Court dress in Burma, Nepal and Sri Lanka

19th century court dress in Burma, Nepal and Sri Lanka

Throughout history there has always been significant difference between the costume of nobles and that of ordinary people. In many countries there were special laws that dictated what could or could not be worn by who. For those who appeared at court requiries were even more specific and more strict. My today's post is about interesting examples of court dress in the 19th century Burma, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Burmese princess or dancing girl in court costume, 1890
Burmese princess or dancing girl, by Felice Beato, c.1890. in elaborate ceremonial costume The British Library

Draped and wrapped garments have been the most common form of clothing for both men and women in all these three countries. So, no surprise that such type of dressing found its way into court costume too. Let's start with Burma...or Myanmar as it was known in the 19th century. Burmese court dress was designed to link earthly people to the divine through impressive, stylized dress. It has a very architectural structure - upward peaks, cloud collars, winged elements - that made robes and headdresses look like temples, homes of gods, and this way tied the courtiers to the heavens.

19th century Burmese minister wearing court dress
Minister in Court Dress and Servant, by J. Jackson source

Minister dress, 3rd quarter 19th century. Imported velvet, silk and yet-pya (locally made braid), hand-woven cotton, embroidered or with a supplementary weft weave in floss silk  The Victoria and Albert Museum

Men of Burmese court wore a pah-soe, a wraparound cloth covering the lower body, made of silk and decorated with patterns considered appropriate for men, such as checks, zigzags and interlocking shapes. On top of the pah-soe men wore a tight, long-sleeved jacket made of velvet, silk, brocade or satin and trimmed with gold braid and silk brocade Across the chest each wore a salwe, a courtly chain ornament, indicating his official rank. It was composed of chains linked by repousse clasps bearing motifs associated with royalty and the insignia of the ruling dynasty, such as lion or peacock. The number of chains was determined by the status of wearer, with the maximum of 24 worn only by the king and the minimum of three being worn by minor officials. They also wore richly decorated high velvet hats with a broad band embellished with flowers and leaves of gold foil.

Burmese official in military court costumeBurmese official in military court costume, late 19th century Colgate University Libraries

Burma military court costume, late 19th century
Military costume ca. 1878-1885. Velvet and silk, gold brocade, applied gold, gold-thread embroidery and silver-gilt sequins.  The Victoria and Albert Museum

Military costume was different and consisted of a long fitted robe, separate sleeveless jacket and spectacular "cloud collar" with upswept wings. On their heads military men wore a gilded helmet which was decorated with a band of golden flowers and leaves.
Ladies of the court wore a hta-mein, a rectangular skirt-like garment that was wrapped high on the waist or over the breasts and folded in front with a slight overlap, revealing a glimpse of the wearer’s leg when in motion. A length of striped silk cloth was usually attached to the hem to form a train around the feet. On top women wore a breast cloth and a jacket.

Burmese lady's court dress, late 19th century Burmese lady's court dress, c.1880  The Victoria and Albert Museum

The royal costumes were like stiff suits of armour. They were made from so called pazun-zi, a specially woven gold and silver lace-like cloth, worn with attachable wing-like panels at the knees, cuffs, elbows and shoulders . They were heavy garments adorned with couched gold threads, sequins, gold, silver and gems. Cane was added at times for support. Such costume weighed nearly 100 pounds (45 kg).

Rana costume
Rana lady source

Now, let me tell you about the court dress of Nepal during the Rana rule. As women's dress was more interesting here then that worn by men I will start with it. Rana women were real masters of draping. On old photos of those years women seem to be dressed in voluminous Victorian ball gowns. But in reality these were not dresses but saris. The ladies first wore voluminous starched cotton pantaloons in layers, one on top of the other, over which were draped embroidered saris in silk, chiffon or lace. It is amazing how they managed to create such an effect.

Rana lady in court dress
Rana lady,  source

Rana lady wearing sari backwards
Rana lady  source

Another unique way in which the Rana ladies wore their saris was backward. The pleats of the sari cascaded down behind giving the effect of a dress with a train and the cross border of the sari was pinned around the shoulders with brooches in the manner of a draped stole.
Each Rana wife and daughter had unique individual tiaras and necklaces designed for them. Tiaras were laden with diamonds and necklaces had nine strands of pearls and gems. Star and moon pins were popular motifs with the Ranas because these were emblems of their ancestral royal houses.

