Of course you own a sari. We all do. It’s nicely ironed, folded and tucked away in a cupboard to be pulled out on special occasions. It’s very pretty too. So pretty that we wouldn’t dare waste it on a regular day in the office, brunch with the girls, or an evening of partying. It’s almost too good to take out of the closet.
No wonder that so few young women are draping themselves in the six-yard as everyday wear. Tailored trousers are comfier, dresses look smarter and for traditional occasions, a kurta does the trick with fewer safety pins. Face it, the sari is too much fuss.
Or is it? These young women – they’re all under 35 and also wear just about everything else – will show you that there’s nothing you can’t do in a sari, and that there’s everything to gain from pleating up. Saris can be fun, modern, edgy, stylish and cool – and they’re much too sexy to lie forgotten and unloved.
Let the stories unravel...
“It’s a connection to your culture, your people”
Amrita Lahiri, 32, Classical dancer
I wore my first sari at age 14. I was in the US till I was 15 and like all good NRI parents, mine put us into classical music and dance lessons. My teacher, Anuradha Nehru insisted, just like they do in South India, that by the time the students were 13 or 14, they should come to class in a sari – no salwar kameezes. That’s how it started. Instead of feeling forced into it, wearing a sari was something we aspired to. It meant we were grown up.
And it was so difficult, my God! It would unravel and we’d get scolded or embarrassed and had to learn how to keep it in place. Now it’s a breeze – if you can dance in a sari you can do anything, anything in it.
I think I have 40 to 50 saris now. But I also wear lots of other things. When I’m going out on a Friday night I like to wear jeans, a skirt, heels, whatever. I enjoy having different costumes for different occasions. But I also like things that are structured and have a story to them, that are not just a printed T-shirt – that’s too boring for life.
Lots of people think saris are inconvenient. But you know what? Women all over India, every day, mop floors and work in the fields in saris. What’s so special about us that we can’t get used to one? I’ve gone to a Delhi club and danced in a sari. Hip hop, bhangra, everything.
People have odd reactions when you’re draped in six yards of fabric. I once walked into a shop looking for birthday cake, my sari a bit crushed from being worn all day and this woman came up to me and said, “It’s so nice to see young women in saris. Keep it up!” I wear ones that belonged to my grandmother and people say, “You look so hot”. These aren’t flashy dresses, they’re my grandmother’s clothes!
Like dance, for me, wearing a sari is about making a connection. It’s something I’ve been able to talk to with my grandmother or my mother, my aunt, anybody. We can all share this. Is it a political statement? Maybe. It’s not activism in any sense, just a conscious personal connection to a culture, so many people, so many things. I don’t think I can better it. And nothing looks better on the Indian body. A sari changes the way you move. You walk slower – you glide almost – and you become more graceful. Who wouldn’t want that?
Get a blouse in a more contemporary cut and bright colour even if the sari is old.
Buy tussar or crepe silk, it doesn’t wrinkle easily and you’ll wear it more often.
Don’t pick heavy weaves and zari for casual occasions.
It’s not about the sari, it’s who’s wearing it and how.
“It’s more comfy than you imagine”
IleshaA Khatau, 24, Accessories designer
The first time I wore a sari for no reason was when I was 22, at college in Chicago and graduating. It was a cold, overcast wet day, so I put on a bright orange one, I walked in and everyone was completely floored.
I wear a lot of other stuff too – skirts, miniskirts... I actually wear miniskirts as sari petticoats since they give you a lot more movement and it’s not as hot then. Also it’s one less thing to buy. When I first started wearing saris, it occurred to me that you don’t just need a sari. You need a petticoat, a fall, a blouse. So I just mix and match.
I own only eight saris but I’m lucky to be able to wear my mom’s, who got them from my grandmother and great-grandmother. Mine are mostly plain chiffon because they make a great backdrop for jewellery. You always feel dressed up in this garment and the best part is that the dressing up doesn’t have to correlate to how much you spend. A good dress will cost a lot, but while there are expensive saris, you can get good ones without paying much.
Many people say saris are uncomfortable. But once you’ve worn them for a little bit, you get used to keeping it all together and stop thinking about it. The reactions are incredible. Everyone asks me if I’m going to a wedding. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or just sad because people now think that if it’s a sari, it must be some traditional occasion or that you’re old and boring. A sari can be such fun. I’ve gone to a bar, had six shots of absinthe and danced in one and it was such fun – just hold it all up so you don’t trip!
In India today, the upper classes are compelled to dress in a Western fashion to look modern or attractive. And a lot of India’s aspirations travel from the top down. But I don’t see why we have to ditch everything. It’s part of our tradition, there’s no reason to not do it.
Her tips to spice up a sari
Wear your sari with leggings or a skirt. Basically the only reason you really need a petticoat is to tuck something in, and as long as you’re covering what you want to cover, it’s fine.
Don’t have a blouse? Fold up the bottom of a fitted top or tank top and just drape it on.
If your family saris are falling apart but their borders are intact, sew them on to your neon chiffon saris.
Choose the lightest fabrics so they don’t add bulk on the hips.
“It’s no big deal”
Sushweta Bhoir, 34, has a "proper corporate job" as part of the finance team at Siemens
Fewer women wear saris today. I guess they think that a sari is hard to wear, or that you have to be proper when you’re in one. I’ve been wearing saris for the last 13 years, I have more than 35, and that’s so untrue. You get used to it quite quickly if you have the inclination. Mine take three minutes to drape, five if I’m wearing cotton. It’s not difficult, it’s not cumbersome. It’s so cool.
