THE SARI SHIFT
Wearing a sari always seemed to me like the ultimate game of dress-up. As a child, I would watch my mother comb through neatly folded stacks of fabric in a special closet in our house and make a selection for the occasional wedding or religious event. Georgette or silk? Nine-yards or six? She'd find a matching underskirt and cropped blouse to wear underneath. Then came the methodical process of wrapping, pleating, and draping, done and redone to ensure the folds fanned evenly, the skirt fell just right. Lastly, earrings, bangles, necklaces, and an adhesive bindi are added for the finishing touch. When she’d emerge, with all the elements in place, it was like a grand entrance, commanding respect and elegance.
All this elaboration made saris intimidating. They were the domain of the sophisticated, impossibly elegant for my skinny sixteen-year-old body, that relied on safety pins and a barrage of aunties to be worn “correctly”. It had always seemed to me like a garment frozen in time and tradition, and as an American-born-child of immigrants, was never something that truly “fit” right.
But on a family trip to India this winter, I noticed saris being worn anywhere and everywhere. Laborers carrying cartons of milk wear saris with sneakers for functionality, and office women pair saris with turtlenecks. Standing outside of a market with my grandmother I notice a tourist draping a sari around her legs as pants, fastened with a belt.
In India, the sari is far from the rigid symbol of tradition I grew up with. I can’t help but wonder: is the sari as my grandmother may have known it dying, or is it alive and well? Is it a symbol of exclusivity, reserved for the religious and traditional? Or does it need to be reimagined?
The origins of the sari go back to the Indus Valley Civilization between 3200 and 2000 BC, where cotton drapings were worn by both men and women with little gender differentiation. While most women today India wear the sari in the front-pleated style known as the nivi drape, there are more than 100 different ways to drape a sari based on the geographical and historical background of its wearer. The Aiyar sari, common in South India, is nine-yards long featuring a male and female side of draping as an homage to the androgenous god Shiva. The Koli drape, from coastal Goa, turns the sari into pants to enable freedom of movement for fisherwomen and the Seere drape from Karnataka features a thick waistband to keep the sari in place during agricultural work.
India remains one of the largest handicraft economies, a powerhouse for dyeing, printing, and weaving. Saris are either woven by hand, with over three million handlooms employing six million people, or in textile mills. Saris have a market value of $7 billion across India, but there’s no single player. The sari fabric is divided into three areas: the main body, borders, and endpiece, all of which showcase a unique regional identity through the use of color and embroidery. In the city of Varanasi on the Ganges riverfront, bright red silks are the fabric of choice, a staple for Indian brides. In the southern state of Kerala, Kasuvu saris are minimalistic and white, the color associated with priests, with heavy gold threading on the border.
“The sari has been conceived differently in form and structure, in usage and custom: there is a personal variant always possible.” says textile historian and author Kapur Chishti. This idea strikes me as incredibly freeing. While immigrants are often compelled to preserve their culture instead of to reimagine it, the sari’s real story is one of versatility.
Modern-day designers are continuing to challenge the traditional connotations attached to the sari. 2021’s New York Fashion Week was opened by Indian-American fashion designer Megha Rao’s “sari denim” collection: a line of contemporary saris designed to be paired with the classic white top and denim jeans. Rao’s brand, holiCHIC, features pieces produced by Indian artisans using traditional embroidery techniques, with the goal of improving ease-of-wear for traditional Indian Wear. Sri Lankan and Pakistani brands such as Urban Drape and Saari Girl specialize in saris with contemporary T-shirt style crop tops that take the pressure off tailor-made blouses.
While it may seem shrouded in tradition, the sari represents inclusivity and self-expression at its core. Unlike traditional garments in some cultures, the sari isn’t reserved for people of a certain nationality, set of beliefs, or socioeconomic status. “I don’t think it’s disrespectful for Westerners to wear a sari,” says Chishti. Of course, this comes with the condition that it’s not in the context of a costume, and is worn with respect.
Designers such as Rao are preserving an important piece of Indian culture by reimagining saris that easily fit into modern-day wardrobes, charting the next step in the sari’s evolution. Whether with a button down shirt, or as a strapless dress, there are endless different ways- and no incorrect way - to wear the sari and give it a sense of meaning and purpose, as women across India from farmers to students to politicians, have done for centuries.