Spanning across a mosaic of communities, gender no bar, the lungi was and still continues to be hugely popular in Kerala.

Still from Malayalam movie Premam showing three actors including Nivin Pauly clad in multi coloured lungiStill from 'Premam' movie
Features Fashion Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 12:43

Bollywood may have attributed the 'lungi dance' to Rajinikanth, but the dress is not just equally common in Kerala, it's also worn by people of all genders, cutting across communities. It’s usually a two-metre long cloth, in floral prints or in colourful check patterns, draped around one’s waist or at times pulled up to the knees to make a knot.

The lungi is a simple, single piece of cloth that is worn as casual wear, mostly by men, across south India. But in Kerala, the lungi or kalli mundu, as it's popularly called, is much more than that. Spanning across a mosaic of communities, gender no bar, the lungi was and still continues to be hugely popular in Kerala. And at times, it's also used to make strong political statements.

Largely seen as a dress representing the working class, the lungi is widely worn by people ranging from auto drivers and streetside vendors to fisher folk in Kerala. But time and again, lungis have broken the ‘proletariat’ tag to become trendy wear for youngsters. Kerala lungis are also distinct from their counterparts in other states for their vibrant hues.

Lungi clad vegetable vendor in a Kerala market

Influence of Malayalam cinema

Many a time, Malayalam films have created trends for lungis in Kerala. From the black lungi with a golden border inspired by the 2005 Mammootty hit Rajamanickam to the double coloured lungi trend inspired by Jayasurya’s Aadu 2 (2017), and the multicoloured lungi inspired by the 2015 blockbuster Premam, cinema has influenced lungi fashion in Kerala campuses over the years.

Mamootty in Rajamanickam

But according to experts in the textile industry, the trends are often short-lived and what has persisted over time is the evergreen kalli mundu, that often comes in shades of blue, white and black checks and the ones in floral prints.

Watch the trendy lungi from Aadu 2:

“The trends are periodical. Though there will be a huge demand for the trendy lungi at a certain point in time, the demand will mostly not persist. After the release of Premam, we came up with the rainbow lungi, with seven differently coloured plain lungis. It was a huge hit. The double coloured lungi from Aadu 2 is still in demand,” says KC Pillai, Director of the Anna Group, which owns KITEX Garments Ltd, a famous lungi brand inside and outside the state.

From Rs 250 to Rs 1,000, the cost of lungis varies depending on the quality of the material and brands.

Watch visuals from 'Premam':

“KITEX, Mazhavil, Ansel, Shanku Mark etc., are the main brands. People often look at the material while purchasing the garment. Cotton lungis are the most in demand. There are also handloom lungis which cost Rs 1,000 and above,” says an executive of Kalyan Silks in Kochi.

Lungi in various Kerala communities

Though lungis are mainly considered to be bottom wear meant for men, in various communities in Kerala, the lungi is still the preferred casual wear for women.

A fisherwoman carrying a large vessel, and walking from home to home, selling fish, while dressed in a lungi used to be a common sight in Kerala. Malayalam films set in the backdrop of fishing communities have also represented the female characters wearing lungis. From the 1965 hit film Chemmeen, starring Sheela, Madhu and Sathyan to the 2012 Nivin Pauly-Namitha Pramod starrer Puthiya Theerangal, women can be seen wearing the lungi as bottom wear onscreen.

Woman clad in lungi selling fish

The lungi is still widely used as casual wear by the older generation of women in many Christian communities. Though Chattayum Mundum, a dress worn by elderly women in some Christain families usually consists of a white top and white mundu, the latter is often replaced by the lungi when the women are at home. The lungi is also worn in a unique style, creating a small fishtail at the back.

In Muslim communities too, there are a significant number of older women who wear the lungi at home as bottom wear. In the Malayalam hit Sudani from Nigeria, which portrays a typical Malabar Muslim household, one of the women playing the lead role can be seen in the lungi and long blouse attire whenever she is at home.

Officials at KITEX Garments, who were the first few firms in Kerala to give a brand name for the lungi, say that earlier in the state, women used to wear the lungi much more commonly than at present.

“At the time KITEX garments started out as a lungi brand in the 1980s, we produced lungis in two different names — King and Queen. King was meant for men and Queen lungis for women. The only difference was in the size. Men’s lungis were lengthier and wider than women’s. Then, as nighties started to become common, the regular demand for women’s lungis died down,” says KC Pillai. He adds that now, the firm makes only unisex lungis, which are purchased by a section of women.

Still from 'Sudani from Nigeria'

Interestingly, in the Muslim community, most often, the lungis are worn draped from the right to the left. Others usually drape the lungi from the left to the right.

The ‘political’ lungi

Despite its wide popularity, the lungi has been embroiled in multiple controversies in Kerala, exposing class conflicts. As in other states, there have been reports of people being denied entry to some places because they were wearing the lungi.

Last year, in Kozhikode, a man was denied entry in a hotel in the city because he was wearing a lungi.  The incident escalated into a ‘lungi protest’, with many coming out to the street to assert their right to dress according to their own preferences. The incident paved the way for the Kozhikode Corporation to release an order asking hotels to respect traditional dresses.

There have even been instances in Kerala where people clad in lungi were denied entry to the visitors' gallery in the state Assembly, citing that it was an ‘informal dress’.

“Sadly, the 'class' status of the lungi is still seen as low in Kerala. Since it is mostly a dress worn by working class people, some 'elite' folks have this reluctance to wear the lungi and step outside. Even a few members in my family have such ideas,” says Vadakara native Kiran.

Some say that even the colour of the lungi can call for censure at times.

“I'm someone who goes to malls and other public places wearing a lungi. Mostly I wear the black, plain lungi. Many have asked me why I choose to wear this colour which is not regularly worn. I don’t know why this is. I have never encountered this question while wearing a black top, but with the black lungi, I get a lot of questions. With such pestering questions, I have taken this as part of my politics. I continue to wear the black lungi in most places. I'm not sure if people have a problem with the colour black or the lungi or if it's both,” says Gautham Salim, an Ernakulam native.

At the end of the day though, whatever be their politics, lungi fans swear that there's no other garment which can offer them the same comfort levels as a lungi.

Watch visuals of lungi protest:

*Name changed on request

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