indian Costume – Sketch of maidservant from Cave I


Alkazi, Roshen Ancient Indian Costume (New Delhi, 1983)

Behl, Benoy K. The Ajanta Caves (New York, 1998) 

Pal, Pratapaditya Indian Sculpture Vol. 2 (Los Angeles Museum of Art 1988)

Poster, Amy G. Realms of Heroism: Indian Paintings at the Brooklyn Museum (New York, 1994)

Sivaramamurti, C. South Indian Paintings (New Delhi, 1994)

[i] Bandhani is a type of Indian Tie & Dye technique that produces small, tightly formed circles, generally white. Most early period examples are of a simple all over “polka dot” type of pattern.

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