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.
Shopping here is a full-contact sport.
Shopping in India isn’t the same as shopping in the US. There’s a vulnerability in being seen and known and attended to, and most of us in the US aren’t comfortable with that. In the US people want to be left alone, our choices private, our flaws and insecurities cached behind the illusion of anonymity. But here in India… It is a much more relational experience. People are used to close relations. They want to feel attended to, and the clerks—and the system—account for that.
First, you have to picture the shop itself. Think small, think specialty. Only saris, or only salwar kameez sets. Menswear shops will sometimes stock both traditional clothes and western suitings. (You can of course have anything made to measure, if you want to and have a couple of days.) They target their markets by price and by item. It’s like shopping in a single department of a department store, with a horde of personal shoppers on staff.
Except not at all. The shops in a big city will usually be cheek-by-jowl, as in any city, and small. Now imagine a city jewelry store, only it’s selling tunics. Glass counters, five staff for twenty linear feet of shop.
Now imagine a bookstore, with bookshelves to the ceilings, only it’s not books, it’s plastic-wrapped tunics of every size and color and fabric.
Total width of the store, fifteen feet or so, less 18 inches on each side for shelving. Total depth? Well the apparent depth is probably 20 feet. But there’s tardis potential in that dimension.
You go in and are seated. If you’re the only customer, they may have to turn on the lights and AC for you. They ask who you’re buying for, one or two more questions, and then start pulling things from the shelves and unfurling them with a flourish before you on the counter.
“This one, ma’am! Very nice color! Best quality!”
They start with one or two extremes, because they are trying to guess your taste.
When you shake your head at the overly plain overly garish, overly floral (last night was overly floral—I’m sure someone would look great in it, but it would have made me look like a living room sofa), or whatever thing they started you with, they back up.
“Okay, ma’am. Not this. Never this!” They whisk the offending garment away or cover it up with the next one. “This one, very nice embroidery.” Head shake no (remember, a sideways head wiggle here means yes, don’t get it backwards or you’ll send them off in the wrong direction) from you, and they shake out another. “This one, excellent color ma’am.” They listen to everything you say (especially if you speak a local language) trying to figure out what they can offer you that will suit. Even a slight hesitation or tilt of the head will bring an avalanche (remember, these shelves are tall) of similarly-themed options. Nimble clerks scramble up and down the shelves (built to take the weight, ladders take up too much space) pulling things down as they go.
As a buyer, you’re trying to strike a balance. On the one hand, you want the thing you want. If they have it, you need them to find it for you. They need information to do that. On the other hand, this country has a long legacy of bargaining. A few places don’t, but many places still do. So you don’t want to act too interested, because then they won’t come down on price. Even if you don’t plan to bargain, there’s a pride in not letting them know exactly what you’re thinking. This is more tennis match than collaborative creative process.
Of course, if you don’t speak the local language (Marathi in Mumbai, although Hindi will do) you’re limited in your communication options. They usually speak English, but with limited scope. Way better than my Hindi, though. I can’t even wrap my head around being trilingual across two language families.
Eventually, they will find something. If you’re from the US, you have to get over feeling awkward that they’ve shown you fifty items and haven’t found one you want to buy yet. You have to get used to being seen, being known, and being attended to. Either you get the sense that they don’t stock what you want and you leave, or you let them keep going. They are nearly tireless and inveterate sales people.
They might have a fitting room, but you’ll have to ask, and go back through three layers of rooms and through an alley you didn’t have a clue about from the front, up and down stairs and more turning on of lights and fans. If not, you have to guess or measure.
Shopping in groups is normal—feel free to bring a friend—but the salesman will always tell you it looks good, and also that his tailor can make it fit you in just a few minutes, no problem, ma’am. Check the seam allowances before you believe that it can be let out. Make your own call.
Also for your judgment: whether “one HUNDRED percent cotton!”is or isn’t. (There is a particular hand gesture that goes with this, for emphasis. There’s no way to translate it.) Or silk. Or best quality. Likely nothing is labeled, and if it is, you probably can’t trust it.
But they are good people, that’s just how the game is played, a little wink, a little nod, a little nudge…
as they say here, you adjust. You figure it out.
The right outfit is out there, waiting.
And if not, the tailor is right around the corner…