The sari was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver, goes a folktale from India. The weaver wove together the shimmer of a woman’s tears, the colors of her many moods and the softness of her touch. And when he was done, he sat back and smiled.

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The world’s most ancient surviving fashion statement, the sari is said to be more than 5000 years old. Mentioned in the Vedas, this unstitched garment has survived the test of time, cultural invasions, and even colonization from the West. Pleated around as a convenient skirt or a flowing gown, sometimes wrapped and pulled up as trousers, a sari was worn for working in the fields, tending to chores at home, and during festivals. It was not only convenient, but also great for the hot and humid climate of India.

The graceful garment has been portrayed beautifully in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings of Indian goddesses. It is believed that when the famous 19th century artist was commissioned the paintings, he searched high and low for the ideal female wear, and a nine-yard sari that draped beautifully was what he painted his deities in.

What’s special about the sari?

The sari might have been the dress of choice for Indian women over the years, but in recent times young women in urban India have preferred western clothing. But  while women in India are strutting in skinny jeans and lycra tops, the six-yards of fabric is catching the fancy of women across the world, and weaving its way into wardrobes and boutiques in a brand new avatar. Its chiffons and crepes, lace and net are setting catwalks on fire. Encrusted with sequins and bling, these shimmering, gossamer creations notch up the models’ glamour quotient.

Karishma Mehta, a 19-year-old freshman at Loyola Marymount University in California, enjoys dressing up in saris that are “elegant and classy.” She wears them for parties, festivals, special occasions, (even sometimes for Halloween) and feels it’s the style that’s so alluring about the sari. Her sixteen-year-old sister Kavita, a junior at Walnut High School, shares Karishma’s passion for this garment that’s so traditional yet so glamorous. “My peers think I look much older and mature when I wear a sari.”

“It really highlights a woman’s curves and can be very flattering,” says filmmaker Kruti Majmudar, who has depicted a British woman adopting Indian culture and wearing a sari in her movie The Memsahib. Kruti herself prefers bandhani on chiffon and feels that the garment can be very comfortable once you get used to putting it on. Reshma Dhawan, who grew up in a small town outside San Francisco, also believes that a sari is one of the most elegant outfits in the world. “It is like a work of art, the pleating and making sure the palloo is in the right place,” she adds. Reshma, who works as a marketing coordinator for a company that distributes Bollywood music, movies, and ringtones worldwide, loves to experiment with different kinds of blouses and tops. When asked how she fell in love with the garment, Reshma says, “I’ve been going to India and attending family functions in the United States since I was a kid, so saris have always been a part of my life.”  She stocks up on saris during her frequent trips to India.

The elegant sari has captured the imagination of women from diverse cultural backgrounds. Renee, an African American woman from Los Angeles who runs an e-commerce business, began wearing saris after dating a Bengali man. “I have traveled to India twice and absolutely love the beauty of the sari.” She is drawn to modern fashion saris sans excessive embellishment. “I’ve always had a fascination with Indian fashion; a sort of ‘sari mystique’,” quips Renee.

The Kandyan Sari has a drape that is unique to Sri Lanka. Shivon Dhamasiri Burr, a former Miss Sri Lanka is a passionate advocate. Her love for saris stems from the passion her mother had for traditional saris. Shivon on the other hand, enjoys wearing silks, georgettes and chiffons that “feel soft and drape best” and wears colors such as burnt orange, sunshine yellows, ruby reds, fuchsia, turquoise blues. She is also a self-confessed glitter bug who adores sparkle, and designs blouses encrusted with crystals and sequins. “I feel the blouse is an integral part of the sari ensemble and can enhance its fashion quotient.”

Says Indrani Kopal, a video journalist from Kuala Lumpur, “The very fact that this traditional outfit still remains a hot favorite among many young women in the city today, shows the versatility of the sari.”

Why wear a sari?

For some women it’s a matter of habit or identity, for others it’s about style and glamour. “I think it is the elegance of the sari that most women find attractive. Almost every woman that I have met feels like a princess when she puts on a sari for the first time,” observes Sunny Koomar, an LA-based fashion designer, who writes a popular sari blog called SareeDreams. The sari also has a certain edge over other clothes. Mehta makes a valid point when she says, “A jean stays a jean in material, look, and feel; whereas, the fabric of the sari can change; its design and embroidery can change.”

Versatility in terms of design, look, and style is what the sari offers women. Wrap it up like a skirt like Shivon does sometimes, or wear it like flared trousers, or drape it the classic way, with the fall over the left shoulder. A sari also provides a strong sense of cultural identity to South Asians around the world. “Engaging and exciting, saris remind me of my origins in Sri Lanka, my roots and history. They rekindle fond memories of happy times with my mother when I would sit and watch her wrapping and pleating her sari,” reminisces Burr.

