Global Textiles | Textile Articles

Sri Lanka: History and Traditional Clothing

Published: August 8, 2020
Author: Manali bhanushali

Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island country in South Asia, located in the Indian Ocean southwest of the Bay of Bengal and southeast of the Arabian Sea. It is geographically separated from the Indian subcontinent by the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait.  Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte is its legislative capital, and Colombo is its largest city and centre of commerce.

The traditional costume of any country can tell people a lot about the history and life of that country. Sri Lankan traditional dress – sarees for women and sarongs for men, was affected by both Asian and European cultures making them more beautiful and alluring. Varying in different areas and different periods of time in history, the features of the usual Sri Lankan garment are a great example of fine artistic manufacturing.

History of Sri Lanka Textile & Apparel Industry:

The textile and clothing industry had emerged from a modest beginning in the early 1950s. A few pioneering industrialists who started out on an uncertain course at this time , confident their manufacture to only some popular items of garments and catered essentially to local demand. By the end of the 1950’s there was a reversal in policies and the economy moved towards restrictions on imports and a policy of import substitution in industry began to be perused. While the major basic industries were reserved for the state; a wide range of consumer goods industries were opened to the private sector , which was provide with various investment incentives and a protected market. Over the decade of the 1960’s as many as 300 categories of industrial products began to be manufactured locally. Among this range of products a major item was textiles and another readymade garments, though from the outset raw materials required for the garments industry were imported.

It was in the late1960’s that Sri Lanka’s  readymade garments began to break into export markets. Sri Lanka’s shirts had found acceptability in markets such as the UK and Soviet Union and a leading shirt manufacture began exporting up to Rs: 2 million worth of product annually to the USSR, within the bilateral trade agreement between Sri Lanka and the USSR.

Around 1972 there was a change in outlook towards the industry as existing policy was altered to allow certain sectors to adapt an export oriented approach. Special foreign exchange allocations and other fiscal and tax incentives were offered to selected export oriented industries under this package. In the first six years of the 1970’s over 2500 industrial units received approval from the Local Industries Approve Committee (LIAC) and of these nearly 2000 were in the product group of Textiles and Textile based industries.

The period after the late 1970s saw a rapid expansion of the clothing industry in Sri Lanka. The impressive growth witnessed during this period can be attributed to two major factors. The first is the market-oriented liberal economic policies introduced in 1977. The market friendly economic reforms, which identified the private sector as the engine of growth, places greater emphasis on the export-led industries.

The second important factor which contributes to the remarkable expansion of the Sri Lanka textile and clothing industry is the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA). Sri Lanka is one of the countries that benefited from the quota hopping investments. The overseas manufactures of garment that relocated their production facilities in Sri Lanka include firms from both and Newly Industrialize Countries (NICs) in East Asian and Europe. While the NIC Firms moved their operations mainly as a means of “quota hopping” the motivation for producers of countries such as Germany and the UK to move into Sri Lanka was the rising production costs in their home countries.

History of Sri Lankan Traditional Dress:

Sri Lanka has been known for its handmade woven looms and batik design – a technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to the whole cloth that contributes to its history in the dress. Any investigation into the subject of Sri Lanka’s traditional dress must begin with the indigenous inhabitants – the Veddas who were hunter-gatherers wearing a very simple garment, about three yards of calico – a plain-woven textile made from unbleached and often not fully processed cotton, which was sufficient to form a loincloth (known as span cloth locally). They use that part of the cloth that encircles their waist as a pocket to carry betel-nut and food. This also acts like a belt, through which they thrust the handles of their short axes when traveling in the forest. That was the original garment of the island – minimal, functional, and ideally suited to the climate and environment. The women’s garment was usually topless. A piece of calico fastened around the waist like a Malay sarong and stretching to about the ankles. Sometimes people added another strip to cover their upper body.

European influence displays itself in Sri Lanka quite noticeably. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch consistently contributed to this part of clothing. The Portuguese and Dutch fashion from the 16th to 18th century introduced the Sinhalese nobility with magnificent sleeves, lace trim, and frills. Some details of the attire were born not without Indian influence during the Mughal era. For instance, the sarong tied in such a way that something resembles curvy trousers.

