The Ultimate South Asian Style Guide: Kandyan Saree
It's important to know that Sri Lanka has many distinct cultural groups: including Indian Tamilians, and the majority Sinhalese. The kandyan saree is attire only to the latter, as the other cultures in Sri Lanka wear sarees that are more reflective of their own communities.
The Sinhalese community is the majority in Sri Lanka, with over 15 million people worldwide. The saree was believed to have been derived from the Bengali style, which is similar in draping to the Sri Lankan style. It is unknown when the saree become the go-to daily attire for Sinhalese women, but it is believed to have been in existence as far back as 543 BC, when the exiled Sinhalese descendants of Prince Vijaya inhabited the island.
The name "kandyan" refers to the hilly region of Kandy where the style was first sourced.
The Sinhalese culture values the kandyan saree, or the osaria style, as the most elegant and versatile attire a woman can wear. The key feature of this saree is that the midriff is covered with a longer blouse, which is believed to make the garment more modest and protective against the heat. One could argue that the lack of pleats on the skirt also makes the outfit more figure-flattering for women of all curves and sizes.
Other women in Sri Lanka, including some Sinhalese communities, still opt to wear the traditional saree draping style with cotton sarees - similar to those found in East India. Alternatively, the nivi style of draping - which involves passing the pleats through the legs to allow for more free movement - is also a popular option amongst working women.
The kandyan saree is still worn by Sri Lankan brides, although a white wedding dress is another common outfit for reception ceremonies in this culture. The wedding saree, being of the utmost grace and elegant, is often made with finer materials like silk and decorated heavily with embroidery. In contrast, the daily saree worn by Sri Lankan women may be of a cheaper, more versatile fabric that they can do housework or errands in, such as cotton or linen.
The kandyan saree is a two-piece attire, with one blouse (usually short sleeved) that covers the midriff and is tucked into the waist. A key distinguishing feature of this style is that the saree is not pleated at the waist, but rather pleated at the shoulders. In comparison to the traditional saree draping style, this outfit is more free-flowing at the waist but has a more constricted pallu.
The waist portion of the saree is tucked in to a petticoat and wrapped around the hips - without any pleating. The saree is then pleated and draped across the left shoulder to create a pallu that falls on the back, but does not flow freely like a traditional pallu. The kandyan saree pallu is also defined by the frilled designs on the border.
The kandyan saree was considered the most fashionable attire amongst older generations of Sri Lankan women, before Westernization popularized dresses and pants. The fabric varies by usage, with wedding sarees made with fancier fabrics like silk and casual daily sarees made with cotton, linen, or lighter textiles.
The kandyan blouse is a defining part of the outfit. The sleeves are usually short, but they are commonly puffed up slightly to create a jacket-like look. This style has stayed in fashion for ages, and it is still used by young women today. The kandyan blouse is notably longer than the traditional blouse - it covers the midriff. However, modern blouse styles involve women draping kandyan sarees with blouses that stop short of the midriff or have longer or shorter sleeves, as per their individual preference.
The saree itself is decorated for purpose, but the frilled borders of the pallu are an integral part of the outfit. The pallu is more carefully decorated with floral designs, religious motifs, and geometric patterns - because it is pleated and displayed more so than the portion of the saree wrapped around the waist.
Wedding sarees tend to be more heavily decorated, with thick golden borders and embroidered designs. These sarees are made with thicker fabrics so they can also accomodate beading and heavy details. The pallu is, once again, the spotlight of the outfit, and will be more glamorously displayed than the rest of the saree.
Kandyan sarees today are most commonly seen at Sri Lankan weddings, worn by the bride to religious events. They vary in style, but the elegance and grace of the figure-flattering outfit is undeniable.
A modern style with a revealed midriff, this saree is unpleated and has a structured pallu as per osaria style. Photo via Samira & Nigel's Buddhist Wedding
Celebrities sometimes choose designer kandyan sarees for red carpet wear. Actress Jacqueline Fernandez is a huge fan of this style and has been photographed at many events in the traditional Sri Lankan drape.
Jacqueline Fernandez dazzles at the 2013 Screen Awards in a designer kandyan saree.
While it's less common to see a modern bride or celebrity wearing the traditional kandyan blouse that covers the midriff, the style itself is clearly still in fashion. For weddings or other formal events, the simple, flattering drape of the kandyan saree is easily graceful and culturally unique.More photos