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Indian saree: Not quite ubiquitous, but every woman's wardrobe treasure

Topics Saree | garments | Fashion

Sarees suit all body types and come in casual, official, festive, traditional and wedding-ready avatars. Picture Courtesy: Ritu Kumar
You're sure to find female colleagues sporting one to office on the odd day. The typical Indian woman will have a clutch of designer and/or special regional sarees tucked away in some corner at home, that she can flaunt at weddings and other family occasions. In fact the six- or nine-yard fabric remain her most flattering garment for its propensity to lend that certain kind of Indian-ness that the salwar-kameez simply can't. For starters, sarees aren't just stretches of cloth to be draped around the waist. They evoke memories of mothers and grandmothers wearing them at milestone events. Every piece tells a fascinating story of the tradition that the skilled artisans of its state of origin have kept alive over the years--an art form passed on from one generation to the next, much like a family heirloom.

The saree is typically a single piece of un-stitched fabric, often with sections of heavier density, such as its border (akin to a hem) or pallu, which is the decorative end piece. But first let’s dispel some myths surrounding these garments.

Saree myths

A saree is generally thought of as difficult to wear, and many women today find pants and salwar-kameez more functional, aspirational and upmarket. But those who wear sarees every day will tell you there is no rocket science to donning one. Another myth is that you need half a dozen safety pins to properly tie and secure the fabric. The fact is that a saree requires zero safety pins and is meant to be free flowing, not rigid.

There is no single size for a saree. They differ in length for different drapes. It isn't always six yards long and its perfectly normal for it to range from five yards to nine.

Often people think there is just one way to wear a saree. There are, in fact a hundred and fifty ways that change as per region. Says designer Rajesh Pratap Singh, Chief Creative Director, Satya Paul Design label: “The drapes stem from context, geography and function. Some masters like Rita Kapur Chishti have really researched them. Drapes, like dialect, change every few kilometres in our country.”

The garment is no longer restricted to weddings and special family occasions. Many women prefer wearing sarees for  corporate meetings and cocktail parties. Some blends, such as cotton silk and linen, are easy to maintain and can be worn casually or as office wear.

While pre-stitched sarees or saree skirts may not be aesthetically appealing to many, they are still a good way to introduce the garment to the younger generation. Says Singh: “I am open to it as that is one way of introduction to a saree for the younger set. Gradually they will learn, to understand the real thing and elevate to the next level.”

Classic staples

The Benarasi brocade and Kanjeevaram never lose their sheen. Says media person Suparna Ahuja, who hobnobs with HNIs: “I move around with the high society crowd, who wear Pradas and Armanis, but all I have to do is pull out one of my heritage Kanjeevaram silk sarees and everything else pales. A saree is part of our rich culture and will always be valued.”

Some people believe that a true Indian woman must have some of the classic staples in her wardrobe. If you want to know your saree legacy, get one from each state - there is the Benarasi silk from Uttar Pradesh, Kanjeevaram silk and Konrad (temple saree) from Tamil Nadu, Kasavu from Kerala, Paithani silk from Maharashtra, Bandhini and Patola from Gujarat, Phulkari from Punjab, Chikankari from Lucknow, Chanderi from Madhya Pradesh. You also have Assam’s Muga silk, Rajasthan’s Leheriya, Jamdani and Tussar silk from the eastern states, Kalamkari and Pochampalli ikat from Telangana, Uppada from Andhra, Taant from West Bengal, and Bomkai and Sambalpuri from Odisha.

Many Indian designers have been trying out the saree with new iterations and fabrications. "I keep innovating with sarees because it isn't something that can be cast in stone, it has passed the test of time over thousand years, basically because it’s so versatile," says fashion designer and revivalist Ritu Kumar. “My entire attempt is to make traditional sarees wearable for today’s generation.” 

She recalls her first foray into sarees with the Banaras collection showcased at the Bombay Fashion Week, five years ago. “Indian Banaras sarees had unfortunately started using stiff yarns, due to which the younger generation wasn’t keen on wearing them. At some point, I got that saree fabric draped on to a gold-coloured churidar, gave it a belt, and created a style that in itself generated substantial interest. Nowadays we find lots of sarees with belts, which essentially makes them look younger and glamorous. You can almost wear any kind of saree in this style because of the drape and belt. I am not partial to any single fabric, though I love handloom for a casual, lineny, stay-at-home look.” She adds that selecting one’s kind of saree is very individualistic, though one must keep in mind one's personality and the occasion for which the saree is to be worn. 

Saree wise

Look for a saree design that suits a specific occasion. Authenticity is very important for sarees. Says Singh of Satya Paul Design label: “(It all depends on) Who is wearing the saree and what the end use is.” He finds that the higher working women go up the ladder, the more they are inclined towards sarees. These women are sure of themselves. Some of the most intelligent, beautiful, intriguing women, who are extremely well educated, well-travelled and affluent, choose to wear sarees. Also, it’s a garment of choice if you have a special meeting and want to make an impact. Singh adds: "While we often see women wear the western gown even at a traditional Indian wedding, which is a bit strange, there is another very discerning set that likes to wear sarees and really goes deep into its making and origin. Nowadays, even the younger lot is keenly interested and involved in understanding the garment. They want to know where the textile is from, how it is made, what is the motif or artwork on it."

