The Saree: unique in style and universality

Of all the dress materials worn by women in the world, the Indian Saree is unique in that it is the only garment that could be worn by any person, anytime, anywhere in the world.

It also remains the only garment that would conform to any cultural, age or income group in India and the rest of the world.

The saree is also perhaps the only garment that could be worn to preserve the traditional values of a religion or society or reflect the modern trend of exhibitionism and glamour.

The saree is tailored as costume by performers of Indian classical dances, including Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi. Such costumes can be worn generally by the person for whom they are specifically made.

Show business, including the film and modeling industry, has glamourised the saree, which according to some, has gone beyond the legitimate limits of decency.

The Beginning

Stated to be more than 5000 years old, the Indian saree has been mentioned in the Vedas as a form of draping to extol the virtues of a woman.

There are several references to the fact that for a long time in South India the saree was one piece of material that served as both skirt and veil, leaving the bosom bare. Even today in some rural areas it is quite common for a woman not to wear a choli (blouse).

In North Indian miniature paintings, (particularly Jain, Rajasthani and Pahari schools from the 13th to the 19th centuries), it seemed to consist of the diaphanous skirt and an equally diaphanous veil draped over a tiny bodice. This style still survives as the more voluminous lehanga of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Gradually, this skirt and veil were amalgamated into one garment, but when and how this happened is not clear.

Some costume historians believe that the men’s dhoti, which is the oldest Indian draped garment, is the forerunner of the saree. Till the 14th century, the dhoti was worn by both men and women.

Thereafter, it is believed that the women’s dhoti started to become longer, and the accessory cloth worn over the shoulders was woven together with the dhoti into a single cloth to make the sari.

Unstitched fabrics

Indian civilisation has always placed importance on unstitched fabrics like the saree and dhoti, which are given sacred overtones.

The belief was that such a fabric was pure; perhaps because in the distant past needles of bone were used for stitching.

Even today, when the Islam-influenced Salwar Kameez (loose trousers with a tunic) is an increasingly popular garment, the saree continues to hold its sway. The flow it confers to the natural contours of the female form enhances the gracefulness of the fairer sex, as no other apparel can.

The saree, like so many other textiles, gives the lie to the hierarchical distinction made between fine arts and crafts. The approximate size of a sari is 47” by 216”.

Although it is an untailored length of cloth, the fabric is highly structured and its design vocabulary sophisticated. The main field of the saree is framed on three sides by decorative frieze of flowering plants, figurative images or abstract symbols.

Versatile garment

The saree has undergone a revolution in colour, texture and quality, with its price ranging from Rs 200 ($5) to Rs 300,000 ($6900). Some sarees, specially made for the opulent and for film stars in lavish productions are said to have cost more than Rs 500,000 ($11,500) each.

Sarees can be of simple cotton material or intricate in design with gold and silver linings, embellished with mirrors, pearls, diamonds and other precious and semi-precious stones.

The Saree length varies from five yards to 9.5 yards tied loosely, folded and pleated or set to special styles.

Saree materials are today converted into suits, corporate and evening wear, party dresses, Salwar Kameez and even accessories.

Nitin Kumar is the Editor of based in India.

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