Once Upon A Time In Dongri: Tracing The Distinctly Indian Origins Of Dungarees

Once Upon A Time In Dongri: Tracing The Distinctly Indian Origins Of Dungarees
L: A Girl At First Avenue R: Etsy/beautylovemadness

I was a ‘90s kid and so it should come as no surprise that during my childhood, almost everywhere I went, I sported a stylish blue dungaree that my grandmother had bought for me and one that I had worn for years before my game-changing growth spurt at the age of fourteen. But did you know that the word ‘dungaree’ originates from 17th-century India? It refers to an inexpensive, rough, thick cotton cloth, mostly blue in color but sometimes white, worn by the people in Dongri, a dockside village, which at that time was within the region of Bombay.

Once Upon A Time In Dongri: Tracing The Distinctly Indian Origins Of Dungarees
Escape To This 17th Century Portuguese Fort & Church Stay By The Goan Seaside

The cloth underwent the name change from the Hindi word dongri to dungaree when it was exported to the United Kingdom. The English could not quite pronounce its original name and that consequently led to the change in spelling. There was a huge demand in the UK for the manufacture of cheap and sturdy clothes for the working class and dungarees fit the requirement perfectly. All those engaged in manual labor like miners, farmers, and even slaves began wearing dungarees as they did not tear easily and also provided a tough protective layer.

Dungrees were staple clothing for working class men in UK and USA
Dungrees were staple clothing for working class men in UK and USAVintage Dancer

During the First World War, dungarees were used to manufacture utility uniforms for the soldiers of the United States Navy. Also, as the men went away from their homelands to fight, several women volunteered to step into the working shoes of those men in order to keep their country’s economy running. Soon these women also adopted the dungaree as their work uniform. In 1943, during the Second World War, the iconic 'We Can Do It' poster, featuring a woman wearing a dungaree, was created as a part of the national campaign to enlist more women into the American workforce along with improving the morale of the existing women workers.

Women fashion quickly adopted the dungaree as well
Women fashion quickly adopted the dungaree as wellSeamwork
The iconic 'We Can Do It' poster featuring a woman wearing a dungaree
The iconic 'We Can Do It' poster featuring a woman wearing a dungareeJ. Howard Miller

Denim and dungarees might seem like the same thing, but there's a key difference. Denim starts out as uncolored yarn and gets dyed after it's woven, whereas dungaree uses yarn that's already colored. Dungarees became popular in the late 40s and early 50s as casual wear because they were comfy, practical, and easy to throw on. Now you can find dungarees in all sorts of styles and variations – fitted or baggy, dark indigo or colorful, distressed or dressed-up.

Since the ‘50s dungarees made the transition from workwear to high-street fashion. Global film stars, celebrities and even members of the English Royal family were photographed sporting the iconic dungaree. That’s a mighty achievement for a cloth that had such humble beginnings at a harbourside Indian village. The dungaree reached the peak of its popularity during the ‘90s and early ‘00s as it became synonymous with the grunge aesthetic. But since then, it has dwindled in popularity. You can say that it could be because I hit puberty and stopped wearing one or it might be a global change in sartorial trend — your pick. However, since 2020 dungarees have made a resurgence in fashion, with a modern twist, focusing on versatility and styling options. Today, dungarees may not be a mainstream wardrobe staple like its heydeys but they are definitely a trendy pick.

Renowned Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai sporting a dungaree
Renowned Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai sporting a dungaree Pinterest
Princess Diana in a dungaree
Princess Diana in a dungareePinterest
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