Give a child a piece of fabric, and they’re bound to drape it around their body and twist it into shapes; it can be a scarf or a skirt, a makeshift T-shirt or a turban, and in six yards, it can turn into the magical ensemble of a sari. The sari – which comprises an underskirt, a top, and a four- to a nine-yard piece of fabric - is almost synonymous with womenswear in South Asia. It is also a part of one’s cultural identity, tradition and heritage. Saris are seen as a rite of passage into adulthood, were part of a traditional bridal trousseau, and are still passed down as heirlooms. The sari features prominently in modern political movements, and is considered a symbol of independence.
The sari dates to a thousand years ago though chroniclers of the sari put its origins to the beginning of the Indus Valley civilization in 1500 BC. In his book on the history of saris, Vijai Singh Katiyar notes that the population of ancient civilizations wore draped garments made of cotton since cotton was a primary crop.
The sari became a clothing of daily use for the elite as well as women who work in farms and rice fields and in offices and hospitals. In Bangladesh, saris are worn on the days commemorating the beginning of the New Year and spring, as well as Mother Language Day, and there is a long-held tradition among Pakistani teenagers to wear saris to graduation dinners.
The sari has evolved over the decades. The most common way of wearing a sari dates to the 1870s. Gyanodanandini, the sister-in-law of the poet Rabindranath Tagore visited Bombay (now known as Mumbai) and became inspired by the city’s fashionable Parsi women. She came back to Calcutta and popularized their style, featuring the sari draped on the left shoulder, and worn with a jacket, chemise and petticoat, and the fabric pulled over the head. There was an ongoing wave of experimentation with sari styles, and Gyanodanandini’s ‘inspiration’ became the version most commonly seen today.
In recent years, global fashion trends, design innovation and a nod to the changing urban lifestyles are reflected in the sari’s evolution. But saris are not part of a trend: they are timeless outfits and it is always worth owning one - or a dozen.