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What made sari cool?

How the unstitched garment has evolved over the years to become a must-have in every Indian woman's wardrobe

Easy tops and shirts as blouses, drapes, belts and comfortable shoes, be it sneakers or boots, all have made sari cool.
Easy tops and shirts as blouses, drapes, belts and comfortable shoes, be it sneakers or boots, all have made sari cool. (Courtesy Anavila)

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Sari, the unstitched garment, is a reflection of our art, culture, style and identity through history. In ancient India, women mostly wore personalised clothing with a deep sense of involvement. Every region of India with its rich craft and weaving practice and tradition has given us a unique textile language. The climatic conditions coupled with the deep love for sari and its ever-evolving nature and freedom of expression makes it as relevant today as it was a thousand years ago.

Let's take a brief view of the evolution of sari. 

Also read: Our sari needs innovation, says HUEMN's Pranav Misra

Pre-colonisation design language of the sari followed the control of the individuals and the common sense of dress prevailing in various regions. Clothing has always been a means to display one's position and class framework, and the sari blouse saw a strong British influence post colonisation. The heavily embellished British influenced blouses and brooches (sari pin, as famously called) were used by the influential and wealthy Indians to show status and keep up with fashion.  

Later, Khadi, as a textile, and Khadi sari, as a garment, became the symbol of India's self-reliance during the freedom struggle. In order to lessen Indians' dependence on British industrial goods, the hand-woven fabric of Khadi was used in almost every Indian household. This continued post-Independence, with many leaders opting for the simple bordered handloom sari to make a strong statement. 

Cinema, too, played a role in making sari the fashionable go-to garment. Lightweight floral printed and sheer saris flooded the market during the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, the sari had dramatic themes, multi-coloured screen prints with flowers and polka dots, typical of European designs. 

Social reformers like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay pushed the traditional artisanal weaves and surface ornamentation, and kept the sari with craft techniques alive through the industrialization period. Several government schemes and initiatives created platforms for weavers, researchers and sari lovers to indulge in the uniqueness and beauty of Indian textiles through travelling shows and exhibits.

The several years that followed the 1990s are seen as the time when Indians accepted more Westernised ideas in terms of fashion and style. Saris with self-coloured embellishments and elegant minimal blouse styles became popular. As we entered 2000s, the sari became dressier and more embellished. Heavily embroidered blouses with net and satin saris slowly started becoming a part of women's party wardrobe. Halters, corsets and back less blouses complimented the heavily embellished saris.

The next two decades saw a resurgence of craft and textiles in India. Young designers, government bodies and master craftsmen collaborated to create a unique identity of the Indian sari. Contemporary styling and modern designs of saris flowed into the fashion forefront. Sari started to gain popularity in the fashion weeks and became a popular fashion choice of  young Indian women. More experiments with raw materials started taking place. Linen, metallic, denim, even knitted saris, have now become mainstays. 

As the sari started to enter the modern women’s wardrobe again, easy and comfortable styling of the sari became essential. Easy tops and shirts as blouses, drapes, belts and comfortable shoes, be it sneakers or boots, all made sari cool.

Today we stand in a space where sari is as popular in modern households as it is in villages and small towns. There is a sense of pride in owning our traditions and roots. 

Sustainability and crafts have become an essential part of the modern design language. There is a deeper understanding of traditional textiles in the common space, thanks to social media. Most Indian designers are creating saris for the new-age woman, helping the sari style to evolve further.

Also read: A new exhibition in Hampi tells nine stories about nine yards


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