…every few months the obsession with draped clothing surfaces. This time it was because I was thinking that choli blouses just don’t make sense. In what universe do you take a super simple garment (six yards of unstitched fabric at the width of the loom) and make it complicated by adding a stitched skirt and skintight, highly-customized, highly-tailored blouse?
- Victorian England, although there’s some evidence that choli blouses predate the British occupation in some areas.
- a culture that loves high, rounded breasts as an ideal of a woman’s figure (yep, like the Greek statues, most Indian statuary was not representative but idealized) and discovers that you can get much closer if you put a fitted upper garment on the woman in question
- a culture where the original way to address the awkwardness of having breasts was a breast…tie? strip? Just a piece of cloth tied around the chest. Then when sewing becomes a thing, you make it fit better and stay on longer. Fair.
- a culture where the weather is cold. (Some of India, but definitely not all)
However, all these things assume you have some time and energy to devote to the project. None of the farmers I saw in India (ever) looked like they had spare time or energy. Like farmers here, and probably everywhere, if it’s growing season, they’re busy, and since there isn’t a real winter there, it’s almost always growing season.
One day, riding the train between cities in India in 2000, I looked out the window and my jaw dropped. In the middle of a country that I was experiencing as very concerned with modesty, there was an elder woman, maybe in her 50’s or 70’s (age works differently when you work outdoors all day) working in a rice field…with no choli blouse. Her pallu (the long tail end of a sari, usually more decorated, that sometimes hangs down the back of the person wearing the sari) was scrunched up on her shoulder and wrapped around her waist to tuck in front, one breast covered, the other not.
It started wheels spinning that are still turning.
What if, especially in the south, this business of blouses was relatively new? (Likely.)
As I continued to think about draped clothing (it’s been 16 years) and learn about saris, I discovered that there aren’t just a couple of variations, there are hundreds (that we know of, probably many are already lost) of ways to drape a sari. And some of them cover the chest with that same six or nine yards of fabric. It should be possible. Six is a lot of yards. I can make a dress with four or five. I can make a minidress with fewer. So with six yards, someone must have figured out the wrap-fold-pleat secret to not needing anything else. Imagine if, handed a beautiful length of fabric, you could just .put it on and leave the house.
That’s what saris do.
Except that whole blouse thing.
So today, with a little more energy and some curiousity, I went digging on the internet.
“How to wear a sari without a choli” I typed.
Some useful things and a lot of erotic photography turned up.
no no no, not how to be half-dressed while wearing a sari and no choli.
I tried a few more search strings, but somewhere in there this photo caught my eye:
As it turns out, it’s from a film in Malayalam due to be released in 2016 (I think) about a tribal village woman who fights to honor the balance with nature. Sounds awesome.
Also, check out that picture. And look at the drape.
She’s not rail-thin. She looks like she could get something done in her sari. And she is wearing, as far as I can tell, neither petticoat nor choli.
There are practical ways to wear saris. The current dominant way is one of the least practical. No wonder younger women are struggling to keep the sari alive.
The nivi drape, which you’ve seen everywhere, is not made for getting things done. Who leaves their pallu untucked? Someone who doesn’t need to lift a finger. Everyone else wraps it around their waist and tucks it in on the opposite side so they don’t come undressed. When you start to dig around in the history and complexity of sari drapes, one thing becomes immediately clear: women have been doing amazing things in saris for thousands of years, and almost none of them wore their saris like THAT.
Maharastrian women wear a nine-yard, bifurcated drape. The bottom of the sari looks like pants. Know why? BECAUSE THEY RODE HORSES INTO BATTLE. Badass. Practical. (That’s the drape I borrowed for my installation sari at my last church. Because badass and practical and proud of my Indian heritage were important to me.)
When I was in India in 2000, I watched women wearing this drape scramble up and down hand-tied bamboo scaffolding with pots of wet cement on their heads. It is SUPREMELY practical. Also, the pallu can be made into a pad for whatever you balance on your head.
The fishtail drape (the one you see on Bharatnatyam dancers) is another bifurcated drape, because if you want to tell a detailed story using only your body, you’d better be able to move your legs! Also, they’re gorgeous. Why reserve it for dancing?
The kache drape takes the same basic steps that you use for the nivi drape and turns THAT into pants. Because it’s easy, and practical, and if you need to pee it’s not too much work.
And the deeper I dig the more often I find overlap between dhotis (men’s draped pants, usually 5 yards) and saris.
And there are some kickass dhoti drapes.
When I order a new sari, it sits and waits for a long time, because I need to find a way to make a blouse for it. I live in Maine; we don’t have choli tailors on every corner.
But what if I could just put it on and go?
What drape can I go rock climbing in?
When women didn’t wear tops, what did their saris look like? Maybe I can just add a shirt.
There are potential problems here. With so many groups in India, is it appropriative for me to wear a drape not native to my region? How about if it is from a tribal or scheduled caste group? What about the fact that I live in the US?
On the other hand, I want these traditions to live. Chantal Boulanger was a French anthropologist who did tremendous work in preserving some of the drapes which were being lost as elder women died and the local drapes fell out of favor. If she had not learned to wear the saris and sought out the people who would show her the drapes, valuable history might have been lost. She collected her work in a book before she died in a freak accident in 2004. Now there is a school in New Delhi, run by an Indian woman, teaching other Indian women to drape saris, because it’s vulnerable. Women’s oral history is easily erased completely. There is also a stunning coffee table book written by Kalpana Shah, with instructions and color photographs. And then there is the #100sareepact from Twitter which started as a pledge between two friends in Bengaluru to wear saris more often, and Dare2Drape, which is encouraging not just traditional but modern drapes.
The only way to keep the tradition alive is to claim it. It has never gone away, but it gets pushed aside for clothes that are less eye-catching and to which we are better accustomed. But this is my tradition. And it’s going to be my rock-climbing, cat-petting, beach-walking tradition, so I’d better figure out how to make it my own.
I’ve got class, education, language, and cultural privilege here in North America. I plan to use it.