Rana couple in court dress
Rana couple  source

The Rana men wore elaborate military uniforms. A red outfit glittering with medals, braids and epaulets was designed in the style of the British army uniform. It was worn with a crown, sirpech, studded with large pearls, emeralds and rubies. The plumes used for the sirpech were brought from New Zealand.

Kandyan chiefs
Group of Kandyan chiefs, ca. 1890 Rubin Museum of Art

Another masters of draping lived at the Kandyan court of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The type of dress worn by the Kandyan court men was called mul anduma. The making of the mul anduma was a difficult and also an expensive affair. First, frilled trousers of plain white were put on. Then, from sixty to a hundred and fifty yards (55 - 137 m) of silk or muslin were draped around the waist in such a manner that they looked like a peeled plantain flower, with layer upon layer and the characteristic bulbous swelling. A broad belt with a large buckle held the drapes together. All the layers were gathered above the belt to form the fat knot. The upper part of the dress was a velvet jacket with puffy sleeves decorated with intricate pattern. The look was completed with a velvet richly embroidered pincushion hat with numerous gold ornaments pinned to it. The whole costume looked rather peculiar and strange and quite magnificent at the same time.

Kandyan chief and his wife, 1880

Jonathan Forbes in his book "Eleven years in Ceylon" gives such description of a Kandyan Chief's costume. "The Court dress of a Kandyan Adikar- minister of state and justice - consists of a square cap resembling a huge pincushion. Sometimes made of white stiffened muslin, but in a full dress of Scarlet cloth embroidered with gold, and having an elevated peak in the middle, surmounted by a precious stone. The jacket is of tissue, with short plaited sleeves, very full upon the shoulders, and fastened with amethyst buttons; over this is worn a white tippet of plaited muslin, with gold edging. On the lower part of the body, over white trousers, which are tight at the ankle and terminated by a frill, a number of white muslin and gold figured cloths are bound in cumbrous folds around the waist by a broad gold belt; in this is stuck a knife with a richly carved handle. Gold chains are worn around the neck and hanging down upon the chest, bangles on the wrists, and immense rings, which almost conceal their small hands, complete the decoration of a Kandyan Adikar".

Kandy chief and ladies
Kandyan man and ladies, 1880 source

The dress of the other chiefs differed but little from that of the Adikars, except that their caps were white and circular. The dress of the chiefs and their wives were very similar; only the ladies have their clothes bound tighter to their shape, wore blouses instead of jackets and had gold ornaments in their hair instead of hats.

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Burmese Design and Architecture By John Falconer
Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Vol 4 South Asia and Southeast Asia
Eleven Years in Ceylon by Jonathan Forbes and George Turnour
Royal Nepal Through the Lens of Richard Gordon Matzene by Marcella Sirhandi
The Ranas of Nepal by Prabhakar SJB Rana and Pashupati SJB Rana

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  1. Wow!!! Very interesting post! I enjoyed reading about different royal costumes and looking at the old photos! !! Impressive how Rana could drape all the sari fabric to look like Victoria dress! I was also impressed by men's trousers of Sri Lankan Royalty. Great post!!! :)

  2. Wow!!! Very interesting post! I enjoyed reading about different royal costumes and looking at the old photos! !! Impressive how Rana could drape all the sari fabric to look like Victoria dress! I was also impressed by men's trousers of Sri Lankan Royalty. Great post!!! :)

  3. That is totally fascinating! Those poofy wraps the fellows wore, the ones that bulged out almost grotesquely at their man parts, it looks like it might be a sign of virility or possibly sexual prowess. Either way it seems like good advertising :) And if the number of chains indicated your rank or power, how would Mr. T have fared back then? Very cool article, I learned so much!

  4. Very interesting, thank you!

  5. What interests me the most are those costumes in 3D. The ones with the clouds and interesting structures, they really do look like a mix of a painting, a temple and a statue. So unique! I don't think I have seen anything like that before.

    Another thing that impressed me is how the saris were worn! They created an effect of Victorian dresses with their saris. They must have been really skillful to do that, at any rate they ended up with a very beautiful and interesting result.