The word "sari" has come into general use to cover a generic category, including any draped untailored textile of about five meters in length, worn by the women of South Asia. In common parlance outside the region, the term "sari" refers to an increasingly standardized form of drape. More urban and cosmopolitan women have adapted the Nivi style, but this drape is a relatively new phenomenon. In India alone, around a hundred other forms of drapes continue to be worn. These vary from the eight-yard Koli drape of fisherwomen in Maharashtra to the thrice-wrapped drape of Bengal.
There is a general belief that the sari as a draped and seamless garment is the contemporary representative of the traditional female attire of Hindu South Asia that became diluted by the introduction from the North of tailored and stitched garments under the influence of Islam. Historical and archaeological sources do not support this reading, however. Representations on statues, wall paintings, and other sources suggests that for as far back as there are records, women in the South Asia area wore a wide variety of regional styles that included both stitched and unstitched garments, tailored and untailored. Indeed in the twenty-first century, a sari is as likely to be associated with Muslim women in the Bengal region as Hindus in the South of India. Furthermore, the seamless piece of cloth of the sari is increasingly worn along with two stitched garments, a full-length underskirt tied at the waist with a drawstring, and a fitted waist-length blouse done up at the front. The sari itself covers little of the body that is not already hidden by these accompanying garments, although conceptually a woman would see herself as unclothed without the final addition. Most women also wear underwear to make a third layer of clothing.
Uses in Society
In the latter half of the twentieth century, the emergence of the Nivi style of draping the sari may be attributed to middle-class women entering the public sphere during the struggle for independence. It was considered more suitable to public appearances and greater mobility. This style consists of the sari being wrapped around the lower body with about a meter of cloth pleated and tucked into the waist at the center and the remainder used to cover the bosom and then falls over the left shoulder. The loose end of the sari that hangs from the shoulder is known as the pallu. Younger and less confident women or those wearing the sari as a uniform (such as nurses, policewomen, or receptionists) usually pin the pallu to their shoulder in carefully arranged pleats. As a result of the development of this pan-Indian cosmopolitan drape of the sari, the influence of local regional traditions of draping has declined in urban spaces and has become either confined to being worn within the home or in rural areas. The Nivi style of wearing the sari was further popularized through its increased association with other pan-Indian phenomena, such as the film industry and national politicians. As a result this has become the style that is symbolic of India as a state and women's sense of themselves as Indian (although it may also be found more widely in South Asia, in Bangladesh and Nepal). As a result of this development, women in areas of India where the sari was not traditional garb adopted the sari for specific formal occasions such as weddings and important public events.
Materials and Construction
Saris can be made of natural or synthetic fibers, and can be woven on hand looms or power looms. Natural fibers such as silk and cotton, which are also more fragile, are worn mostly by middle-and upper-class women. They are named after the regions in which they are made such as Kanchipuram, Sambhalpur, or Kota. Each style is associated with particular weaves, motifs, and even colors. Some saris can be very ornate and may include real gold wash on silver thread (zari) in their embroidery (though most zari work in the early 2000s is nonmetal).
Other varieties may include highly elaborate embroidery styles such as chikan work from Lucknow. These saris may cost hundreds of dollars and are often associated with the glamour attached to the Bollywood (the film industry based in India) and politicians such as Indira Gandhi who is famous for having chosen her wardrobe carefully to reflect aesthetic taste and populist appeal. Hand-loom saris are adopted by women not only for their traditional designs and beauty but also as a statement of support for the threatened cottage industry of weaving.
However, the vast majority of saris worn by working women in the early 2000s are made of synthetic materials. While the yarn is largely spun in major mills, the large mills make up only around 4 percent of sari production (hand-looms make up around 9 percent); the rest are the product of a vast, largely unregulated, power-loom sector, that varies from a couple of machines in someone's home to factory units consisting of two hundred looms, to whom the mill sector subcontracts the weaving process. By far the main fashion influence in the early 2000s upon these synthetic saris is the rise of television soap operas and films. Typically a market or shop includes saris that have labels attached associating them with particular characters from popular culture.
