Indian sarees can symbolize modesty and seduction, but are they going out of fashion?
An Indian saree, six yards of utter simplicity and audacity, is the perfect garment. Folded, it looks severe and perplexing, like an extra-long bed sheet. Draped, it transforms itself and its wearer. No apparel so embodies the spirit of the region it represents. The saree suggests at once the minimalism of the ascetic and the sensuality of the tropics: lushness, sweat, sparkling white cotton, bare caramel-to-cocoa skin, loose folds of clothing that easily pull on and off.
No other garment is as antique and yet contemporary. The saree was worn by women of the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago — and still is. No other civilization has spawned a garment that has survived so long, and yet even managed to thumb its nose at being embalmed in a museum.
The saree is worn at home and work by millions of Indian women from all walks of life. It is the perfect garment to be totally pregnant in or walk down a fashion ramp in; to transplant rice or to construct roads in; to take a presidential salute in; to get married in; to wash dishes in; to offer sports commentary in; to breastfeed a baby with total ease and modesty in; to wear to a board meeting in; to pray in or sleep in; to be covered from head to toe in; or to seduce a lover in.
No other garment is as versatile. In which other country could a nun like Mother Teresa and a Miss Universe winner wear exactly the same garment?
Out With the Old?
But the saree is becoming endangered. Pants or salwar kameez — a tunic with loose pants and a scarf — are becoming the daily clothing of choice for many urban Indian women. They are easier to wear and wash. They are seen as modern and more modest. They are more suited to the daily fight of throwing elbows in crowds and avoiding the lewd attentions of men. The saree is still a long way from being written off as a ceremonial and impractical garment like the kimono, but for increasing numbers of Indian women, sarees stay folded in wardrobes and are brought out for weddings and special occasions.
I was one of them, until I became a parent. “Do we have to come, too?” my children would whine the minute they saw me in a saree. They see not the grandeur of fabrics that brought covetous empires halfway across the world to India, but rather the prospect of a tedious day filled with speeches or rituals. I decided to wear sarees more often, much like I wear jeans and dresses, so my children would no longer view them as a complicated costume for solemn occasions.
The saree is six yards of a fluid, silken oxymoron. It is the epitome of modesty and, at the same time, utter seduction.
An Indian father who would have a coronary at the thought of his daughter wearing a two-piece bathing suit or tight jeans beams with pride as he presents her in a saree at her nuptials arranged by him to a virtual stranger. Teary eyed, he gives away his darling gift-wrapped in yards of brocade.
A saree is clothing that is anti-clothing. It can wrap its wearer in complete modesty and cry to be pulled off. It is forgiving of bulges. It can hides jiggles and offers stylish camouflage for a flat bosom.
The saree is untailored, free of buttons or zippers. It never needs to be altered or re-sized. It can be passed on for generations. The same saree can be draped for a perfect fit on a pole-thin model, an ample-hipped grandmother and a little girl playing dress-up. A fully pregnant woman can dig her wedding saree out of her closet and wear it without a struggle.
Unfettered by stitches, liberated from the yearly dictates of fashions in Paris or Milan, the saree is the ultimate in fashionable wear. It leaves itself completely open to interpretation by the wearer. Blouses, the part of the ensemble that is tailored, get dated. Sarees are ageless.
The saree is at once minimalist and over the top. It is a garment that is an art to put on, a pleasure to behold, a sensuous delight to wear and a seductive ritual to unwrap. In the United States, the Sports Illustrated swimwear calendar and the Victoria’s Secret catalogs celebrate the degrees of undress that set the year’s standards of beauty and fashion. In India, a sex bomb is a beautiful woman with meters of a rain-drenched saree clinging to her curves.
The saree is possibly the longest business card in the world. The material it is made of, the color and pattern of its weave, and the style in which it is wrapped often give a wealth of clues about the wearer: the region she hails from, her social and economic standing and the occasion for which she is dressed. The geographic fluidity of where people live and the dilution of regional identities now allow women to experiment with fabrics and styles from other regions.
The saree permeates the national imagination. Every Indian has in some corner of his or her mind a memory of burying a teary face in the folds of a mother’s saree or being tantalized by the perfumed brush of silk in a throng. Even the map of India is shaped like a woman posed in a saree, with the loose scarf-like end fluttering over neighboring Bangladesh.
Every time I wear a saree, I wear art, history and technology. With every pleat and fold, I pay tribute to the imagination and brilliance of my ancestors.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.