Sewing notes: kameez basics
Salwar kameez fashion varies by country, region, religious or ethnic community, and even age. This post is about the traditional salwar kameez suit worn in India, including the Punjabi suit (which I'm most familiar with), but the construction principles are similar in salwar kameez historically worn in other parts of the world.
A unique shape
The front and back pieces of the traditional kameez are cut in the same shape. (Even when princess seams were in fashion a few decades back, they were the stitched the same way in the front and the back of the kameez.) The kameez fits fairly closely through the shoulders and bust, with a high "waist" just below the bust. It flows more loosely over the stomach and hips, without showing much detail of the body. The shape of the kameez, including the high waist, is created by the unique C-shaped side seams. The fit of the kameez is adjusted to the shape of the body by adjusting the curve and slope of the C, including raising or lowering the widest part of the C to just below the bust.
The traditional kameez pulls on over the head. Getting into a kameez can be a challenge at first, since the kameez is usually stitched of woven silk or cotton, georgette, or crepe—none of which stretch or have much flex—and the high "waist" has to be pulled down over the bust. The ease around the kameez bust is typically 2" (close fit) to 4" (loose fit).
The hip measurement is less important than other measurements for the kameez, since the side seams stop above the actual hip line. The side slits can fall open a bit at the hip as long as only the side of the salwar (pants) is ever visible at the side slit, and the salwar is full enough to conceal the shape of the upper leg at the side slit.
Match the fit to your community
The design of the salwar kameez reflects cultural norms of respect and modesty. If you're wearing the salwar kameez around an Indian community, observe both younger and older women to determine what's generally considered decent, fashionable, and age-appropriate. In some parts of south India where the saree is the more traditional garment and it's acceptable to show the midriff, the side slits tend to start higher on the kameez. In most areas, the top of the side slits should be far enough below the top of the salwar (the pants) that you can stretch or bend without showing skin at the top of the side slit.
In almost all areas of India, traditional standards of modesty include covering the leg to the ankle or below the ankle, and not showing the part of the salwar that covers the mid to upper part of the thigh even when you're bending over or reaching overhead. If a kameez shows too much of the back of the salwar leg when you're bending forward, the kameez might be too short, the fabric might be "grabby" or prone to static cling, or the kameez might not be wide enough at the top of the side slits to keep it hanging straight instead of tangling with the salwar legs.
Women who are curvier than average through the bust, are long-waisted, or have a low bustline can improve kameez fit with some simple alterations on the side seam, either with a sewing machine or by hand. Women who normally wear petite or tall sizes, have an hourglass figure with a narrow waist, have trouble finding shirts that fit right through the shoulder or upper arm, or have shoulder stiffness should consider having their suits tailored.
Tailoring is still very much a cottage industry in India. If you often see women wearing salwar kameez, there are probably Indian tailors living nearby who can stitch or adjust salwar suits.