The Ultimate South Asian Style Guide: Sarees
Sarees are symbolic of many cultures, including Indian, Pakistani, and Nepali. The garment is worn by women of all social classes and occupations, though the material from which the saree is made will vary from expensive silk to simple cotton. The saree itself may be dyed many different colors or embroidered with motifs and patterns - it is the most commonly worn garment in South Asia, and its flexibility makes it flattering on all body types.
The word "saree" or "sari" is derived from Sanskrit, meaning "strip of cloth." The earliest known depictions of the Indian saree come from 2800-1800 BC, from statues of goddesses in the Indus Valley civilization. Many sources, including Tamil poetry and Kerala scripture, depict goddesses and dancers wearing a draped fabric around the legs - similar to the dhoti or lungi.
However, modern civilization identifies this fabric as the origins of the saree, now worn over a choli or blouse. Cholis evolved from "uttariyas," a simple bodice wrap that would cover a woman's breast back in 10 A.D. Today, cholis cover part of the back as well, where the pallu of the saree falls from the shoulder.
Culture & Community
Sarees used to be only lower body coverings, where the breasts were left bare, until the mid 19th century, when a controversy in ancient Kerala required women to use the saree as a full body covering instead. Today, sarees are consider the epitome of grace and modesty. Since they do not reveal a woman's body, save for a few inches of midriff (never the naval), they are considered conservative, daily wear by the majority of South Asian citizens.
Many communities, such as those in Rajasthan, still wear the traditional choli - a bodice that covers only the breasts - and wear the saree as more of a lower body covering, like a dhoti.
The saree is worn in all communities, from villages to big cities. Working women would wear their sarees in a pant-like style in cities like Mumbai (called the nauvari), so that they could more easily move around to conduct physical labor such as cleaning. Even middle class and upper class women still wear sarees, but they are more capable of wearing nicer fabrics like silk because they do not have to dirty their clothes. A symbol of formality and grace, the saree is even worn by stewardesses in Indian airlines.
Red sarees are still the most common wedding attire worn by brides, as per a tradition from centuries past. These sarees are often made of silk and are symbolic of prosperity and good fortune in brides. Nowadays, brides opt for various other bright colors, such as orange or yellow, but the saree is still worn at a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony. Fabrics such as Georgette or satin may be substituted for the ancient preference of silk. Regardless, the wedding saree must be elegant, conservative, and more formal than a casual, daily wear cotton/linen saree.
There are over 80 ways to style a saree, the most common being wrapping it around the waist and draping it over the shoulder, pulling the fabric from the front to hang loosely in the back.
Common Draping, courtesy of CTC West, 2012
The fabric is first tucked into a petticoat and wrapped around the waist a few times.
Then, the fabric is pleated at the front to tuck into the center.
The saree can either be draped over the left or right shoulder, but some communities, such as the Gujaratis, prefer it over the right.
The other forms depend on the use of the saree in various communities and cultures. In the villages of Andhra Pradesh, the nivi saree is worn by pleating the fabric through the legs and tucking it behind the back - a style that allows women to move about more freely while still covering the legs.
Gujarati and Pakistani sarees tuck the pleats in similar to the nivi style, but the pallu is taken from the back and draped across the right shoulder, pulled across the front instead of the back like the common style.
Bengali sarees in the oriya style are worn similar to the traditinal sarees, but include some differences in draping. There is often no thicker lining to the fabric, and the saree pallu is weighed down by a key ring or decorative trinket. Women drape this saree to create two pleats in the center of the waist: once by wrapping it around the right side, then reversing the fabric and wrapping it around the left side. The two center pleats are then neatly tucked into the waistline, and the saree pallu is draped around the left shoulder.
The highlight of the Bengali saree is the straight pallu, which falls on the left side. The right side of the pallu is tucked on the right side of the waist, to cover part of the mid-back, but the left side is weighed down by a key ring, trinket, or small object so that the pallu remains flatteringly straight down the woman's left shoulder.
Nauvari sarees are worn in Maharashtra in a similar style to the male dhoti, where the longer nine-yard fabric is worn like pants, with two ends wrapping around the legs before the pallu drapes over the back.
Kodagu style sarees from the Kodagu district of Karnataka are pleated at the back, instead of the front. The loose end of the saree is pulled from the back to the front - similar to Gujarati style - and pinned down.
The casual Gond style worn in Central India starts the saree draping from the shoulders instead of the waist. The saree is draped over the left shoulder, then arranged to cover the rest of the body.
Tribal saree styles are known for securing the fabric below the breasts with a knot across the chest area.
The most common saree, worn for daily wear, is made of cotton. Some communities, like the Malayalis, prefer the cotton to be unbleached. Others, and modern society, prefers dyed cotton in fun colors and patterns. The fabric is always light and free-moving, so that the woman can go about her daily work easily.
Silk sarees are reserved for formal occasions or weddings. Paithani silk is a specific silk from the Paithan region of Maharashtra - it is dyed vibrant colors like purple or gold.
A silk South Indian-style saree, from Preeti & Kaustubh's Wedding
Modern sarees play with many fabrics, such as tulle, satin, and linen. The structure and texture of these fabrics affect the draping, with thicker fabrics being harder to form pleats in.
A bride and her bridesmaids match in sarees, from Anjoli & Tim's Wedding
Designs range from traditional Indian motifs such as paisley and religious symbols to modern designs like geometric patterns and florals. Most daily wear sarees are simple, with different colored borders or mixed and matched blouses to add a bit of color.
Blouses are mostly undecorated, although modern styles and formal wear include beading and heavy embroidery on the blouse as well as the saree itself. The blouse worn as daily wear is usually cotton and monocolor; it clasps in the front and is short sleeved. Today, women can be seen wearing sleeveless blouses as well as 3/4 length blouses as per contemporary fashion.
A bride wears a beautiful long-sleeved saree blouse, from Priyanka & Sandy's Engagement
Sarees are still considered regal wear, and many celebrities can be spotted in the traditional graceful look on red carpets or wedding events.
Kirron Kher in Gaurang Shah's Chandbali Collection
Katrina Kaif in a hot pink saree
Sonam Kapoor at Cannes Film Festival 2014
Many of our featured brides also prefer sarees, generations after the tradition was formed, to don on their religious wedding days.
In fact, saree draping is often a family affair, where older generations will teach the younger about the art of draping a saree.
Aren't sarees just dazzling?!
No matter the style, the fabric, or the blouse, sarees will always be an intimate South Asian tradition that reflects the timeless grace and fashion of the community.
Check out complete series of clothing: traditional South Asian saree, mekhela chador, Indian men’s pants, shararas and ghararas,Indian men’s hats, lenghas and half-saris, Indian men’s jackets, sherwanis, women’s salwar kameez, nauvari (nine yard) saris.More photos