Costumes for Indian Classical Dance

Costumes for Indian Classical Dance

An important part of the rich cultural heritage of India are the traditional dance forms of India, which are unique and unmatched in their grace and ability to tell detailed stories through bodily movements. An Indian dance performance, no matter which type it is, will always be a fascinating and colorful affair, showing a perfect amalgamation of music, dance, story-telling and costumes. The costumes for Indian classical dance make for crucial part of any performance and every different dance form has a different type of Indian dance costume required to execute the dance performance.

Though there are many different types of dances in every region of India, there are eight recognized and formal classical dances which are defined by a rigid set of rules in terms of the dance itself and the over-all requirements for performance (mainly the costume and styling).

Of these, Kathak and Bharatnatyam are the two most popular forms of classical dance. These have gained not just a pan-Indian but also an international audience; today, they are taught and practiced in countries around the world and not just in their cities of origin. The Indian dance outfits for each of these are quite different, because both of these dances have a very different cultural and regional affiliation.

Bharatnatyam & Kathakali

bharatnatyam dance costume bharatnatyam dance costume

Bharatnatyam Readymade Dance Costumes (source:

It is a traditional temple dance from south India that was initially only performed in temples as part of religious ceremonies and not really for entertainment. To this day, the pre-dominant themes are more religious and mythological. Kathak, on the other hand, was a theatrical dance form for the general public, until it was adapted by the Mughals. They made it into a courtly dance form and subsequently Kathak became an extremely refined and exquisite art.

The traditional Indian dance costume for many dances was originally a saree, but over the years, it evolved to become something quiet distinctive. For instance, in Bharat Natyam, the costume worn today still resembles a saree but is actually a unique amalgamation of separate stitched pieces of cloth. It looks like a saree draped either as a pair of trousers (similar to a tightly draped dhoti) or as a skirt allowing movement.


The pallu is extremely significant and is usually very colorful with bold gold borders, similar to traditional south Indian designs. It is prominently draped across the torso in the front and tucked into a kamarbandh or waist chain. Below the waist a fan-like piece of cloth is attached. This pleated fan is essential to the look. Usually these costumes closely resemble colorful south silk sarees, right down to the lustrous fabric and the large, gold borders that may or may not come with temple border designs.

south-silk-saree mogra-garlands ghungroo

Costume and Accessories (source: pinterest)

For Kathak, women usually wear a lehenga choli. The lehenga or ghagra is usually a long skirt with a wide, circular cut that flares out beautifully with every twirl. It is paired with a short, tight-fitting blouse called the choli and a long dupatta or scarf draped across the front from one shoulder and pinned in place. This is not the only type of costume worn for Kathak; the anarkali churidar kameez, named after the famous Mughal dancer, is also widely worn for more Mughal inspired performances.

The specifics may be different but in general, Indian dance clothes tend to be quite colorful and attractive. They have to be somewhat ornate as well, as they are meant to be worn on the stage and hence, should pop against the background. Moreover, Indian dance dresses are created to match the vibrant, dramatic and often loud movements of the dance itself. Thus, the use of bright colors, golden borders, intricate embellishments and beautiful drapes can be seen in almost all types of Indian dance wear.

kathakali-pinterest kathakali kathakali-mask

Kathakali Dance (source: pinterest)

At the same time, each dance form has its own types of body movements and poses. The Indian dance dress worn has to match the fluidity of the dancer’s body and is designed specifically to flatter the dancer. For an Indian dancer, costume is almost as crucial as the dance itself to achieving a great performance. The aesthetics of the costume end up playing a huge role in the final look of the dance.


Styling is a crucial part of getting the perfect traditional look for Indian dance. Everything, from the hair and make-up, to the accessorizing, has to be carefully executed. In terms of jewelry, heavy gold jewelry is the norm in almost all the classical dances. Indian dance clothing often comes with gold work and to enhance that aspect, multiple gold necklaces, mang tikkas, bangles, earrings and rings are required.

temple-necklace jhumka oddiyanam

Indian dance costume designs often require a certain piece of jewelry to complete the look, such as a waist-cinching gold kamarbandh. Ghungroos, or anklets adorned with tinkling bells, are also an essential part of most Indian dance costumes. Finally, henna tattoos for the hand and feet and flowers adorning the hair are common features of most traditional Indian dance costumes.

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