Editorial Feature

9 Facts You Might Not Know About The Sari

Malika Verma Kashyap explores the lesser-known side of the iconic garment

The sari (often spelled ‘saree’), is a garment traditionally worn in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. It can be an heirloom passed down through generations, or a purely functional garment worn everyday. It’s seen on streets and runways, and has influenced fashion designers across the world. Much loved and yet often misunderstood, here are nine facts you might not know about the sari, as seen from India.

Lady in Chandrakala Sari, 20th century (From the collection of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya)

1. A sari is more than just ‘an uncut piece of handwoven cloth’

Traditionally, the sari has been defined as a single piece of unstitched fabric, often with heavier sections to allow it to drape correctly. Its border (akin to a hem) would be woven with a heavier density, as would its ‘pallu’ (the often decorative end piece).

But today, its definition extends to include textiles woven by mill or by hand, often with one consistent density. The term ‘sari’ has also evolved to become inclusive of contemporary materials, including cotton, silk, synthetic fiber and others. This latter point is contentious to sari ‘purists’; but the reality is that millions of women wear 100% polyester saris, most purchased for less than $10USD.

Gobbe Seere Sari Drape - Karnataka, India (From the collection of Border&Fall)

2. A sari can be draped over 100 ways

If you were to Google ‘how to wear a sari’, hundreds of videos would offer tips on how to perfectly drape your sari. Often people think there’s only one way to wear a sari – i.e the ‘Nivi’ drape.

But the truth is that there are hundreds of different ways to drape a sari. Most of the drape styles are regionally specific and – just like food and language in India – the drapes are a result of context, geography and function.

It’s also reasonable to assume that there are other drapes in existence that haven’t yet been officially documented. You could even go so far as to say that you can drape a sari however you like.

Venukagundaram Sari Drape - Andhra Pradesh, India (From the collection of Border&Fall)
Boggili Posi Kattukodam Sari Drape - Andhra Pradesh, India (From the collection of Border&Fall)
Munger Sari Drape - Bihar, India (From the collection of Border&Fall)

3. A sari ranges from 3.5 yards to 9 yards in length

The sari is most commonly thought to be 9 yards in length. But given the various draping styles, saris often require different lengths for different drapes.

Jack Wilkes, 1945-06 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

4. Wearing a sari requires precisely *zero* safety pins

Many people think a sari is at risk of ‘falling off’ and use dozens of safety pins to secure it. Indeed, safety pins can be used to feel more secure, but they are not actually needed.

In fact, when overused, safety pins often make the garment more rigid, which is not how it's supposed to be worn.

Jack Wilkes, 1945-06 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

5. The sari is easy to wear – and can be worn by anyone

Wearing a sari is more akin to making a sandwich or sending an email than making a soufflé or launching a rocket. It has the appearance and reputation of being difficult to wear, but ask any one of the millions of women who wear one every day – it’s not. The sari transcends socio-economic divisions and is seen as an egalitarian garment.

For those with no ties to the sari, the question of cultural appropriation often arises. It can't speak on behalf of all of India, but 95% of respondents in our survey suggested that Indians are open to anyone wearing the sari. Of course, with the proviso that it’s not in the context of a costume, and is worn with respect.

Indian women wearing saris (Fondazione Gianfranco Ferré)

6. You can actually wear a sari without a blouse and a petticoat

The sari was worn without a blouse and petticoat before the British Raj. During the prudish Victorian era, baring one’s chest or being blouseless was seen as improper, so the Raj promoted the wearing of blouses and petticoats with ruffled hems. The result? Even today, most people wear the sari with a blouse and petticoat. But none of the regional sari drapes actually require a petticoat, and many can be worn without a blouse.

Portret van een jonge vrouw, gekleed in sari en behangen met sieraden, by Anonymous, c. 1890 - c. 1910 (From the collection of Rijksmuseum)

7. The sari supports millions of handloom weavers in India

Although current records in India don’t provide exact numbers, textile scholars and craft advocates are in agreement that sari-weaving comprises a sizeable portion of the handloom and embroidery sector in India. According to the Textile Ministry Annual Report 2016, current estimates put the number of craftspeople employed by the industry at 11 million.

Ceremonial sari [patola], by Gujarat, India, late 19th century (From the collection of National Gallery of Australia, Canberra)

8. The sari and its place in society is actively being discussed and questioned

For several years now, Western culture has been seen as aspirational, and this has had a huge effect on India’s sartorial choices. Especially in cities, more and more people are moving towards garments that are perceived to be easier to wear, including pants, shirts and the salwar kameez, with the sari reserved for special occasions.

However, many contemporary designers in India are experimenting with the sari. It remains a point of keen interest for many young designers – with new iterations and fabrications including steel, parachute nylon and ‘sari-dresses’.

India’s design community feels that this debate around tradition vs. change has been had ad nauseam, but most are also aware of how important it is to recognize this important shift in textiles and garment aesthetics.

Mysore Shaili Sari Drape - Karnataka, India (From the collection of Border&Fall)

9. Saris are sentimental

Saris often evoke a feeling of nostalgia and memory, associating certain saris with particular moments or events, or with the memory of your grandmother, for example. Saris are often passed down from one generation to the next, as part of a wedding trousseau or given as gifts for milestone moments.

As well as being purely functional garments, like many aspects of our clothes, saris are deeply connected to our memory and identity.

Marriage Portrait of a Rajput Prince and Nepalese Princess, Unknown photographer and painter, 1920s (From the collection of Royal Ontario Museum)
Malika V Kashyap

Curious and concerned with India's evolving design sensibilities, Malika V Kashyap moved to India from Canada a decade ago with extensive experience in strategic fashion management. She founded Border&Fall as a digital publication, acknowledging change makers of India's fashion and craft community. Their multi-disciplinary agency specializes in business development across branding, digital, retail and creative direction and their work includes ongoing talks, residencies and 'The Sari Project' - a cultural film documentation of India's regional sari drapes.

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