From our archives. First published in April 1994.

To people from the West, the most familiar and paradoxical images of Indian women come from the extremes of a very broad and compli­cated spectrum. One is the image of In­dira Gandhi, clad in a starched white sari, serving as the powerful leader of a largely patriarchal society. The other is that of an anonymous, thin, overburdened woman in a dirty sari, holding one undernour­ished child on her hip, while others gather round her legs. The women in these two images tread very divergent paths. Yet on closer examination, they share a powerful cultural symbol: the sari.

On the left a village woman dons a traditional saree, on the right then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, dons a much more tailored and formal saree
On the left a village woman dons a traditional saree, on the right then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, dons a much more tailored and formal saree

Throughout the world, women of most nationalities have adopted Western clothing for daily wear. But a majority of Indian women continue to wear the sari or its variants daily as well as on special occasions. More striking is the fact that it is only the women for whom traditional clothing is still a daily wear. Indian men adopted Western garments a long time ago.

Little research has gone into the tradition of the sari, and the factors that have helped to keep it in fashion for centuries. Historians trace the beginning of the sari to approximately 1500 BC and later. The manner of wearing a sari in those days varied among classes and occupations, and from region to region. Women of the higher classes wore two garments, one for the upper body, and an­other for the lower. Some would wear a bodice, breast-band, or shawl to cover the upper body. When worn separately, the lower garment was either wrapped as a full skirt and held at the waist with a girdle, or wrapped with pleats at the back. Women of the lower class and courtesans appear to have been bare-­breasted.

Under Muslim rule (1200-1850 CE), North Indian Hindu women learned to wear clothes more akin to Persian costumes, with loose pants and a long top (known today as the salwar kameez). Onto this foreign costume, a sari-derived scarf, the dupatta, was added to serve as head covering.

The advent of British rule (1858 CE) also resulted in significant changes in the manner of wearing a sari. In the past, the finer and more diaphanous the sari, the more valuable it was. The British disap­proved of this sari style: for them, the sheerness was too titillating and thus im­moral. The petticoat worn under the sari carne into place to deflect the intense criticism made by “British missionaries about the “immodesty” of Indian woman’s clothing. During the same time, and apparently for the same reasons, the blouse or bodice—which had not been standardized or used throughout India— became a fixed upper garment for most Indian women.

While still extremely young, a little girl still wears a blouse with her sari
While still extremely young, a little girl still wears a blouse with her sari

Perhaps the single most important his­torical impact on the sari during British Rule in India was the British policy of non-assimi­lation. Indian men, who were members of the imperial bureaucracy, earned to wear Western clothes. But with no opportunity to move in Western society, there was little likelihood of the women developing a taste for foreign clothes. Therefore, custom retained its hold, and even today, despite outside influences, the sari remains a primary force.

Most women begin wearing a sari regularly when they are 16 to 18 years old. A younger girl is allowed to wear Western-style dresses, or in some parts of the country, an Indian-style long skirt tied at the waist. When she reaches puberty, this may become part of a more modest cos­tume—a combination of a blouse, a long skirt, and a “half-sari” or a piece of cloth three yards long, tucked in the front and draped over the shoulder. In some parts of India, this continues to be the costume of most rural women throughout their adult life.

In North India, women gener­ally wear the salwar kameez or chudidar kurta which consists of loose or tight pants, worn under a knee-length tunic, with a scarf half the length of the sari flung casually across the shoulders, or draped round the head and upper body. In most other parts of India, once a woman reaches marriageable age (18-24), the sari is her usual attire.

One aspect of wearing a sari has remained constant through time: the tucked in pleats. Sanskrit literature from the Vedic period insists that the pleats are absolutely necessary for a woman to be truly a woman. These pleats must be tucked in at the waist, front or back, so that the presiding deity, Vayu, the wind god, can whisk away any evil influence that may strike the woman in two important regions, the stomach and the re­productive organs.

The brilliant colors of the sari are also partly ruled by custom: colors are held to represent moods. Yellow, green, and red are festive and auspicious colors, which stand for fertility. Red, which also evokes passion, is a bri­dal color in some parts of the country and a part of rituals associ­ated with pregnancy. Pale cream is soothing in the summer and also symbolizes bridal purity. A married Hindu woman will not wear a completely white sari, as it is only for widows: Life without a husband is a life without color. Black alone is thought to bring misfortune and must be mixed with another color. Blue evokes the thirst-quenching, life-giving force of the monsoon and visions of the beautiful boy-God, Krishna.

Indian women have always recycled their saris. Old saris are cut up and sown into pil­lowcases or quilts, redyed, exchanged for stainless steel pots and pans, or given to loyal servants. Sometimes gold borders are re­moved and used on children’s dresses. How­ever, traditionally, the clothes of a dead woman are usually not part of her children’s inheritance; they are either burned or given to servants. Custom places a premium on new clothing as a symbol of renewal; old clothes are not valued as heirlooms.