A sari can do wonderful things to your body and your sense of self. I am a moderately fat woman, so let me put it this way: people who are not so thin will look not so fat in a sari. It covers up your bad parts and shows off your good ones.
Of course it’s far easier to get into a pair of trousers. But if, like me, you’ve had a baby and are thicker around the stomach, you can’t tuck your shirt into your pants. It makes you conscious and that eats up your confidence and affects work. But if you’re wearing a sari, you have nice little pleats on the parts you don’t want to show. Yes it takes time to wear, but tucking your shirt into your pants takes time too.
I enjoy wearing a sari – the way it falls on you, the way it shows off your curves. Sure, driving a car will take getting used to because the fabric bunches at your feet, but it’s not hard to master. I’ve danced in my saris, run after my three-year-old, I even went to a disco, right after a puja, wearing a sari. People just said, “Wow!”
Her tips for beginners
Silk and chiffon are the easiest to wear. Cotton takes time to drape.
Tie your petticoat nice and tight, and nothing will unravel.
Still paranoid? Use lots of safety pins till you’re confident.
“It’s really for every day”
Priya Kapoor, 33, Director, Roli Books and CMYK bookstore
Until I was in my mid-20s, I was like everyone else. I loved the sari but pulled out mine only for Diwali, weddings and special occasions. But about six years ago, around the time Roli was working on a book on the sari, I started to get interested in it. It packed such an incredible amount of information – every pattern, every colour, every yarn had a story – I was hooked. There’s nothing more personal, more bespoke than this garment – how could I not be partaking in this very high-end fashion? I bought my first one, my first own sari, from a little shop in East Street, Pune, for some R700. There’s been no looking back since. I have 70 saris now.
I hate when people assume that saris are impractical. I go to the gym and in the summer I usually carry a sari to change into; and women 15-20 years older look so shocked, it’s as though I’m tying on a kimono! They tell me it’s such torture to wear. But I can actually do more things in the garment than in pants or a skirt – like sit cross legged in my chair at work. I wear all kinds of things, from dresses to kurtas, and I mostly shop abroad or at surplus stores because the stuff fits me better. But with a sari, you never get the wrong fit. And you don’t need safety pins – they lock in the pleats and you are not very smooth in your movements. Saris are meant to take the shape of your body, let them. Keep your ghagra tight. Retie it later if necessary.
Saris will make you look beautifully feminine and sensual without trying too hard. I have pick-me-up saris for when it’s going to be a long hard day, and they always make me feel better. Every single time I wear them, there are compliments. People aren’t used to seeing someone of my age and background putting it on. Flight attendants have told me how nice it is to see women travelling in a sari. And because I love them so much, for a while, all my birthday gifts were saris. I’m not complaining. They all fit!
Her tips on where to find it
Head to ByLoom in Calcutta. Bapa there does such beautiful weaves.
Register with Raw Mango and pick up their lighter saris.
In Jaipur, Benu Bhatnagar does exquisite Rajasthani gota patti work.
Sushama Reddy, actress
I always, always buy my saris from Neeta Lulla. She makes the most amazing and sexy blouses to go with them and her cuts accentuate and flatter! I have a tall frame, so saris look nice on me. My favourites are chiffon and net, the latter are very young, very sexy and drape well.
Tip: Pinning is key to comfortable sari wearing. Wear the blouse with a flattering cut. It can make the sari contemporary.
Dipannita Sharma Atwal, model
I pick up my saris from several places, starting from Satya Paul, Sabyasachi, Shahab Durazi, Masaba Gupta and Ravi Bajaj to FabIndia and heirloom Assam silk saris from back home.
Tip: There are no strict rules as to how a woman should wear a sari. You can do the pallu drapes differently and wear different styles of blouses.
Mandira Bedi, actress & TV host
I tend to wear a designer in phases. I’ve worn a lot of Satya Paul graphic-print georgette and crepe saris, I’ve worn around 20 Masaba Gupta designs, and whenever I need a heavy sari, I turn to Dabiri, the label of Delhi-based designers Divya Bindra and Vandana Sawhney. I also have saris by Ritu Kumar and Lucknawi georgettes, which I find very elegant. I look at my saris as an investment because they are timeless. I would definitely spend more on a sari than I would on a dress.
Tip: When you buy a sari, get two blouses made – one conservative, and one daring.
Jiah Khan, actress
I love Masaba’s saris. I love the fact that she does not do conventional stuff. I like that she experiments with prints and cuts. Other than that, I would buy something off the street if it catches my eye.
Tip: Cut your petticoat or wear a short skirt and drape a sheer sari over it. It will reveal just a hint of leg.
Minissha Lamba, actress
If I want a nice sari, I usually get it from Neeta Lulla or Sabyasachi Mukherjee. Their designs are not only traditional but also quite modern. I usually buy georgette or chiffon saris. I also have a few heavy Mysore silk saris that really look beautiful on me. I don’t like very heavy saris, so I always buy something with a thin border or no border at all.
Tip: Before selecting a sari, consider your body type, skin colour and height. The sari frames your personality, so get something that really complements you.
Ankita Lokhande, television actress
I’ve bought over 300 saris for my role in Pavitra Rishta, either from shops or a designer. I usually frequent Lokhandwala, Bandra and Malad in Mumbai for designs. In Pavitra Rishta, I change my style every month – everything from Kolkata saris to broad-border saris to chiffon ones with brocade blouses and net saris.
Tip: Once you’ve draped your sari, bend forward and check to see what’s still sticking out or if you’re revealing too much. Then, tuck or fix things with safety pins.
From HT Brunch, November 18
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