Lyndsey Brindle, an American teacher who was in China on a teaching assignment, recalls seeing Indian and Nepali medical students there wearing the sari often. “Perhaps it was just a way of retaining and expressing their identity in a country that clumps all non-Chinese into the group ‘foreigners’,” she muses. Engaged to an Indian and presently living in Kolkata to learn more about the Bengali culture, Brindle herself feels empowered in a sari. “Wearing it draws me a little closer to Indian traditions.”

Sari soirées

Many sari lovers outside India lament that they don’t have enough occasions in the countries of their residence to flaunt the lovely garment. “I think that if I moved to India I would seize the opportunity to wear a sari more often,” says Renee. Majmudar and Burr wear saris whenever they get a chance, while Kopal arranges “Sari-get-to-gathers”and invites all her sari-loving friends for high tea, which also doubles as a sari appreciation and flaunting session. “Earlier many women just wore it for functions and special occasions. But the trend started to change when women from other ethnicities (Chinese and Malayasian) started wearing them for fun,” says Kopal, who never misses a chance to introduce a friend to the wonderful feeling that the sari can evoke.

Brindle, who feels that wearing a sari is a beautiful and sensuous way to express one’s femininity, drapes a sari whenever she gets an opportunity. She sometimes feels a little shy and self-conscious of wearing one in public. “It can be a curiosity to see a Westerner wearing a sari.”

A global garment

Liz Hurley and Cherie Blair were seen swathed in six yards of magic, while Ashley Judd and the Williams sisters won accolades for their gorgeous silks. From the Pussy Cat Dolls and JLo to Naomi Campbell, Gemima Khan and Madonna, the sari has lent its style to several celebrities who, draped in gorgeous saris, have sashayed through red carpet events. “If you look at the big fashion shows in Mumbai, the main influence is STILL the sari,” Majmudar chips in. Koomar mentions a Czech group of women who go by the name “Sariholics” and wear saris at home as well as at parties. Melinda Williams, an entrepreneur and web designer from Portland, runs an online sari shop, where she offers American women a wide range of traditional handloom saris that she sources from weavers in India.

Koomar and Burr believe that if luxury brands like Gucci released their own sari collections, it would help internationalize the sari a little more and extend its reach. As for Indian Americans donning the sari, Koomar, who keeps a tab on the fashion scene, says, “I have noticed a subtle but important shift among Indian Americans as to how the sari is perceived; the sari has made a successful transition from being ethnic wear to being glamour wear.” Bollywood movies, stars, and designers do their bit to keep the interest in saris alive by glamorizing the garment, while readymade and pre-pleated saris make wearing one much easier for the younger generation.

Sums up Koomar, “Recently at a party in LA, I met a young NRI woman wearing a t-shirt which said ‘My outfit is a sari’.”

Chandana Banerjee is an independent journalist and content writer, who also runs a writing and design company called Pink Elephant Writing Studio (www.pinkelephantwritingstudio.com)


The Evolution of the Sari

Sarvamangala, a Hyderabad-based sari designer and successful entrepreneur, runs Anagha, a store that specialises in handloom saris and stylized blouses. She shares her views on the changing face of the  sari.

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“The sari is a most adaptable dress, with its amazing styles of draping and design. Fashion has changed with time but the sari is the only dress which has remained unaffected.”

Till a few decades back, the sari was not known for its style element. It was a basic garment that women bought at local shops and matched with plain blouses. “Only film stars wore the stylish stuff—from blouses with plunging necklines and big bows to figure hugging saris in bright colours,” says Sarvamangala.

The sari aficionado is excited by the evolution of the sari. “Who would think that Kalamkari could be done on tussar silk or Chikankari on a Maheshwari?” Handlooms have remained evergreen and appealing in spite of a huge new market for the “bling-saas-bahu” saris that has opened up thanks to over-the-top daily soaps. She elaborates that current crop of saris is trendy and hip, and brocade is combined with various types of fabrics to create a glitzy look that young women are attracted to.

“The pre-stitched, ready-to-wear sari is quite popular with women who find draping a  sari a difficult and cumbersome task,” adds Nisha Sigtia, a designer who runs Silver Threads, a boutique in Secunderabad that specializes in embroidered saris and stylish blouses to match. “Bold borders with a smattering of work are the ‘in’ thing these days.”

While the  sari has definitely got a facelift, what has also changed is the way the sari business works. For women these days, it’s not about buying whatever is available from the corner shop, but more about choice.

Sarvamangala makes an interesting observation about the sari business going global, “People are now buying saris through the net. Thanks to globalisation, weavers travel and find new markets for their wares.

Handlooms exhibitions are organised in almost all big cities which make access to buyers easy.” Most boutiques and government emporiums stock good quality handlooms from across India.

From handlooms across India to designer wear, a customer with buying power can choose whatever catches her fancy, a concept that was unimaginable in an era when only local shops stocked the standard, moderately-priced mill-made and cotton  saris.

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