On
from
pinterest
An Ode to the Sari

A poetic marriage of beauty and function

11.15.16
an-ode-to-saris-man-repeller-feature-1

Saris are alive with promise in a way few garments are. Starting as a rectangle, they transform to fit any wearer, as bespoke as a suit that’s pinned and cut, though no such trauma befalls them. Apocrypha says Hindus believed stitches were impure. They wrapped themselves in woven cloth instead, bolts that begin and end on the loom.

A good sari wearer knows the material must meet her demands. She needs no pins. She folds and knots, at the waist, and shoulder. Tying honors the inconstancy of a body. The same sari can fit a wearer at different weights or positions, or an entirely other person. I have seen cleaning girls in India more elegant than anyone in the room, their limbs protected yet free, in a cotton sari tied the kache way: hem pulled through the legs and tucked into the waist. Imagine if working women knotted pants from dresses, when the need arose. It might solve the conundrum of the pantsuit, the swap of femininity for functionality. With a sari, the two coexist.

The most expensive sari, in the Guinness Book of World Records, sold for $4 million rupees. Still, a bedsheet at the right ratio will do. There are two sizes, divergent by length: five or nine yards. Both come about a yard and a half wide. If you rolled yourself into either type as if into a towel, you’d show the same amount of shins and shoulders.

A nine-yard is really only ever worn these days by old women and girls forced into them. I know one person who’s worn one, at her traditional Tamilian wedding. The extra fabric thickens a waist, so you’re not quite as sexy as your friend in the crowd in her five yard.

Technically, the sexiest of saris are chiffon. We owe their existence to an early twentieth century queen, Indira, who, upon being widowed, ordered colorless chiffon cut sari-sized from Paris as a rebuke to the purpose of the white widow sari, which is meant to drain a woman of her sexual charm. When I hit a certain age, I got a bunch. From my mom, from relatives. I disliked them. They were too like the clothes I knew in America, that require a certain kind of body to look good.

an-ode-to-saris-man-repeller-feature-2

To me, a sari is unique for its body agnosticism. Essentially, you’ve put on a new, and lovely, body. You are made beautiful by the lustre of the fabric — which is why widows are denied color. Chiffon, a body-hugging fabric, might make a strong point for a hot and single queen. But it undermines the sari’s beautifying force.

Saris used to be like Alpine cheeses. Every Indian village had its own blend of color, pattern and fabric — the latter usually silk, cotton or a mix of the two. A recent decline in weaving has led to social media and federal efforts, as China machine-makes saris and Indian women try other garments. The queen’s legacy hurts specificity, too. Chiffon dominates sari shops across the country. Unlike the silks and cottons found in small government stores, no record is woven into their very selves, as to where or when or by whom they were made.

Kanjeevarams — the saris you might envision when the word comes up, glossy and color-blocked in silk — are near perfect in my mind, as records of time and place, and conveyances of beauty. But body agnosticism only goes so far. In their heft, these classic Southern saris can swallow some women. Being small, I never felt capable of wearing one. This only made me long more. Sure, I could strut in chiffon, but with hips and height and a stomach, I could pull off the real deal. Would you rather be a girl or a woman?

Eventually I reached a compromise. We were in my grandmother’s house in Bangalore when my mom wore the first starched cotton sari I’d ever seen. It stood more than it fell, echoing a kanjeevaram but cotton-light. A neurologist, my mom kept it baller in the U.S.: suits at the office; silk at the party. She was large and dimpled, with no sight of bones. She wore kanjeevarams, never the reverse.

My turn came years later. My mom had passed away by then, and desperate one evening, with nothing to wear to a party, I searched her Bangalore cupboard. It was folded big as a newspaper, the color of papyrus. A series of shapes rose as I tied. Triangles and parallelograms that shifted as I walked. Aunties fretted given the occasion (my engagement). Cotton is cheap, but I saw art. The greatest designers build around a body: McQueen, Watanabe. They know a body’s shape is less interesting than changing it.

This may be why I love saris most of all. The question of how to be a woman is unsettled, and so are they. Is she feminine or functional? Protected? Free? Her self, or an expression of her mother’s? In an unsewn bolt of cloth you can be all things at once. Wrong in cotton but grand in your mind: made large by soft armor, taking up space as you never have before.

ode-to-saris-man-repeller

Feature photo by Viviane Moos/Corbis; carousel photo by Soltan Frédéric/Sygma via Getty Images; last photo provided by Mallika Rao.

Get more Fashion ?
  • <3<3<3

  • Sneha Davda

    I hate wearing a sari, as a 5 ft 3 woman that literally drowns in fabric when wearing one, I can’t stand it. So much effort. Also restricts walking. Maybe I’m just fussy but godddd smh!!!

  • Jaclyn Levy

    Thank you for this. Stories like this one take steps to help heal our Nation, and to be sure ALL women are heard and celebrated. <3

  • Molly D

    Beautiful photos!!

  • I have to wear the cheater sari’s (they are pre-pleated) or else I end up looking like a mummy

  • starryhye

    I wore a sari, many years ago, for a dear friend’s wedding. Sari’s are definitely beautiful and I had no idea such skill went into tying them. However, I was left with quite a few bruises on my hips from the fabric being bound so tight!