Traditional Costume of Sri Lankan People:

Saree – Traditional Dress of Sri Lankan Female

Saree is purely a women’s clothing. The traditional Kandyan saree (osaria) is the popular attire in Sri Lanka and is worn by women for all ranges of events. Some wear a saree on a daily basis, or because their work uniform calls for a saree. School teachers and office women wear sarees, as well as tea pluckers when it is their custom. In official events and ceremonies, traditional clothing is a saree that must be very colorful, bright and ornate.

They are worn by Sri Lankan women in many different styles. There are two ways of draping the saree: the Indian and the Kandyan style. The Kandyan one is more popular in the hill region in Kandy from which the style originated. It consists of a full blouse that is 6 – 8 meters in length and covers totally the midriff and is partially tucked at the front. The top is a scarf or a piece of cloth put on the shoulder of the women and tucked in the skirt.

(Kandyan Wedding)

Saree can be smoothly dyed, and also embroidered or printed with patterns like batik. The modern saree leads to most people baring their midriffs. The final tail is neatly pleated rather than free-flowing. Women cover their bodies with light and feminine sari, use massive jewelry, and wear hair updos.

Lama Sariya:

The clothing of women in sri lanka also depends on age and marital status. Most of the younger girls here tend to wear Lama Sariya which looks like half a sari. Lama Sariya has two parts, the top part consists of a fitted jacket with wide soft frill that falls beautifully around the neck, and the bottom half is a drape that is wrapped around the waist. The cloth reaches the ankle and has a wide frill at the side seam, giving it a more smooth and beautiful look. The white Lama Sariya is for religious events such as to observe on religious functions whereas colorful Lama Saris are worn on wedding, especially by the flower girl and little maids who look adorable running around in this beautiful costume.

Married women and older women tend to wear wrap around with exquisite prints which are cotton fabrics along with a tight-fitting, short-sleeved jacket or a full blouse which are worn by tucking them in the front.

Redde and Hatte:

Redde is a two and a half meter long piece of cloth that adorns the waist, and Hatte is a delicate linen blouse with a simple neckline, usually round or V-shaped neckline. Redde and Hatte together create a smart and comfortable outfit often worn during weddings. The traditional clothing for official or religious events is more colorful, bright and beautified by ornamentation and use of unique materials.

Muslim women in Sri Lanka tend to wear their traditional burkha which is a black cloth that covers the entire body and face with a slight opening for eyes, sometimes the gap for eyes is replaced by a delicate mesh clothing. They tend to hide their whole body, expect hands. They tend to use Gujarati drape for their clothing.

Many traditional rituals and dresses in Sri Lanka are similar to those in India. The climate in this country is very similar to the rest of India. Hence, the clothing in these two countries is alike and usually cover their body with light and alluring feminine sari that drapes delicately around the body, they accessorize their outfit with massive unique jewellery and wear elaborate hair updos with their beautiful traditional drapes.

Sarongs – Traditional Costume of Sri Lankan Male

Like other South Asia countries, sarongs are also the basic attire for men in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan men wear the popular and widespread sarongs – a long piece of cloth wrapped around their waist. The original sarong is a tube of fabric folded and knotted at the waist at different lengths, depending on what the wearer is doing. During Sri Lanka tours, you will see men of all cultures wearing sarongs, such as tuk-tuk drivers, fishermen, cooks and more recently, businessmen, who wear the modern sarong with pockets.

In many regions, men combine a sarong with a long-sleeved shirt. There are quite a few ways for men to wear a sarong. They sometimes tie it and make a knot in front, or they wrap around like a skirt, while others put the end between the legs and tie or tuck into the sarong (it looks similar to trousers) .

At home, men mostly prefer to wear dhoti or Pancha, which is a long piece of cloth which is worn by wrapping it around the body, it is rarely worn outside as it depicts men belonging to the lower class.

Another traditional costume for boys is known as Jathika Anduma, which is a brilliant, comfortable and straightforward ensemble and is very different from Lama Sariya, which is much more complicated and is worn by adults. It also has two parts, one of which is a long sleeve blouse and a long sarong that reaches up to the ankle.

The shirt is not to be tucked in, and the entire outfit usually comes with a very neatly folded wrap which is similar to a scarf that can be wrapped around the neck. The Jathika Anduma too is mostly worn in light colors or white color, especially when visiting religious places. For religious events and ceremonies, boys wear the Jathika Anduma in many colors though pale gold and cream colors are often used for weddings.

All their clothing can be tied in a variety of ways and are made out of various materials depending on the weather conditions and occasion.



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