Garments, like cuisine, evolve in every culture to suit the dominant body type, climate and social conditions. Major garment-types that survive over centuries are not those designed by an individual but those that develop over time. All major garment-types have a certain degree of flexibility, for example, in the case of Western dresses the length, sleeve-length, tightness and neckline.
The genius of the sari lies in its extreme versatility. Unlike the dress or the salwar-kamiz, this versatility depends not as much on the maker as on the wearer. The sari has been differently worn in different times and places, with differing lengths, ways of tucking, ways of draping the palla, and use of accessories (blouse or no blouse, petticoat or no petticoat). From the nine-yard sari to the half-sari worn by young girls in Tamil Nadu, this garment has taken many different forms. This is because it has evolved over many thousands of years.
The individual wearer can also wear it differently depending on climate, mood or social situation. The palla can be put over the head in hot or dusty conditions, tucked into the waistband when moving fast, for example, dancing or running, or wrapped around the upper body like a shawl. Long underwear can be worn under the petticoat in winter. Likewise, some women wear long blouses that completely cover the midriff. Some tie the petticoat low and some higher.
Another aspect of its versatility has to do with its not being stitched. Stitched garments cannot be easily altered to suit changing fashions or the wearer’s changing weight. Saris, however, last a lifetime and often more than one lifetime.
Many younger women today in India are switching over to the salwar-kamiz, which they find more comfortable. Comfort, like beauty, is partly subjective but partly socially determined. In the extreme summer heat in most parts of India, I find that the sari allows air to circulate between the legs and around the torso much more than does the salwar-kamiz. A number of young professionals in the corporate world even in India are now switching over to trouser suits and skirts. In my view, this is not as much because of comfort as because of norms in the corporate world which have been constructed in the West. An indicator of this is that these garments are generally accompanied by high-heeled shoes which are hardly the most comfortable footwear.
Likewise, in the U.S. academy, younger Indian professors over the last couple of decades have almost universally switched over to trouser suits, and, most tellingly, they have switched from a range of colours to black, which is the Western norm for professional dress. The older generation of Indian women professionals in the Western academy wore saris. However, today, to wear a sari, especially a bright-coloured one, in the U.S. academy is to typecast oneself as old-fashioned and outdated. When I first began to work in the U.S. , I experimented with Western dress. However, I soon realized that I found formal Western garments uncomfortable, expensive and hard to maintain. For example, if one does not shave one’s legs one has to wear tights with skirts which are very uncomfortable; trousers have to be either tight around the waist or require a belt to keep them up. And all these garments have to be frequently replaced as styles change and body size changes. They also have to be washed or dry cleaned more often than a sari, since the latter barely touches one’s skin.
Also, I did not like the way I looked in Western garments. Trousers are more flattering to people who are tall. This is one reason most Indian men look so unappealing in trousers and so much more elegant in dhoti or kurta-pajama. Both trousers and skirts look much better on people with conventionally “perfect” figures. I therefore switched back to sari and salwar-kamiz as professional wear. In the snow I wear saris with boots, just as my grandmother did when she lived in England for a couple of years in the 1930s. I find it just as wearable while driving a car in America as when riding in a rickshaw, auto or bus in India. Even those not used to it can often manage well in it. When my partner, who is American, wore a sari for a family wedding, everyone was surprised at the ease with which she carried chairs around for my father and other elderly relatives.
Unfortunately, most present-day U.S. multiculturalists tend to be more comfortable with people who have a range of skin colors but who all wear the same dress and speak with an American accent of some sort (which Americans think of as unaccented English). If one does not reconstruct oneself in this way, one’s career may suffer, but this is a price worth paying for physical and emotional comfort.
Indian men, when they switched over from Indian dress to Western dress, made a huge sacrifice in giving up colour. Accounts of and pictures of male attire in north Indian cities before 1857 indicate that men routinely wore a wide range of colours, decoration such as embroidery and gold borders, and jewellery. In my research on the literary circles of Lucknow in the nineteenth century I found that male poets writing for both male and female readers described dress and accoutrements in great detail and with great delight. In 1803, the poet Qatil described his friend, the poet Insha, dressed for the Nawab’s Holi celebrations at court: “Insha Allah Khan Inshā…. in a robe specially gifted to him as an honor, the yellow, saffron color of which put Kashmir to shame, and the fringe of which shone like glittering water in a garden of marigolds, set out for the festivities.”[i]
Now that I live in both the U.S. and in India, I can attest to the huge difference it makes to one’s state of mind to be immersed in a sea of colour every day as on Indian university campuses, as opposed to a sea of denim blue, black and white, occasionally relieved with a bit of colour, on a campus in the U.S. The effect this change from bright colours to drab ones would have had on Indian men’s self-view, aesthetic perceptions and state of mind is not easily measurable; this is an area that has not been researched or even discussed.
Most fortunately, Indian women, unlike many women in much of East Asia and South-East Asia , did not switch over completely. In keeping with India’s assimilative traditions, many Indian women’s wardrobes today contain a variety of garments of different provenances, just as many Indians’ diets today incorporate non-Indian food (altered to suit Indian palates) while Indian food remains the staple.
The sari is often praised for being “feminine.” In fact, the sari is androgynous, just like salwar-kurta or trousers. It only appears “feminine” because most men have given up wearing the dhoti or veshti in work contexts. Indeed, a cotton sari is called a “dhoti” in many parts of north India . The untrained non-Indian eye often finds it hard to distinguish between Radha and Krishna in traditional representations, since both wear similarly draped garments with fabric floating across the chest and shoulders, along with jewellery and garlands. Bharata Natyam is one of the most androgynous and vigorous dances, requiring a great deal of stamina, strength and flexibility. Dancers wear the sari and the dhoti to perform it.
Finally, the sari, like the shawl, has provided one of the best canvases for artists to develop and display their talents. From a mixed cotton-synthetic sari in a roadside market costing Rs 100 to the wonderful synthetic silk imitations of Kanjivaram for Rs 350 at Nallis, to Banarasi and Kanjivaram masterpieces that become family heirlooms, a range of designs drawing on the most ancient to the most modern motifs make the sari a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
[i] From Ruth Vanita, Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry, 1780-1870 (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012), 184; New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, forthcoming).
Indian women working in different sectors, all wearing colourful saris: Agriculture (top left),
Textile (top right), Construction (bottom left) and Education (bottom right)