The Traditional Lungi: From Humble Attire to Sartorial Style

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Three Maldivian musicians wearing lungis pose on a tropical beach.
The lungi is a popular form of dress in the Maldives as well as southern India.

The South Indian lungi is a cool and comfortable garment worn by men that is similar to the sarong that is popular with both sexes in many tropical countries. The everyday lungi is made of a fine and light cotton fabric, enabling free and natural airflow to keep the lower body cool.

On recent visit to Kochi, Kerala, I was fascinated by the sight of men dressed in colorful lungis. I’m no stranger to the lungi. I have several friends who wear it to lounge around at home, especially during the peak of summer. But this is the first time I’ve seen what I can only think of as a ‘sea of lungis’ up close and personal. What I didn’t know was that in Kerala, almost every man wears a lungi.

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The lungi is traditional South Indian attire worn mostly – but not only – by men. I did see a few women in lungis although it was few and far between and they wear it slightly differently than men do. And that’s the interesting part about the lungi – it can be worn in several different ways.

How to Wear a Lungi

The lungi is essentially a rectangular piece of cloth measuring about 85-110 cm in length and 2-2.25 meters in breadth. The selvage of the fabric runs right through both sides of the length. The two ends of the width are sewn to form a very roomy cylindrical tube.

Two Indian male models pose wearing fashionable and stylish lungis.
The most expensive lungis are fashionable and stylish.

To wear it, you simply step into the center of the cylindrical tube with the same amount of material to your left and right sides. You then pull one end of the length up to your waist, bring the excess fabric from both sides into the middle and roll and tie it into a make-shift waistband.

The locals make it look so easy and I was excited to try it out. Turned out, it wasn’t so easy after all! At my first attempt, my lungi promptly unraveled and fell off. Several attempts later, it still didn’t stay on for very long. Wearing a lungi is definitely an art form but it’s worth getting the hang of it if you live in a tropical country.

Why is the Lungi so Popular?

South India is hot and humid all year round. The lungi provides much-needed relief in this climate and temperature. The cotton fabric is thin, light, and porous. This, added to the loose manner in which it is worn, allows air to circulate more freely, which helps to prevent the body from over-heating.

I was amused when my friend’s father described it as ‘eco-friendly air-conditioning’. In retrospect I realized that there was a lot of truth to what he said. During my stay in Kochi, nobody ranted about not having air conditioners. They just slipped into their lungis and an equally sheer shirt and went about their day looking cool and comfortable. Women accessorized their lungis with a tunic or kurta, giving the traditionally male attire an interesting feminine twist.

Two Indian men wearing lungis repairing a bicycle on a village street whilst a cow walks past.
Lungis are common everyday wear for men in southern India.

As we drove around the back roads in Kochi, it was interesting to see the locals performing all sorts of tasks while wearing a lungi. While I kept tripping over my lungi from the bedroom to the living room (when I finally managed to keep it on), I could see men and women wearing lungis and going about their daily chores confidently.

We came across men and women shopping, cycling, picking their kids from school, unloading trucks, and even working in the fields while wearing lungis. A group of lungi-wearing grownups were even playing soccer – now that was an intriguing sight! I had to wonder how they managed to prevent it from falling off.

Before my visit to Kochi, I’d only ever seen a lungi worn indoors. I can’t imagine any of my friends or family members stepping out of the house in my hometown of Goa wearing the lungi. During my visit, I couldn’t help wondering why this was so.

The lungi is an amazingly functional, versatile, and affordable garment. It is maintenance free, doesn’t require ironing, and is surprisingly inexpensive. It is also incredibly comfortable and definitely cooler than wearing a pair of jeans or fitted clothing in the heat and humidity. With that thought in mind, I went lungi-shopping and that was an adventure in itself!

A Lungi for Every Occasion

Shopping for lungis can be very, very interesting. Almost all clothes stores have a lungi section, but their choices tend to be limited. The more exclusive lungi stores on the other hand have vast selections in a riot of colors. I spent far more time than I thought I would, picking and choosing a few and then discarding my earlier choices for others.

A shopkeeper lounges at the back of a lungi shop in India displaying a wide range of lungi fabrics.
Lungi shops have a wide range of patterns and colors to choose from.

Checks and plaids are the most common patterns you’ll find in most shops. They stock lungis in just about every color, size, and style of checks and plaids imaginable. In addition, you can also find lungis in a range of single colors as well as stripes and patterns in a variety of colors and styles. These daily-wear lungis are surprisingly inexpensive and affordable to all.

Lungis for ceremonial occasions are made from silks or other fine blends. These usually have heavily embroidered or brocade borders. These lungis are very expensive and only reserved for special functions.

It’s rare to find two lungis that are exactly the same. Every lungi is unique, with some variation in its pattern, color combination or embellishment.

Today the lungi has come a long way from its traditional and humble beginnings. Several well-known Indian designers have added their unique flair and design to the lungi and showcased their creations at fashion shows across the world. This once little-known garment is finally getting the global recognition it deserves.

One little piece of advice from first-hand experience – when buying lungis to take back home, don’t forget to ask the shopkeeper to do a practical demonstration of how to wear it correctly. They are always obliging and in fact very enthusiastic to show off their lungi-wearing skills. Watching them in action is an experience by itself.

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