The Kurta, the Kirtle and the Shift

It’s a small sartorial world, after all…………..

Hi Readers, I hope you enjoy this post as much as I am having fun writing it.  No, really.  I know you’ll enjoy it.

Remember my statement in a previous post about the kurta being a uniquely South Asian tunic? Well, I’m taking it back.  My friends Janith and Judy sent me some historical costume information, and enlightenment ensued.


(illustration by Samina)

Kurta specs

Judy Gonzales sent a link which showed me that a garment called a kirtle, an almost identical twin to the kurta, was used as a visible under layer in medieval England (or maybe all of Europe) in women’s wear. The diagram is pictured below, with a link back to the website about medieval wedding dresses. The components of the medieval kirtle are the same geometric pieces as the kurta — exactly; the only difference I see is that the side triangles are pointed at the underarm in the medieval kirtle, whereas in the kurta the triangle points are flattened out under the arm.  I know, mind blowing in the most exciting, happy way!


(click on illustration for source)


Next, my friend Janith Bergeron of The Sewing Tree (a sewing school), informs about an 18th century colonial shift with almost the same lines. This shift has a drawstring neckline, and is cut in a slightly A-line fashion.  I am pasting Janith’s comment here, which she made on my original Kurta post:

“This looked so familiar. A few years ago we did a very special Sew White Sewing Bee to benefit the American Independence Museum in Exeter, NH. One of the many items we were tasked with creating is a 1780-1810 Shift. It was a white plain-woven linen. It is created in a very similar manner with many felled seams. These shifts did not have the lovely button placket which is a lovely detail. I had not thought to make it in a lovely fabric. Thanks for the delightful, informative post. The wonderful thing about the Shift is no pattern is necessary.”


colonial shift

To re-cap, I am amazed and excited to discover this piece of sartorial history, thanks to my sewing buddies. The actual kurta construction post is still under — well, construction.

I would love to read your thoughts about this connection of different worlds through one identical piece of clothing. Go ahead and comment!


5 thoughts on “The Kurta, the Kirtle and the Shift

  1. Oh, interesting. I think it just shows what a small world it really is. You can find so many similarities between fashion, cultures, religions, etc. But, sometimes, it is only the differences that folks focus on that may cause some problems. I do enjoy a tunic so I look forward to your post on the kurta.


    1. I’m working on the construction post! Would love to see all readers attempt to make the kurta! I’ll also be ready to answer any questions at the time.


  2. Fashion in the western world has changed to wear less clothing and show more skin (bare arms and legs) while more traditional cultures have kept the garments of the past. What used to be seen as an undergarment could now be the entire outfit for a Westerner. The linen shift reminds me of the shape of the colorful shift dress of the 1960s.


    1. Isn’t that right?? I find that history so interesting where the layers of clothing have been peeled off and each component is being used on it’s own as an outer garment……
      Thanks for leaving a comment!


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