The Sari: Meanings Behind the Cloth

Clothing in most (if not all) cultures is a significant interpretation of the self. It says something about who we are or at least how we choose to be seen. Clothes carry meaning, which is why we wear certain outfits in some contexts and not in others. So, whern we explore the culture of the Indian sari, we must pay attention to its context, its variations, and its meaning for different members of Indian society.  In this post, we offer only a brief overview of the sari, but we hope it will help you begin to appreciate the complexity, diversity, and spirit of the cloth behind our silk flex-wraps.

To begin with, we must acknowledge that India has a highly stratified society. Hierarchies and identities are created by religious caste, age, sex, economics, subculture, and region.  Appropriateness in dress is necessarily wrapped within these limitations.  Since the beginning of the period of British rule in India, Western influence has introduced another layer of stratification.  It was often a means for upper-class Indians to disassociate themselves from the lower, uneducated classes.  The early 20th century brought with it Western machine-manufactured cloth.  It was a finer type of cloth and ushered in the widespread wearing of Western-style shirts and trousers by many men throughout India.  We have to make an important distinction here that women generally were expected to keep to more traditional clothing as part of the notions of female modesty and purity (as Western styles tainted Indian culture). Of course, Western influences have crept into Indian society more and more.

Little girls wear Western-influenced frocks, for example, as it is not appropriate for them to wear saris until they are older. In some regions, girls wear a half-sari (ghagra or pavada) before moving on to a regular sari.  Because the sari has traditionally also been associated with marriage and sexuality, many girls in their mid and late teenage years, don what is known as a shalwar kamiz (also known as a Punjabi suit , as it is especially popular in the Punjab region).  This garment consists of a tunic , trousers, and a scarf. More and more, the shalwar kamiz became the uniform for girls between 12 and 16 in government schools.

Example of a salwar kamiz

In the late 1980’s, it gained appeal for young women in colleges and universities for its more modest and less sexualized appearance.  It soon was associated as an option of dress for unmarried young women.

As women who pursued further education took the shalwar kamiz into the workplace, the convenience of the sari in various work environments was questioned.  This, of course, depends on the type of work one does.  Some women feel that the heavy sari cloth can be cumbersome to carry and others feel the shalwar kamiz restricts movement and cannot as easily be maneuvered when doing manual-intensive labor at home or in the fields. Their claims are, of course, influenced by their region, their work environment, their family preferences, and so on. While the shalwar kamiz has spread more widely and is more acceptable across age and other hierarchical divisions, the sari remains the standard dress for the majority of women.

The sari is a cloth, generally 6 yards long, that is draped around a petticoat and blouse, as

An example of a sari. Borrowed from: http://tinyurl.com/64z6x9m

seen in the picture. The pallu is the most decorative part of the sari, as it is the part draped over the right shoulder. The way the sari is fashioned allows some flexibility of expression to the wearer, as slight variations can mean different things. The pallu, for example, can be pinned or left free-flowing. When seen tucked firmly into the waist or held in a particularly tight way in one’s fist, it can signify seriousness, impatience, or anger. The pallu also may serve as a head-covering, when appropriate, signifying modesty and protecting one’s sexuality, though it can be worn in a more revealing way as well. Further, the pallu can serve a functional purpose, as a veil for nursing mothers. Another form of showing more or less modesty can be seen through the pinning of  the “skirt” part of the sari, which can also be manipulated to be higher or lower along the waist.

When a woman is married, it is customary for her parents (those who can afford it, anyway) to give her a gift of a trousseau or set of saris.  The different patterns, colors, and materials of the sari often reflect sub-caste regulations, family traditions, or other rules of divisions. Many women of upper classes prefer expensive synthetic cloth, but many are also now turning towards traditional hand-woven silk and cotton saris. Cotton saris are usually used for every-day wear, and silks are reserved for more formal occasions. Hand-woven cottons are not only expensive, but are also expensive to maintain (in laundry costs). Poorer women wear machine-manufactured, cheaper everyday cotton and mixed-fiber synthetic saris of lower-quality material.

After India’s independence from Great Britain, the Sari rose to become an emblem of national unity and identity, an aspiration to live up to the “ideal of India,” and to show loyalty to the nation.  They are not the only accepted form of Indian dress, but they certainly have become the accepted “formal Indian dress” (Banerjee & Miller, p. 237). As we mentioned at the beginning, clothing carries with it the meaning assigned by its wearer.  The structure of the sari, being a “one-size-fits-all” garment, allows it to be a common and appropriate gift and makes it easy to hand-down to younger or poorer relatives. However, it still bears the taste and care of its original owner. This is something that never quite leaves the sari cloth, and while its new owner(s) transform it and make it their own, a part of the original owner’s spirit does remain attached to the cloth. We hope that our f.a.c.t.s. customers bear this in mind and value the background of their flex-wraps, treating them with a special care that ought be given to these vintage, one-of-a-kind items.  We hope that our customers will also share in the spirit of recycling, and pass the flex-wraps on to another when they are no longer wanted, or re-purpose them for decoration or other use, when they are no longer wearable. In this way, we can honor the journeys the cloth has made across cultures, keeping within us a spirit of peace, of giving, of the universality of the human spirit, and of respect for Mother Earth.

Today’s update on f.a.c.t.s  is that we are still on schedule for opening this Friday, July 1st! We will continue posting on the topic of the sari cloth and the Navdanya non-profit we support in future posts and throughout the summer season. Starting Friday, we will also be showing different ways to wear your very flexible silk flex-wrap! 🙂

References: 

Banerjee, Mukulika, and Daniel Miller. 2003. The Sari. New York: Berg.

Norris, Lucy. 2010. Recycled Indian Clothing: Global Contexts of Reuse and Value. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 Tarlo, Emma. 1996. Clothing Matters: dress and Identity in India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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About factsfashion

Co-founders & Partners of F.A.C.T.S. View all posts by factsfashion

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