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