Sarees in the ultra modern world

saree-1Indian women look distinct with sarees. Those charming ethnic wear is slowly disappearing. Now girls and women prefer kurtas and jeans than stunning sarees.

Coomi Kapoor writes in The Indian Express (10 July 2009)

Long after the Japanese gave up their kimonos, the Chinese their Mao boiler suits and the South Americans their boleros, we Indian woman, whether at home or abroad, clung loyally to our saris. You saw doughty sari-clad Gujarati women on the top of the Matterhorn, on a safari in deepest Africa or river rafting on the Iguaçu. When curious American tourists inquired about the practicality of the garment, Indian women would wax eloquent on the marvels of the six metres of cloth. It was cool in summer, insulating in winter, never went out of fashion, never got out of shape and doubled as nightwear, a sheet or a picnic cloth.

A tall tale retold for decades is that the sari is supremely comfortable. Examples are cited of the number of Indian women who play tennis, badminton and hockey in saris. And it is pointed out that in our villages women even go swimming in a sari. For most of us, however, the sari can start unravelling pretty fast when you exercise strenuously. And even without exercise, a woman tends to look like a dhobi bundle in a cotton sari if there is no starch in the fabric.

Another myth about the sari is that it is a modest garment since it covers you from head to foot. American actor Bob Hope once joked that the “sari was one garment which hides both the good and the bad points of the figure.” This is not true. Anyone who has seen an Indian movie with the heroine drenched in the rain in a diaphanous sari will tell you differently.

Despite the constant endorsements of the sari, have you noticed that in the last two decades the sari is disappearing? Leading fashion designer Ritu Kumar, who began her career in the sixties designing saris, now focuses mostly on stitched garments like kurtas and lehengas. By the mid-seventies there were very few saris displayed on fashion show ramps.

With the coming of age of the urban worker and a more active lifestyle, women have started looking for more comfortable, practical and smarter alternatives. The first modernisation of the sari was switching from traditional handlooms and ethnic cottons to the more easy to maintain synthetic materials, with shower curtain-style floral and geometrical prints. Dayaram Printwallah of Ahmedabad became known nationally after Indira Gandhi patronised his aesthetic block printed cottons. When I visited a Dayaram store in Gujarat recently, I found that there were hardly half a dozen cotton saris in the shop. They have been replaced by wash and wear saris and cut pieces for making a kurta pajama set.

Long years ago, the norm in Bollywood was that heroines wore saris, and vamps dresses. But then Bollywood went mod and heroines started wearing outfits just as trendy and sexy as the gangsters’ molls. And since Bollywood sets the trend in sartorial styles, the rest of the country followed suit. Even girls from South India now want Punjabi lehengas for their weddings. It is not just the movie stars who have altered public taste, other visible women who set the trend have also deserted the sari. Kiran Bedi, for instance, feels that pants suit her style. TV stars like Barkha Dutt, Navika Kumar and Suhasini Haidar believe in power dressing. Most domestic airlines have done away with the sari as the uniform for their airhostesses.

A random headcount on one of the capital’s busy roads indicated that only two out of ten women were wearing saris and practically none in the younger age bracket. Abroad, even the elderly NRIs have adopted pants or kurta pajamas. On a recent visit to London, I did not see a single sari in the Oxford Circus area, though there were several hijabs and even a burkha or two.

Of course, the sari still remains the dress code for women in government service and politics. The former have little choice since the official code of conduct advises IAS officers to wear saris in office unless they are from the North East, when they can opt for their traditional dress. Among politicians, Sonia Gandhi favours the ethnic chic look; handloom saris in muted mud colours, a style statement she picked up from her mother-in-law. Sushma Swaraj belongs to the other school, which opts for bright colours and wash and wear convenience. Those from royal backgrounds, like Vasundhara Raje stick to pastel chintzes and georgettes. Mayawati is something of a trendsetter among major women politicians, as she opts for kurtas not saris.



  1. draupadi said,

    +00002009-12-13T17:37:52+00:00312009bUTCSun, 13 Dec 2009 17:37:52 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p12

    I just have to say, I am an Indian American woman who would love to wear saris every day, if I didn’t look so out of place wearing them!

    • meret said,

      +00002010-02-23T12:55:39+00:00282010bUTCTue, 23 Feb 2010 12:55:39 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p02

      I’m so glad you love sarees…and as an Indian woman used to wearing them since I was 16, may I say that sarees are an attitude, not a fashion statement? That this unstitched garment is meant to be worn with total flexibility – as a thing of grace which embodies total freedom to drape it as you wish. I think you have what it takes to wear a saree, so go for it!:)

  2. HowardG said,

    +00002009-12-14T20:03:42+00:00312009bUTCMon, 14 Dec 2009 20:03:42 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p12

    Draupadi – PLEASE wear them. As a westerner there is nothing more beautiful than an Indian woman wearing a beautiful sari. So elegant. So appropriate.

    Think of it as THEY are out of place in their boring colourless regulation garments.

    Sari’s are gorgeous and joyful. I love seeing Indian women walking around town here in Melbourne, yes in kurtas and lehengas. BUT when a sari is spied – EVERYONE admires it and the wearer.

  3. Don said,

    +00002009-12-24T07:48:16+00:00312009bUTCThu, 24 Dec 2009 07:48:16 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p12

    As a Western man I lament the current state of dress and style of North American (Westernised) women. There is nothing appealing about the fashion tastes of Western women. It is cold, clinical and so overtly sexual as to be offensive, leaving nothing to the imagination.

    Take an Indian woman in comparison. Dressed in a saree, long flowing hair, beautiful smiles, deep brown eyes a man could drown in…this,truly, is intoxicating, this is is what men truly want…femininity, feminine tenderness, feminine charm and feminine grace, the gentle and soothing touch of a beautiful woman who enjoys being a woman…a woman whose paths in life are peace and the creation and nurturing of her children…….a woman intimate with her gifts of the gentler sex, a woman’s pride in the knowledge that between her breasts and hips lays the cradle of life…all this is what drives men mad, captures their hearts and hold them for a lifetime, nay…an eternity.

    Please do not be lured by Western fashion, do not abandon that which makes you stand out as some of the most spectacularly beautiful women in the world, do not turn to the mass produced, the cheap and the commonplace…….

    As women of a culture and country thousands and thousands of years old remember who you were and who you are.

    • Lisa said,

      +00002010-02-16T20:34:31+00:00282010bUTCTue, 16 Feb 2010 20:34:31 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p02

      I am a Western born woman of Irish decent, where the Goddess tradition was choked away by western influences. Ever since I was a small girl, I struggled to maintain and preserve my natural tendency towards beauty, poetry, the healing arts and being a nurturing force. In this culture it is either exploited or seen as a weakness.

      It is a shame, truly, that this trend continues. Don has so beautifully and elegantly championed this feminine heritage and I applaud his passion.

      I too, wish that these gentle and elegant traditions fight to survive, for once gone, they are near impossible to reclaim.

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