The thing about saris that I’m really into at the moment (other than their inherent gorgeousness) (and the need to wear them like they are clothes and not fragile crystal that you take down once a year) (and their comfortableness) (ok, everything) (but still)…
the thing about saris that I’m really into at the moment is their sustainability.
These are garments that need no alterations (maybe a new blouse) to pass from generation to generation to generation. They come down from parent to child. They get shared among friends. Imagine a Naked Lady Party where everything fits EVERYONE! Imagine shopping for clothes and every single garment fits.
There is one caveat: If you are big enough you might need to shop for eight and nine yard saris, or saris with the blouse piece “running” (still attached, and at the inside end), or have a piece of cloth sewn to the beginning or to the top edge, or both. But imagine, even then, you can wear any nine yard sari you want. Any of them. It’s like saying you can wear every single blouse in the store, or every pair of pants. Cut is NEVER an issue.
As someone with an unexpectedly shaped body, this is a godsend. And when you wear draped clothing often enough you realize how ridiculous it is to design clothing with, like, a one inch tolerance.
And then you realize how unsustainable it is.
And how classist.
And then you realize that the reason those body-skimming dresses probably came into fashion in the 1300s in Europe was that only court women could afford to have clothing that tightly fitted and bias-cut (which, if your fabric is rectangular, makes it much harder not to waste fabric.)
Imagine if all the women in your family could share the same five or ten or twenty dresses. All of you, no matter how pregnant or ill or fat or skinny or whatever you got. You only buy new ones when you feel like changing it up, and if you can’t afford it, you’re pretty much ok until they wear out. You change accessories or dress them up or down with jewelry. You drape them a bit differently depending on the occasion. You have some heavier cotton, some lighter cotton, some silk, and some synthetic, realistically.
And they don’t get very sweaty, and they are so thin they dry instantly on the line or on your person.
Imagine how pissed off the fashion industry would get?
Also the luggage people. If I’m wearing only saris, I can pack twenty outfits in a standard size rollaboard.
I pretty much never need twenty outfits. But I can, if I want.
I only need a few, so I can afford to spend more on each one, to pay the weavers (and spinners if it’s khadi) properly (that’s still a major issue, with middlemen picking up most of the profit, so if you can manage to be picky about your sourcing, DO).
All that is great, but I keep coming back to this: I can wear this art and pass it on to anyone I want. Friends, relatives, neighbors. People at the coffee shop. Total strangers. You can always give a sari as a gift.
This is complicated a little by gender, yes. But historically these garments belonged to everyone. It is complicated by issues of cultural appropriation, yes, but people can find their own heritage draped clothes, too. Greeks did actually wear togas, the kitenge and the kanga are African draped garments, the sarong/lungi/etc is a size and shape of fabric worn around the world, the Scots have the kilt (yes, a great kilt is six yards of draped fabric…but it’s wool! I’d love to see someone well-versed in kilts drape a sari as a kilt).
It’s further complicated by what do I wear under it, because there are only a couple of drapes that are full-coverage and not many cultures where exposed breasts are ok. But we can wear whatever shirts we want, whatever shirts we have, or can make, or tie a bandeau top out of a piece of fabric, which is very very oldschool.
And remember, your friends can borrow your saris. Traveling to a wedding? Don’t have anything suitable? Find a fancy top and borrow a fancy sari. Done. Going to a family occasion? No idea what to bring for the hostess? A sari is always suitable. She may regift it if she doesn’t like it or doesn’t need it.
So tell me: why do we insist on stitched clothing?
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I started this blog YEARS ago, and wrote a lot about how Indian clothing had influence my thinking, but didn’t talk much about actively wearing it. There are a lot of reasons for that, but times have changed, and here we are, in 2018, and I am unironically, uncostuming-ly wearing saris as part of my daily wardrobe.
Last year when I went back to India after 17 years, I started wearing saris as…clothes. Part of that was about weight gain–I simply don’t fit into most RTW kurtas anymore. Part of that was that I really wanted to practice, and dadi is OLD–97 then, 98 now, 99 in November. If she’s going to teach me stuff, I have to start engaging the learning process.
