When I was reading Aram's comments on an old post, I felt that I had to write something about dressing, however ill-qualified I am to write about good dressing. I am like Bertram Wooster writing 'What the well-dressed man is wearing', while wearing a bright red cummerbund. However, here goes...
The celebrated commentator on Kalidasa's works, Mallinatha, was once teased by a few urchins about his tattered clothes. Immediately Mallinatha retorted "kim vAsasA chIkiri-bAkirENa ... vaiduShyamekaM viduShaam sahaayam" (= what if the clothes are tattered, ... knowledge is the only companion of the learned). Clothes, though often derided as superficial and a token of vanity in both men and women, reflect the culture of the society.
Even from very ancient times, the traditional dress of the Indian male has remained unchanged. A dhoti and an uttareeya are enough to dress him elegantly. Some men wear turbans and other head-dresses, but I do not know if it is common. Shaving the head of all hair except a tuft called shikhe, is required. This is mostly the mark of professional priests, these days. But folks at ISKCON also sport a shikhe. I know of a gentleman in the US who crops his hair regularly, but leaves a few hair intact.
The distinction between a brahmachaari and grihastha in the matter of dress, itself is a nice thing to know. In the uddhava gIta in the twelfth skanda of the Bhaagavatam, some rules are laid down for the brahmachaari to follow. A brahmachaari is not supposed to shave his beard or moustache, not supposed to look at himself in the mirror and not apply perfume. In short, he is not supposed to pay any attention to how he looks. His sole aim should be to learn. (My Mom actually enforced this rule of no-alankaara on us when we were students, though we were girls!) Only after he completes his education, when he becomes a snaataka (graduate), is he to pay attention to his dress.
As far as I know, the grihastha is required to be clean-shaven and should always wear the uttareeya (the upper garment). The uttareeya can be worn in different ways - put on the left shoulder and wrapped around the chest from below the right arm, so that the right shoulder* is exposed, or draped around the shoulders so that the back is covered. Some people tie the uttareeya around their waist, because it is convenient.
In the olden days, it was necessary to wear clothes that were not stitched (asyUta-vastra). DVG, in his 'vaidika-dharma sampradAyastharu' remembers Chandrashekhara Avadhaani, tying up all the torn places in his dhoti, because stitching was not allowed. Even now, some people follow the no-stitching rule, but it is restricted only for times when religious ceremonies have to be performed.
As it is to be expected, women even in the olden times were fond of adorning themselves. Hardly any sanskrit poem is bereft of the description of women's dresses. Kalidaasa mentions lip-paint (OShTharAgaH) in Vikramorvsheeyam. In both Raghuvamsham and kumArasambhavam, he describes incompletely dressed ladies rushing out to see the newly-weds, Aja and Indumati in the former and Shiva-Parvati in the latter. In the fourth act of shaakuntalam, he describes various garments and jewels that the trees of the forest brought forth, to adorn Shakuntala.
When it comes to clothes, unlike the men's, women's dress has undergone a lot of change. In the olden days, women also used to wear un-stitched clothes. As far as I know, it used to be a three-piece garment. But now, the traditional dress is the sari and a blouse. While dhotis are worn in the same way throughout India, there are at least ten different ways to wear a sari. In Karnataka itself, we have the Kodagu type, the North-Karnataka-type of kacche and the usual city-way. Bengalis, Tamilians, Maharashtrians all wear their sarees in distinctive ways. While women in many parts of North India cover their heads with their pallus, South Indian women (except in North Karnataka, I guess) do not. This custom is probably because of the weather, or because of repeated invasions of North India by outsiders.
To quote a cliche, change is the only constant thing in life. Old costumes give way for new ones, which give way for newer ones. Fashion should always follow comfort. But it is always nice to reminisce about old costumes, just like old times. While we cannot relive old times, we can still wear the old costumes, right?
*The right shoulder is regarded as the place where Gods enter the body at birth. A part of the first samskaara, jaatakarma, is medhaajanana, where the father touches the right shoulder of his just-born, before the umbilical cord is cut. Supposedly, this will make the child follow the tradition of the father. This information from Devudu's mahaadarshana.