A kurta (or kurti, for a shorter version of the kurta) is a traditional item of clothing worn in India and other South Asian countries. It is a loose shirt falling either just above or somewhere below the knees of the wearer, and is worn by both men and women. It can be worn with either loose salwar pants, or with churidar pants, a tight-fitting variant of the salwar. Kurtas are worn both as casual everyday wear and as formal dress.
Western women often wear inexpensive imported kurtas as blouses, usually over jeans. These kurtas are typically much shorter than the traditional garments and made with a lighter materials, like those used in sewing kameez. Imported kurtas were fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s, as an element of hippie fashion, fell from favor briefly, and are now again fashionable. South Asian women may also wear this Western adaptation of South Asian fashion.
Formal kurtas are usually custom-made by South Asian tailors, who work with the fabric their customers bring them. South Asians overseas, and Westerners, can buy them at South Asian clothing stores or order them from web retailers.
A traditional kurta is composed of rectangular fabric pieces with perhaps a few gusset inserts, and is cut so as to leave no waste fabric. The cut is usually simple, although decorative treatments can be elaborate.
The sleeves of a traditional kurta fall straight to the wrist; they do not narrow, as do many Western-cut sleeves. Sleeves are not cuffed, just hemmed and decorated.
The front and back pieces of a simple kurta are also rectangular. The side seams are left open for 6-12 inches above the hem, which gives the wearer some ease of movement.
The kurta usually opens in the front; some styles, however, button at the shoulder seam. The front opening is often a hemmed slit in the fabric, tied or buttoned at the top; some kurtas, however, have plackets rather than slits. The opening may be centered on the chest, or positioned off center.
A traditional kurta does not have a collar. Modern variants may feature stand-up collars of the type known to tailors and seamstresses as "mandarin" collars. These are the same sort of collars seen on achkans, sherwanis, and Nehru jackets.
Kurtas worn in the summer months are usually made of thin silk or cotton fabrics; winter season kurtas are made of thicker fabric such as wool (as in Kashmiri kurtas) or Khadi silk, a thick, coarse, handspun and handwoven silk that may be mixed with other fibers.
Kurtas are typically fastened with tasseled ties, cloth balls and loops, or buttons. Ready-made kurtas often avoid the use of horn buttons, in deference to Hindu sentiments; such buttons are frequently made from cow or buffalo hooves or horns. Buttons are often wood or plastic. Kurtas worn on formal occasions might feature decorative metal buttons, which are not sewn to the fabric, but, like cufflinks, are fastened into the cloth when needed. Such buttons can be decorated with jewels, enameling, and other traditional jewelers' techniques.
South Asian tailors command a vast repertoire of methods, traditional and modern, for decorating fabric. It is likely that all of them have been used, at one time or another, to decorate kurtas. However, the most common decoration is embroidery. Many light summer kurtas feature Chikan embroidery around the hems and front opening. This embroidery is typically executed on light, semi-transparent fabric in a matching thread. The effect is ornate but subtle.