Part of it was this blog itself and the thinking that went with it. Draped clothing is revolutionary, revolutionizing, decolonizing stuff. It is a radical act to demand that one’s clothing conform to one’s body, but that wasn’t always the case. The ancient people in most places draped their clothes. Sewing was a much later and fussier invention, and in many places it was mostly to keep things on the body more easily and not to do with modesty, until later when modesty became a Thing.
But by draping the body in untrammeled fabric, one reclaims the idea that the body sets the rules and the outside forces follow them. My body is what it is; my sari does what I tell it to do according to my body’s needs.
It is ALSO radical because it doesn’t have this replacement thing going on. Saris are amazing and gorgeous and I want to collect ALL OF THEM–but I can also wear the ones that my grandmother hands down to me. I don’t replace them when I gain or lose weight (maybe I have new blouses stitched–that’s a yard of fabric at the outside–or maybe I wear them with other tops in my wardrobe.) and I can wear any sari that someone gives me. They are a standard size but they fit almost anyone (exceptionally tall and wide people sometimes have a challenge, but even that is a vestige of conformity–six yards is a lot of fabric if you don’t have to make it do something specific). If there weren’t Right and Wrong ways to drape them, if you allow yourself to improvise, then they can really fit almost anyone. Drape it short, long, with fewer wraps around the body or more of them, as pants (two ways!) or as a skirt, for elegance, for mobility, so many choices. And thanks to the internet and a lot of people trained and untrained, we’re no longer hemorrhaging the knowledge when our elders die. It’s being videoed and documented and written down and a new generation of people is wearing them. And we are not just wearing new ones (although some of the new ones are STUNNING) but also the ones our grandparents (and aunts) are giving us.
So draped clothing, while it can be very acquisitive (everything fits!) is actually anti-capitalist and pro-handcraft; there’s no waste in a draped garment, and having now spent a year wearing saris a lot more than I used to, I can say with authority that it’s very versatile. I have saris that I can wear like jeans and saris that I wear as elegant eveningwear.
I don’t usually post images here, for whatever reason, but I’ve been Instagramming my saris, as part of a loose community of people who are reclaiming and reviving them. So here are a couple of pictures of today’s sari–a nauwari (nine yard) sari traditional in maharashtra and a few other corners of India but much less common than the six yard version. I’ve draped it as old-school maharashtrian women do, with a lot of pleats in the front that then get pulled through the legs and tucked in the back waist to make a pants-like bifurcated bottom. I’ve skipped going over my head with the pallu, but have brought it around my waist to tuck it in and keep it in place. This drape can be very elegant or super practical–today is definitely in the practical camp!
I love wearing saris (this one with a t-shirt, because it’s comfy) when I can wear them my way. The more worried I am about getting it wrong or getting it right the less able I am to treat them as just clothes. It’s clothes! But it’s radical anticapitalist fat friendly mybodybelongstome smash the patriarchy clothes.
NB: The emotional weight of wearing a sari as a diaspora kid in an explicitly antipatriarchal context like the company I choose to keep is WAY DIFFERENT from wearing one if it’s the thing you’re wearing because your mother in law really prefers that you wear one now that you’re a married woman you should dress like one and please no jeans. The combination of increasing liberation for women in India and massive amounts of privilege is what makes this revival of saris easier. If you can CHOOSE to wear them, they’re fabulous. If they’re the only thing your husband and inlaws or community allow you to wear, that feels very different. I do not have the weight of that experience or context sitting on my head when I put one of these on. To me they are a hug from my grandmother, a release from clothes that don’t often fit right, a way of reclaiming my heritage. To me all the old drapes that are getting documented and reclaimed are fantastic and innovative and liberationary (is that a word?) because they make it practical to wear saris in a way that the “normal” (nivi) drape does not. The nivi drape and its attendant rules, when done “properly”, leaves you wearing a floor length gown. Elegant, but damn near useless if you have to be active. Women who wear it routinely modify it through their day–tuck it shorter in private spaces and wrap and tuck the loose end at the waist if they’re cooking or tending children, etc. Many many other drapes are designed to be more practical. HOWEVER many people of my grandmother’s generation had to adopt the nivi drape in order to become socially mobile. Old style drapes labeled you as “country” or poor or lower class. I have the privilege of reaching into the bins in the back of the closet for things that are deserving of visibility and respect and presence that my people could not. All this context matters, as does the revival itself. And the right of South Asian and diaspora people to decide how much of this they want, and how much they don’t.
