As Kerala celebrates the 60th anniversary of its formation, we're taking it way back to see how Keralites’ dressing underwent drastic changes over the years.
Believe it or not, till the beginning of the 19th century, minimum amount of clothing was the norm in Kerala. A majority of Keralites, regardless of sex, wore only a piece of cloth called ‘Thorthu’ wrapped tied around their waist. During that period, both men and women went around topless and bare-chested. Later, the modest Throthu with a red border became common among people from ‘lower’ caste communities. Over the years, the ‘Thorthu’ has got itself a promotion as people started using it as the Mel Mundu (upper cloth) over the shoulders.
Maru Marakkal (right to cover chest)
About sixty years before the formation of Kerala, a majority of women here went about without covering the upper body, even during special days and occasions. Though they used to wear all sorts of ornaments and jewelries on the top portion of the body, the womenfolk were not allowed to cover their body from waist upwards.
Thalekettu (Men’s headscarf)
During special occasions, men used to wear elaborate headscarves, either yellowish or white-colored. The turban-like headgear provided full head coverage. Another ‘Thalekettu’ which was also popular in those days was the one wore by paddy laborers using a ‘Thorthu’.
Ottamundu (A type of dhoti)
Women belonging to ‘lower’ caste communities used to wear only the Ottamundu, a plain and simple piece of cloth which covered only the lower part of the body. They rarely used the melmundu. Moreover, they did not have the right to go to public places wearing it.
Onnara and Melmundu
‘Onnara and Mundu’, an ancient form of saree, was the traditional attire of Hindu women in Kerala. It comprised two main pieces of cloth that are draped around the body. The bottom portion with a length of about six cubits, which was folded into pleats and tucked in was called ‘Onnara’. The melmundu was either used simply to cover the upper body or as a firm breast bandage.
Olakkuda (Palm leaf umbrella)
Handmade umbrellas made of palmyra or bamboo leaves were very popular in Kerala in the 19th century. They bore different names such as Nediya Kuda, used by kings, Manakkuda, used by Brahmins, and Kanyakkuda, used by young ladies.
The melmundu was an upper garment which wore in different ways to indicate the caste of a particular person. Brahmins and other ‘upper’ caste people used to wear long Uthareeyam along with melmundu on special occasions. If a person from a ‘lower’ caste community happened to stumble across a member of a ‘higher’ caste, he was supposed to show reverence either by draping his melmundu around his waist or keeping it under his armpit. Long traditional mundu were used as Uthareeyams.
Roukka (A type of bodice)
Roukka was the predecessor of today’s blouse. Women used to wear Roukka and mundu while at home. Normally, women preferred to wear white roukka when they went out. Often, they wore a ‘randam mundu’ (an upper cloth) above roukka.
Kaili or colored mundu became popular only after the formation of the State. Women from financially backward families started wearing kaili or lungi instead of white mundu. Physical female laborers used to wear kaili and roukka as a working dress.
Instead of roukka, women from aristocratic families wore Mulakkacha, or white bodice. It was a fitted blouse worn to cover the breasts with a knot behind.
Neriyathu is the oldest remnant of the ancient form of the saree which is still worn by Hindu women. It looks like a shawl and is draped from the waist upwards above the Mundu.
Kallithuni was a kind of lungi worn by Muslim men in the Malabar region. It is draped around the waist and covers the body from the waist to just above the ankle. A belt is also worn above the ends that tucked in at the waist to produce a more secure knot.
It is a kind of jubba worn by Muslim men while going out. Often, a shawl-like melmundu was also used with it.
Kuppayam is a kind of long-sleeve blouse used by Muslim women. Christian ladies too used to wear it. Naruthanni Kuppayam, a skinny version of Kuppayam, was very popular in the south Malabar region.
Thattam, a long scarf for covering the head and shoulders, is still used by Muslim women in the State. It is made of thin cloth normally of two-feet in width and four-feet in length.
Chatta was the long-sleeve blouse worn by Christian women. It is still used by a large section of elderly people in the community. It covers the arm and upper body almost entirely. The mundu worn along with Chatta is tied at the waist and flows till just above the ankle. The mundu is folded into pleats like a paper fan to fit around the waist. It is made of hard cotton clothes.
Elderly Christian women wearing short-sleeve blouse used to cover their upper part of the body with a melmundu known as Kavani when they went out.
Half saree is a colored piece of cloth which is worn to cover the top portion of the body with pavada and blouse. It was the signature dress of young girls before the advent of Chudidhar.
Saree made a grand entry into the Kerala women’s wardrobe just about three decades before the formation of the State. Soon it became a favorite attire of the ladies here. Its popularity could be mainly attributed to the life-like paintings based on Indian epics by Raja Ravi Varma.
A majority of Hindu men and a section of Christian men used to sport Kuduma, a tuft of lock of hair which was knotted and kept in different styles. During that time, it was mandatory for the members of Brahmin community to keep Kuduma. People from different castes used to grow Kudumas of different styles.
Methiyadis are wooden sandals. There will be a mushroom-shaped knob in front of the three-centimeter wide wooden base so that the user can have firm grip using his/her big toe and the pointer toe. Normally, methiyadis are made of beech wood.
Konakam is a T-shaped simple undergarment worn by men. Normally, it is four-and-half feet in length and about half foot wide. After tying the front portion to the thread, it is draped around the waste, leaving the droopy part as it is. Kids those days used to wear only a konakam while at home. Later, it went on to become a male undergarment.
Jubba was widely popular among politicians those days. It is an ankle-length, robe-like garment, usually with long sleeves and without a collar. On special occasions, Jubba is worn with a shawl draped over shoulders.
Mundu, the Kerala dhoti, used to be the most common attire of Kerala men. This plain white dress was worn by all, regardless of their caste, creed or financial position, though they were tied or fastened in various ways.
Shirt and Pants
By mid 50s, shirt and pants became a common attire of men in Kerala. Eventually, mundu and melmundu were replaced by mundu and shirt. Pants were not that popular at that time. It too became a favorite dress of Kerala men with the passage of time.