While choosing your saree, always look for the right fabric. Cotton is best suited for summer. Silk can yield a formal yet classy look while a georgette or chiffon saree would definitely look pretty, be easy to carry and require less maintenance as well. There are synthetic body-hugging fabrics like crepe, rayon, satin and chiffon, and other materials such as net, moonga, linen, dupion, organza, paschmina, tussar and tissue. Designers have their own preferences. For instance, chiffons, georgettes, and satins are widely used in some of the printed Satya Paul sarees. At Ritu Kumar, a mixture of silk and crepe yarns is used a lot.

One needs to understand the body shape. For instance, cotton or silk are thick materials that can give you a heavy look, while Italian, crepe, georgette or chiffon tend to stick to your body, giving a slim look.

You can pair a light saree with a heavy or statement blouse. Sarees with the belted structure or with a thin border are also trending. Apart from a blouse and a long petticoat or an inner skirt, you will need some accessories to complete the look. Jewellery, hair accessories, some basic make up and footwear – everything counts.

Never store a saree soon after wearing it and allow it to get some air. The best ways to store it is either on the hanger after ironing it or in the bag with naphthalene balls and dry neem leaves. Sarees are gentle and delicate and handwashing and dry cleaning are the best ways to keep them fresh.

What contemporary women want

The saree is seeing a new wave among urban women, who want to hold on to their roots and yet evolve in attire. They love experimenting with different style drapes, and replacing traditional blouses with classic white shirts and tops. Say Colorsootra’s Jayashree and Rajashree, “Pastel shades to acidic colours, newer colour combinations to fresh patterns like chevron and floral are something a modern woman looks for. Also, the contemporary Indian woman likes kora and linen sarees. However, for the muhuraths, the brides-to-be usually opt for traditional designs.”

The Satya Paul varieties are more about the art work and the colour, and the motifs are no longer traditional. Singh says the DNA of Satya Paul is contemporary and Mr Paul started a new language he gave to the Indian saree- of very bold bright colours--it was breaking the norm of the traditional saree with colours and motifs that were not traditional.  

Modern iterations include saree skirts with differentiations like ruffles, tiers, multiple materials tailored into a single design, and even some non-pleated styles. Brands such as Indya create design for women in their 20s and 30s who love the elegance of a saree but may not be able to drape them gracefully or may not have the time to do so. They use fabrics like georgette, organza and net, and price them between Rs 2,200 and Rs 3,500. Says Tanvi Malik, Co-Founder, Indya: “Unlike our mothers and grandmothers, a lot of us aren't adept at effortlessly tying a saree. A pre-stitched garment helps people like us to simply slip it on, zip up and go, saving time and the stress of getting it right. There’s also a sense of freedom and ease of movement that comes with a pre-stitched saree.”

How is a saree valued?

Most sarees are found with embellishments and embroidery work, which are quite expensive and makes a saree look heavier. How is a saree valued? The prices vary based on several factors such as type of yarn used in warp and weft, loom type, material, artwork, and quality of zari. Says Colorsootra Jayashree & Rajashree: “A polyester yarn saree woven in a powerloom using synthetic zari is available very cheap and takes less than a day to get out of loom. A pure silk saree with yarn from mulberry cultivated in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and woven in a handloom set-up with pure gold zari can cost you over 2 lakh. It would take 30 days to weave a beautiful saree.” They recommend the burn test of the loose threads as the easiest way to distinguish between synthetic and pure silk. Skill and labour-intensive techniques like kadua, meenakari of North India and korvai, petni and adai techniques also elevate the price.

Designer vs regular 

Designer sarees are even more expensive. Says Sounak Sen Barat, Creative Director, House of Three: “While weavers carry forward traditions, designers co-create innovations and make them relevant, discerning and accessible to a larger audience who are contemporary global citizens. That’s the difference.”

But what is it that justifies the huge price premium charged by most designer labels? Sen says it’s the product innovations done by designers themselves which are expensive. "It costs a bomb to innovate, sitting physically with weavers/dyers/printers across clusters in India. To add to that, the luxury market in India is still very nascent, so the business of most bootstrapped designers is small, while their costs are consistently high. Luxurious products, small market size, big cost buckets compel us to price our products a certain way. Most of us can’t afford to price them cheaper even if our intentions are noble,” he says.

Will the saree survive? It will keep evolving with time, but continue to retain its identity.

"It won't just survive, it will thrive and become an indispensable part of the Indian woman’s closet," says Sen. It will be changing its avatar according to time, but will retain its cultural identity. Like they say, trends are sporadic but traditions are eternal."   

Saree type Price (Rs) Saree type Price (Rs)
Patola / Ikkat
11,996-52,800  Handloom 6,880-35,200
Printed saree
1,440-20,400  Banarsi 8,800-55,996
Paithani 28,800-76,800  Kanjeevaram 9,596-33,600
Kalamkari
7,680-17,200  Uppada 11,200-90,396
Kota 13,400-76,800  Bandhani 7,600.00-75,996
Soft silks matka tassar 10,000-35,200  Designer 3,360-35,200
Cotton 1,440-16,400    
Source: Greenways



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