    • Mallika Padma Rao

      I think they tied it too tight….

  • isabelle

    This hasn’t gotten enough attention. LOVE.

    • Mallika Padma Rao

      Thanks Isabelle! <3

  • Fezzers

    I’ve always been a lover of fabrics, so I picked up several saris the last time I was in India – but truly, I need less than 5 yards. No matter how much I iron my pleats a sari sort of makes me look like I am smuggling a loaf of bread

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    I can still remember the mixture of envy and awe i’d feel watching my older cousins and aunties drape themselves in a sari before a family function or a visit to the temple. I’d usually be the first to finish getting ready, having only to throw on a “salwar kameez” that was already picked out for me by a woman wiser than myself. I occupied the rest of my time by carefully studying how everyone would twist and tie this ostensibly endless piece of silk into a seamless, curve-hugging garment that made the Ancient Grecian toga seem like something you could achieve by rolling around in a bed sheet (no offence to any Greeks reading).

    I was a stubborn child, so one evening before a wedding, I smuggled an ugly sari that my mom stored in the back of her closet into my room. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone to help me drape it for fear of seeming precocious. Naturally, it was a total disaster, and my mom scolded me for wrinkling what i thought might as well have been a potato sack, but was actually a priceless, vintage length of “kanjipuram” silk.

    But then, the unexpected happened. My mom, sensing my defeat, took the crumpled mess off the floor and started tying it around my waist, tenderly explaining her process step-by-step. She told me that i wouldn’t understand it the first time, but with her help, one day, i would. I think this is my favourite thing about saris. Tying a sari isn’t something you can learn from reading a tutorial or watching a youtube video. Those methods might help you produce something passable, but to create something truly exquisite, you require the wisdom of an elder. The nimbleness of their fingers and crispness of their pleats is something that can only be achieved over time. In this way, the process doubly connects you to your roots; to your heritage and culture, but also, to the impressive women whose lives have helped form your own.

    Anyway thank you for writing this!!! it made me feel wonderfully nostalgic and i sent it to my mom! i know she’ll love it.

  • Iram Zaman

    OMG loved this! 🙂

  • Natasha

    LOVED this! I was just thinking yesterday that MR could do more stories on the intersection of women/fashion/culture across the globe, and then this popped up. Thank you!

    • Mallika Padma Rao

      Thank you for reading Natasha! I agree – intersections are where the fun happens 🙂

      • Natasha

        Absolutely! And I loved your writing style too.

  • Chetna Singh

    Lovely article! I love my saris and have a whole collection of them. i agreee chiffon is sexy but the elegance of crepe silk, the crispness of a beautiful cotton or the luxury of the heavily embroidered Banarsi are all gorgeous in their own right.

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    I can still remember the mixture of envy and awe i’d feel watching my older cousins and aunties drape themselves in a sari before a family function or a visit to the temple. I’d usually be the first to finish getting ready, having only to throw on a “salwar kameez” that was already picked out for me by a woman wiser than I. I occupied the rest of my time by carefully studying how everyone would twist and tie this ostensibly endless piece of silk into a seamless, curve-hugging garment that made the Ancient Grecian toga seem like something you could achieve by rolling around in a bed sheet.

    I was a stubborn child, so one evening before a wedding, I smuggled an ugly sari that my mom stored in the back of her closet into my room. I was too embarrassed to ask anyone to help me drape it, for fear of seeming precocious. Naturally, it was a total disaster, and my mom scolded me for wrinkling what I thought might as well have been a potato sack, but was actually a priceless length of “kanjipuram” silk.

    Then, the unexpected happened. My mom, sensing my defeat, took the crumpled mess off the floor and started tying it around my waist, tenderly explaining her process step-by-step. She told me that i wouldn’t understand it the first time, but with her help, one day, i would. I think this is my favourite thing about saris. Tying one isn’t something you can learn from reading a tutorial or watching a youtube video. Those methods might help you produce something passable, but to create something truly exquisite, you require the wisdom of an elder. The nimbleness of their fingers is something that can only be achieved over time. In this way, the process doubly connects you to your roots; to your heritage and culture, but also, to the impressive women whose lives have helped form your own.

    Anyway thank you for writing this!!! it made me feel wonderfully nostalgic and i sent it to my mom! i know she’ll love it.

  • Ishani

    Totally agree on the love for cotton saris. My mother and grandmother always scoff in disdain everytime I want to wear one for a special occasion, but really, no other fabric makes a sari drape as well as cotton does. It is the perfect marriage of the flowy lightness of chiffon and the structural neatness of silk. Tangail saris from Bengal are my favourite.

    • Mallika Padma Rao

      Yes! Cotton is superior, knows it, but doesn’t act like it. We should date cotton.

  • Kate

    “made large by soft amor” a+ love

  • Senka

    I find saris to be mesmerizing and so inredibly feminine. There’s something so poised and elegant about a woman in sari, even the one not too colorful and elaborate.

  • Vega

    Love this. As poetic as the sari pleats.

  • Amelia Diamond

    Just reread this and I fell in lovee with these two lines: “She was large and dimpled, with no sight of bones. She wore kanjeevarams, never the reverse.”

Feedback