By Divya Venkataraman

Wrap It Up: The Sari is making A Sartorial Comeback

The sari is the sartorial emblem of South Asian femininity. But as its role in culture continues to evolve, the humble garment proves it’s anything but static.

On the morning of a family wedding, I stood in the centre of a gaggle of cousins and aunties, each pulling and tugging at the silk wrapped around my waist. It was the first time I had found cause to wear a sari. This one was my mother’s, a deep aubergine with a flecked copper trim. We don’t often share clothes, but a sari is pure travelling sisterhood magic: one single stretch of fabric which drapes around every body differently, but is the same size, able to be swapped between generations and houses and women as easily as books or music. 

When you walk into a sari store, you will find every colour, all kinds of patterns and embroideries, but you will not find sizing. In lieu of showing you the fitting room, a salesman, buoyantly comfortable in his own masculinity, will drape the pallu over his own shoulders to show it off, to show you the way the silk catches the light. You will wrap it around yourself later. Or in my case, you will stand there uselessly, the way a girl raised in regional Australia might, while the women around you do their thing. 

My mother’s hands danced, folded and flipped the silk, playing the fabric like an instrument. My aunty safety-pinned and pleated the pallu, the swathe of silk over the shoulder, so it would stay starched and straight. My petticoat drawstrings were pulled tight, my blouse was yanked up for modesty. Finally, from all the manipulations, I emerged, harassed and a little pin-pricked, but complete: a woman in a sari, like so many others before me. How much story can nine yards of material hold?

That the sari was first recorded two thousand years BCE and continues to be worn in the same essential form by millions of women in modern South Asia as an everyday uniform is a miracle in itself. The word “sari” comes from the ancient Sanskrit, meaning “a strip of cloth”. Part of its beauty, for me, comes down to its singular unbrokenness: whether it’s made of cheap polyester, or raw, prized Benares silk, it is whole unto itself. In a poetic way, it is this unity which enables its multitudes. Its shape is what a woman makes of it, and women all over the subcontinent have found different ways of draping—more than 80 recorded styles—to suit them and reflect their culture over the years.

The most commonly worn drape, known as the “nivi”, emerged in Bengal in the mid-19th century. The sari is wrapped around the waist and pleated at the front, while the pallu hangs over the shoulder. Often, a blouse and petticoat are worn under it. However, Sumathi Ramaswamy, a history professor at Duke University who specialises in South Asian culture, told the New York Times that this style was “a product of Victorian ideas of modesty and respectability, when the country was under British rule.” Previously, before the British imposition, saris were worn without blouses and underskirts, women’s breasts bare beneath the sari.

Now, modern women are looking back to its original forms to inform the sari’s future. The Sari Series is a video project created by digital crafts platform Border and Fall, which explores and catalogues the ways in which the sari has been draped, from the utilitarian styles which enable the work of fisherwomen, weavers, dancers and farmers, to occasion styles all over the continent. 

“The emotions attached to it are thousand-fold, as are the ways to document it,” explains the project’s Malika Verma Kashyap. “This is not the definitive anthology of drape, as it remains an evolving garment, open to adaptation. Rather, it is an anthology of drape, one that wishes to contribute to a much-needed perception shift of the garment, where its relevance ceases to be questioned at all.”

The perception certainly is changing. With the help of a coterie of future-focused Indian designers, saris are now pushing against their reputation for staidness and formality, bucking the notion that they are only for older aunties and traditionalists. Brands like Sanjay Garg’s Raw Mango and Tarun Tahiliani’s eponymous label, among others, have pushed the sari into the realm of the avant-garde, renewing its image and facilitating its re-entrée into the everyday wardrobes of modern women. 

It’s this moment that Priya Khanchandani, the British-Indian curator of London’s Design Museum, wanted to explore in her most recent exhibition. During her time working for the British Council in India, she noticed Indian women around her in the arts and design fields embracing breezy handloom fabrics for everyday wear and styling their saris with sneakers and over T-shirts. Thus, her exhibition was born. 

The Offbeat Sari showcased over 90 iterations of the garment, focusing on the inventive ways it has been adopted and reworked by contemporary India. It included a Gaurav Gupta sari made of fine steel threads; a sari scattered with sequins made of old X-ray film in which the shadows of bones were still visible; and the first sari worn at the Met Gala, a gold confection by Sabyasachi and Schiaparelli. 

It showed saris worn for protest, saris made out of recyclable materials, and saris for skating, dancing and playing cricket. At the time Khanchandani said the sari was “experiencing what is conceivably its most rapid reinvention in its 5,000-year history”. The exhibition was making a point: the sari, as we know it now, is a garment of dynamism. It is for movement, for change; it holds kinetic energy in its folds.

Jebin Johny is the Malayali designer behind Jebsispar, a slow fashion label beloved by Bollywood stars and local Keralans alike. He makes handwoven, artisanal pieces designed to be worn every day. His prints are evocative but minimal, a modern take on the craftsmanship that has always been at the core of sari-making. 

“Saris are an integral part of any Malayali’s life,” he says. “I grew up watching my mother wearing a sari daily to work.”

While he says has always felt an affinity towards the garment, he has seen women embrace the sari in new ways in the last few years, especially within the South Asian diaspora. In part, he credits social media. 

“Before, [migrants] would try to fit into foreign society by hiding their ethnicity or culture and try to be an Australian or a British or an American, you know,” he explains. “Their culture and origin might haunt them. But now, a sari is a proud thing to be worn.

“Things are changing. The ‘shy’ thing is slowly changing.”

Natasha Thasan, a Tamil content creator based in Toronto, was once one of the “shy”. She would practice draping saris, whose beauty she had always admired, in the privacy of her bedroom, learning how to feel out the fabric and experimenting with wrapping it around her body.

“It felt really taboo to wear a sari as a young woman, especially in Toronto,” she says. “It was associated with someone older, someone married.” 

It was the pandemic that pulled Thasan’s private love out into the real world. She started posting her experimentations on social media and began receiving messages about how she had inspired young women from all around the world to wear saris in their day to day. 

“I don’t deliver the basic sari,” she says. “I deliver love, I deliver expression, I deliver fun.” 

Thasan describes the sari as a “soft teacher”, a guide that enabled her to understand her physical self and her cultural identity at once. She considers draping a form of “therapy”.

“It has become a refuge for me. I’ve learned so much about my body,” Thasan says. “When you’re wearing a sari, you’re thinking, in a really precise way, ‘How do I want to be perceived?’ You can change your drape to reflect that.  

I thought about the way the sari wound around my own body that early morning before the wedding, the beauty of the way we, the women in my family and I, turned a length of fabric into a full garment, through the process of wrapping and draping and pleating and pinning. Part of a sari’s beauty, surely is in the way that we help to shape it.  

As Thasan says, “Pants, they’re already hemmed, they’re already fitted to your body. It’s a raw experience with a sari.”  

She’s right. It’s just a length of material without the woman inside it, and suddenly, with her, it becomes a teacher, a vessel of culture, an act of resistance and a holder of stories. The sari is given shape by her, by me, by you.  

Documentary photography AVANI RAI
Sari photography TWINKLE STANLEY

This story first appeared on GRAZIA Singapore.