At one point, the British thought the saree was too 'immodest' a dress.

Saree with crop top saree with shirts If the traditional garment is to survive it must evolveScreenshot/ Youtube
Features Fashion Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - 15:41

The saree is considered to be a beautiful and traditional garment that brings out the best in Indian women. However, most urban women of the current generation find it an incovenient dress for everyday life.

While purists swear by the magic of handlooms and even argue that the saree can be easily draped, the actual story is far from real. Somewhere in the 90s and early 2000s, sarees, urban women across the country began to switch to the salwar kameez. Saree today is a ceremonial outfit – reserved for weddings, temple visits and parties.

However, despite the "special" status that the saree enjoys, it was not always seen as a modest and traditional garment as it is now. Clothing in pre-colonial India was not only about fashion, it served as a means of social classification and commoditization. Post independence, sarees became a symbol of national pride. The saree that we see and wear today, complete with a blouse and petticoat, has been worn this way only in the last 70 odd years. Would you believe if someone told you that the petticoat and blouse were in fact the result of colonial influence and women went bare chested before the British era?

Joan Williams in The Fascination with the Eastern Sari (1932) describes the saree clad woman of pre-independent India as being graceful and feminine:  “We could see the swing of a beautiful supple limb, softly outline from slim waist to slim ankle, no stiff corseted effect no hard lines of waist or bust, no bulk, just a long sheer line of grace and rhythm."

Williams’s article focusses a great deal on the technique of wearing saree and throws some insights on how the saree was draped. She says, “There is a hereditary art in wearing a sari, that only an Eastern woman can successfully give expression to. It must be worn at just the exact length, showing enough but not too much of a slim ankle, the skirt part which is worn without the aid of buttons or fasteners, must be just the right width, not too tight or too loose round the hips, the upper half is perhaps the most difficult to manage, it must loosely caress the top of the head, showing the waves in a glossy black head, and then softly falling over one shoulder..”

Despite the fascination and romanticism of some English authors with the saree, the British colonial administration was not happy with the free flowing piece of garment which used to be worn by bare chested women. Under British rule, “native” attire could often be grounds for refusal of entry into British run institutions. The humble saree was considered “immodest” and changes were suggested to suit British sensibilities. This included wearing shirts or blouses underneath and a petticoat below the saree. 

Image courtesy: Screenshot/YouTube

Sarees were worn in various lengths and styles and the ankle length generous drapes were often reserved for upper-caste women. Rules about women who belonged to castes that were not allowed to cover their chests changed gradually and the saree evolved – hemlines increased, blouses with long sleeves became the norm and petticoats became mandatory.

However, with time, the aura of nationalism surrounding the saree abated. The salwar-kameez, kurta, pants and other western garments became more popular among the young as they were considered to be more convenient and practical. Today, powerloom fabrics and machine manufactured garments are fast becoming the staple in small towns and villages, too.

As saree revivalists try to revive lost weaves, the urban upper class is once again looking at the saree with inspiration. These are women who neither view the saree as a symbol of national pride nor as a certificate of their social standing but as a piece of art. 

These women are rewriting the rules, choosing to pair their sarees with crop-tops, shirts and even jackets. They are simplifying the drapes, doing away with the pleats and pins and pairing them with sports shoes and pumps alike.

The saree has not always been the way it is worn today. And if it must survive the 21st century, it needs to evolve once again. They may need to become shorter or be worn with trench-coats and boleros, if they are not be sidelined as a traditional and inconvenient  garment. Even as saree revivalists work with weavers to recreate the past, they may need to make adjustments for the attire to work in today’s fast paced world.

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