The sari is not worn by young girls anywhere in India. Girls tend to wear what are locally called frocks. Traditionally, wearing the sari was associated with puberty, but many regions have specific clothing associated with adolescence, such as the half-sari or salwaar-kameez, and these have grown in importance as fewer girls are married at puberty. Many mothers of girls start to collect saris from an early age, building up toward a wedding trousseau. The high point of sari wearing is commonly the wedding itself, which is (given sufficient resources) a series of events each demanding a particular sari. The color of the sari worn by the bride for the main ceremony is strictly prescribed and can vary from red in the north and east to white in Kerala. The wedding is also the occasion for much sari gifting among relatives of the bride and groom.
The period immediately after the wedding is usually the time when women are most likely to wear a sari in exclusion to all other types of clothing. As a new bride she is expected to sport the most expensive, dazzling, and bright saris. Through her years as a married woman and mother, the bright colors of her sari are expected to reflect the fecundity of her life. With age, however, the widow or elderly woman is expected to wear mainly simple and less elaborate saris. There is a cosmological significance to this shift in which the fading of the sari stands for the gradual detachment from an interest in and engagement with material things in general and with the specificity of a particular person and their occupation.
Economics and Status
The sari as a possession is strongly correlated with wealth. Most village women keep their saris in a small trunk. They may have only one or two working saris that they wear on a daily basis, with another two or three better-quality saris kept for special occasions, such as weddings or visits to town. Some have even less than this number and most village women obtain the bulk of their saris as gifts associated with particular occasions, such as festivals. Poorer women may hardly buy any saris themselves during their lives. By contrast, middle-class salaried women in the towns may possess two or three hundred saris, often kept in steel cupboards, which reflect a wide spectrum of colors and styles. Many of these may also be gifts and are associated with particular relationships and events.
Sari Versus Western Dress
A more intimate examination of the consequences of wearing the sari demonstrates that there may be profound differences in the experience of wearing a sari as compared to wearing western dress. The existence of the pallu as a loose-end that comes over the shoulder and is then available to be manipulated in a wide variety of ways means that the relationship of women to their clothing can often take on a much more dynamic form. For example, most women are expected to appear in a particularly modest, if not veiled, manner in relation to various contexts, such as the presence of certain male relatives. Covering one's head with the pallu is a common response. Urban women, who are not subject to such restrictions, may be seen using the pallu to constantly change their appearance, for example, by tucking it into the waist to express anger or allowing it to reveal the bosom in order to flirt. The pallu is also very important in establishing key relationships, such as those between mother and child. The pallu may be used as a cradle, as a support to the child in learning to walk, and as a kind of "transitional object" that helps the child to separate from the mother into an independent person. This ability to manipulate one's clothing during the day and not be constrained by choices made when getting dressed in the morning makes the sari more of a companion in playing out a number of different social roles. This flexibility is what makes the sari a perfect garment to inhabit the multiplicity of roles which modernity brings to women's lives.
In areas of India where the sari was ubiquitous, women of the early 2000s are turning to alternative attire, especially the salwar-kameez, which is considered a more informal garment and thought better suited to commuting and work. In rural areas, the association of the salwar-kameez with the educated girl has given it more progressive connotations and has led to an increased availability and acceptance of this garment even in the heartlands of sari-wearing areas, such as Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
Dynamism and Ambiguity
In summary, the significance of sari wearing as opposed to other available options in South Asia lies in the dynamism and ambiguity that is the defining characteristic of the garment. While this has left open a niche which is being increasingly colonized by the salwarkameez as a "functional" garment associated with educational values and rationality, the combination of the two has in the early 2000s effectively prevented the adoption in South Asia of western dress, which is mainly worn by a small number of elite or by unmarried women.
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