Fig. 1: Chopra, Prem Shil. Prem Lata Chopra in Agra. Photograph. Agra, India, 1960. Prem Lata Chopra sitting in front of the Taj Mahal in a sari.
Fig. 2: Chopra, Prem Shil. Sunita Chopra Pasi. Photograph. New Delhi, India, 1982. Sunita Chopra Pasi wears a red sari to her wedding.
Fig. 3: Chopra, Prem Shil. Prem Lata Chopra in Madras. Photograph. Madras, India, 1970. Prem Lata Chopra sits in front of a garden with her children, wearing a sari.
Fig. 4: Chopra, Prem Shil. Brij Sood. Photograph. Punjab, India, 1957. Brij Sood and her husband on their wedding day.
The sari (can also be spelled “saree”) is a traditional garment whose etymology comes from the Sanskrit word sattika, meaning women’s attire. The garment has six to nine yards of cloth hung around the waist, across the torso, then draped over the shoulder. It is worn with a blouse called choli, ravike, kuppasa, or cholo and a petticoat underneath called ghagra, parkar, or ul-pavadai. Oftentimes, the sari can be passed down from generations as an heirloom, but it is also a practical garment worn every day.
Early Hindu sacred texts such as Rig Veda, Mahabharata, and Ramayana along with early Jain poetry, Silappadhikaram, and Buddhist literature, Jatakas, include the first mentions of the sari. However, historians have found evidence that the sari was worn during the Indus Valley Civilization. Some believe that the men’s dhoti, the oldest draped Indian garment, is the precursor to the sari; they think that the dhoti was worn by people of South Asian descent as early as the 14th century.
The arrivals of the Aryans — Indo-Iranian peoples who invaded the Indian Subcontinent in 2000-1500 BCE — brought the Sanskrit word vastra, meaning cloth, clothes, garment, or dress. As the Aryans moved towards the Southern parts of India, they adopted the draping of cloth around the waist and used vegetables to dye the fabrics. Women additionally wore bright and colorful saris with simple embroidery. The word patta, or silk, is thought to be the origin of South Indian dialects during this era.
During the Persian and Greek invasions of 550-327 BCE, both further transformed the sari in various ways. Greeks wore a belt-like cloth (modernly referred to as a cumberbund) and the Persians wore clothes that were held together at the shoulder and belted by the waist. Indian women took these two and blended them with their clothing. The Persians are thought to have introduced the art of stitching and encrusting fabrics with pearls and other precious stones to India.
The modern evolution of the garment that exists today can be traced to the Mughal Empire, established from 1526-1857. The Mughals used exquisitely fine fabric and established the embroidery and motifs of intricate embellishments often associated with the sari in modern times. During their reign, the Mughals perfected the art of stitching and preferred to wear silk clothing. It is understood that there were over five hundred natural dyes for fabrics during this time.
In the 19th century, Kadambari Devi invented the idea of wearing a sari draped with pleats, and advertised in newspapers to inspire women to wear their sari as such. Saris in modern times have different designs, colors, and styles of draping. Today, there are over 80 distinct ways to drape a sari.
Appropriation and Influence
Selena Gomez wears a sari, 2014
After the highly publicized backlash following her “Come and Get It” 2013 MTV performance, Selena Gomez took to Instagram to continue to wear her self-described “glam tribe” aesthetic. Donning a sari and writing her caption, “Sari, not sari,” effectively mocking the Hindu community and South Asian cultures for her usage of culturally significant items and profiting off of them.
Alexander McQueen’s Ready to Wear Fall Collection, 2008
Lee Alexander McQueen’s “The Girl Who Lived in a Tree” Fall 2008 collection was inspired by his obsession with India’s extensive textile industry and the ideas of “British royalty of the colonial times meeting Indian regality.” One of the prominent gowns featured a maroon sari material to create the bodice and a floor-kissing white column skirt. Other motifs in the collection include peacocks, the national bird of India, and paisleys. McQueen, alongside his friend and collaborator for the show Shaun Leane, went to India for a month to research the height of the British Raj. The collection also featured regiment jackets, feathered gowns, satins, and blood-red velvets, and column dress to build the world of the grandiose Maharajas.
Christian Dior creates the “Soirée de Lahore,” 1955
For Monsieur Christian Dior’s Fall 1955 collection, Dior created the evening dress “Soirée de Lahore.” Since his debut of the “New Look” in 1947, Dior’s designs similarly echoed the functions of saris or lehengas: discreet snaps and buttons with separate skirts and blouse tops. Made of silk organza, metallic thread, and diamanté, the “Soirée de Lahore” features a distinctly sari-style wrap and intricate embroidery with a peacock-feathered design. The shoulder drape is reminiscent of the drape styling of a sari.
#SareeNotSorry movement, 2015
In 2015, Dr. Tanya Rawal-Jindia started the #SareeNotSorry social media campaign to fight xenophobia within fashion. Rawal started the campaign as a way to bring positive attention to aspects of the Indian culture by posting pictures of herself wearing saris. She wanted to help combat the stigmas around Indian-Americans and help them embrace their culture despite the social climate of anti-immigration support. Rawal’s tagline is: “borders are for saris, not an excuse to deny human rights.” She also wrote a Medium essay on why the movement was so important.
Banerjee, Mukulika, and Daniel Miller. 2008. The Sari. London, England: Berg.
Chishti, R̥ta Kapur. 2010. Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond. Edited by Martand Singh. New Delhi, India: Roli Books.
Google Arts & Culture. 2017. “9 Facts You Might Not Know about the Sari.” Google.Com. Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/ewIi5LK9aiamJA.
Lynton, Linda, and Sanjay K. Singh. 1995. The Sari: Styles, Patterns, History, Technique. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Sari.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 1998. https://www.britannica.com/topic/sari.
Suri, Charu. 2020. “The Surprising History of India’s Vibrant Sari Tradition.” National Geographic, September 24, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/the-story-of-the-sari-in-india.
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