More recently, fashion and a changing cultural climate have affected the sari and front pleats have become the norm. The sari size has decreased from seven to nine yards to five and a half to six yards. Women today also prefer blouses which match the sari; pre­viously, blouses with contrasting patterns and colors were preferred.

Not surprisingly, economics has affected the evolution of the sari. Lengths of Japanese nylon made to the same width as the sari have been in vogue for nearly three decades. This trend began with increased travel between countries and gradual depletion in the ranks of dhobis, who traditionally washed clothes for the community. Nylon saris are easier to keep clean and need no starch or ironing. But for religious, social, and festive occasions, cotton and silk saris retain their position of impor­tance.

Popular culture also influences sari fash­ions. Often an actress in a particular film may wear a distinctive blouse, sari, or a color com­bination which soon becomes a popular fashion. In the film Sagara Sangamam, the actress Jaya Prada wore a fuchsia pink and royal blue Kanchipuram sari that became instantly fash­ionable.

Custom and fashion may have shaped the sari, but cultural perceptions pro­mote its continued use. When a woman wears a sari, she acquires honor. An episode from the Hindu epic, the Mahab­harata (400 BC to 400 AD) illustrates this idea.

After losing his own freedom in a rigged dice game to his Kaurava enemies, Yud­hishthir, the eldest among Draupadi’s five Pandava husbands, also loses her. When the Kauravas attempt to disrobe Draupadi, she calls upon Lord Krishna for protection. Each time one fold of Draupadi’s sari unravels, Krishna graces her with another. By giving Draupadi a sari of unending length, Krishna saves her honor.

The symbolism is obvious. Rather than whisking Draupadi away or striking down her tor­mentor, Krishna pro­vides her with a limitless sari both as a symbol of his grace and of his in­tent to protect feminine modesty.

By wearing a sari, women fulfill another cultural ideal by ac­quiring the related feminine characteristics of beauty and sensuality. Various poems, scenes, and images from the large store of ancient Indian literature celebrate the beauty of the sari-clad woman. “Who is she? Carefully veiled to barely reveal her body’s beauty sur­rounded by the ascetics like a bud among withered leaves?” wonders King Dushyant at his first glimpse of Shakuntala, in Kalidasa’s renowned play of the same name (circa 400 BC)

The imagery is frequently repeated in another form in popular romantic films of today, where the seductive heroine appears in a diaphanous sari and the excitement of the chase is enhanced both for the hero and the audience! The hero begins the chase by tug­ging at the end of her sari. The audience knows that the sari is the ideal garment for the pursuit of sensual love—it can be so easily unraveled—and waits for the cut to the closed door which is the visual code that suggests the woman’s surrender. In the Hindu cultural context, Western clothing is never used to suggest seduction.

Actresses wearing their sarees
Actresses wearing their sarees

The sari also compensates for any physi­cal shortcomings. It gives fullness to the thin figure and is equally good at camouflaging extra fat when required—something West­ern clothes cannot aspire to.

The cultural ideal of decorum and dig­nity is also satisfied by the sari. In the pres­ence of God, husband, in-laws, or strangers, the married woman is often required to cover her head. The sari readily fulfills this func­tion.

Another important reason behind the continued usage of the sari is the recently established cultural ideal of nationalism. During India’s struggle for independence from Britain, Mahatma Gandhi carried out a campaign of civil disobedience, particularly to inflict economic pain on the colonizer. Textiles, an industry integrally related to the history of the sari, be­came an important sym­bol of this fight for inde­pendence. Since the 19th cen­tury, the British had taken up the practice of exporting inexpensive Indian cotton to Eng­land, turning it into cloth, and reselling it for enormous profit in In­dia. Gandhi decided to combat this practice by boycotting English cloth and starting the “Home­Spun” movement. Yarn would be made by each individual for personal use. At mid-century, the patriotic symbolism attached to indigenous cloth and clothing still continued. A woman or a man who wore traditional clothing was more “Indian” than one who adopted Western attire.

For Indian women, to be Indian is to wear a sari. Indira Gandhi, with her Western education, frequently wore Western clothes in her youth. She gave them up for the sari the moment she took on a political persona. The sari has also made her Italian daughter­-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, politically more ac­ceptable to Indians. Both these women, who were constantly in the public eye, succeeded in diminishing the significance of foreign in­fluence from their background primarily by adhering to the traditional sari dress code.

The sari is the most visible example of Indian cultural ideals surrounding women. The sari-clad woman is both dignified and alluring, honorable and sensual. The sari forges a strong link between the lives of women across the country, be they leaders, activists, and professionals, or homemakers, mothers, students, and laborers.

Vandana Kumar has won the Asian American Hero award from the County of Santa Clara and the Leadership in Business award from the California Legislature Assembly.

Vandana Kumar is a publishing executive with a 35-year track record in the industry. She leads the India Currents Foundation as President and CEO. As a new immigrant, she co-founded India Currents magazine...