Me? I want it.
…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.
Saris: the best resource for draping saris is Chantal Boulanger’s book. But if you want a quick-and-dirty primer on the most common draping style (nivi) and a few bonus options, go to sarisafari.com. She also imports and sells some beautiful saris, if you don’t live near an Indian district.
YouTube has some excellent additional videos. A drape that I’m particularly fond of is the fishtail, shown here. There are fantastic text explanations here, from a SCA person whose character is a 14-1600’s dancer in India. She includes a description of how to go to the bathroom without undraping the whole thing, which I have found useful for both sari and some dhoti styles.
1. here‘s a good solid basic video in English.
2. this is a slightly different style (make sure it stays closed in front!)
3. and here‘s a video for Kshatryia (warrior caste) style. I find this a very practical drape for getting things done. The crossed front on this style avoids the gapping-open-fly problem that sometimes comes with style 2. Style 1 manages this by draping the pleats in front of the opening.
All three of these dhoti styles can use the toilet as described in the fishtail drape description. Nivi sari drapes don’t have that problem, of course, they’re just like skirts. Now there are three more variations on the bifurcated sari drape, done with the longer 9 yard sari instead of the usual 6 yards
nauvari drape (from Maharastra) one version here and one here
So I’ve been on about draped clothing before. Draped clothing: when you get dressed from a (usually rectangle) of fabric, with no cutting or sewing. Saris are draped, dhotis are draped, kangas are draped, so are sarongs/lungis and a host of other garments around the world.
Some people think that draped clothing is likely to fall off, but that’s not been my experience.
And I’m all in favor of draped clothing, because it’s custom fitted to the wearer, every single time. Gain a pound? Lose a pound? No problem. Also, it packs FLAT. You can get a TON of draped clothes into a suitcase. And it’s very versatile. I have done almost everything except swim in draped clothing now, at least for my bottom half.
Also, the range of gorgeous fabrics is amazing.
But there’s been one glaring hole in what I’ve found. I can make a dress, or a pair of pants, or a shawl. But a top/bra? Not so much.
I was noodling on ancient bra technologies (don’t wear one was really popular, but after that it was usually just a strip of cloth across the middle of the breasts, more to hold them down than anything else) and then I started thinking about babywearing, and the wraps that people use. And I realized that if you remove the baby, you might get a decent start. So I hopped up and got my trusty bolt of muslin (if your local fabric store is ever having a deep discount sale on muslin, grab a bolt (25 yards) of 45″ to experiment with, you can thank me later.) I cut 4 feet of it, tore it into 4 strips of about 11 inches each, and sewed them end to end. (Now technically I could have taken 3 yards of muslin and torn a single long strip, but I didn’t want to waste fabric). The next step was suddenly (after all this time) obvious.
Put the middle of the strip on your sternum. Wrap the fabric to the back, crisscross it and bring the ends over opposite shoulders. Crisscross it again between your breasts, wrap it to the back, tie a half knot, wrap it to the front, tie a double knot.
This avoids the discomfort of a halter, which hangs the weight around your neck, and creates both sturdy coverage and support. It does NOT create the standard silhouette at all, so your couture dresses will still require an underwire. But it works.
Improvements: I would like to experiment with a bias-cut strip (which would probably conform better to the breast shape, this one gaps a bit), speaking of wasting fabric, and with a knit. I also think some kind of buckle for the ends would be preferable to a double knot. And I am test-wearing it to see how it holds up under actual use. I suspect the fabric that covers the breasts could creep over time, but practically speaking it may not.
Further questions for investigation: can this garment be worn swimming?