Urban Drape Sarees on BBC
BBC News has featured Urban Drape Sarees on their list of brands that have reinvented the saree for the 21st century.
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One of the oldest forms of clothing, the sari, has been integral to the lives of many south Asians for centuries. The garment has long been seen as the embodiment of traditional, conventional and 'feminine' beauty. But recently, younger people are subverting this stereotype, reclaiming the sari in a more contemporary way.
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The word sari (or saree) comes from the Sanskrit word sati, which means a strip of cloth. It has a varying length of four to nine yards (3.6m – 8.2m); most saris are six yards (5.5m) long. The history of the garment goes back to the Indus Valley civilisation of around 3200 BC to 2000 BC, where people wore a long piece of fabric. The garment has evolved over time, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the country was under British colonial rule.
Sri Lankan designer label Urban Drape has a sleek, contemporary look, pairing saris with crop tops (Credit: Urban Drape)
While there are many different ways to drape saris, in their book, The Sari by Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller, the authors look at the history of the nivi style, the most popular sari style today. While women at home wore saris without a blouse or slip, Jnanadanandini Devi, a Bengali social reformer during the British colonial time, thought it would be unsuitable in public. Looking for something modest, she took inspiration from her Parsi hosts in Mumbai in 1864, who wore the sari with a petticoat or slip and a blouse. This gave birth to the nivi style; one end of the sari tucked into the top of the slip, wrapped and pleated around the waist, and the flowing, embellished end (named pallu) thrown over the left shoulder. In the early years of the 20th Century, this nivi style of the sari appeared in images of women in India's nationalist movement, which helped develop it a mass appeal.
In Ancient Textile Series, a book series about craft and fabric, author Aarti Kawlra writes in her essay, Sari and the Narrative of Nation in 20th-Century India, that during these nationalist movements, the sari emerged as a symbol of "Indianness", the emblem of south Asian culture and feminine beauty. "So central was the sari to the nationalist narrative that, from the early part of the 20th Century, it was employed to create the persona of a 'proper' Indian woman within the frame of increasingly gendered societal norms," writes Kawlra.
From there, the sari became the dress of "cultured" south Asian women. The idea that a sari-wearing woman is more modest, delicate and respectful became widespread. Speaking to BBC Culture, Mukulika Banerjee, social anthropologist and co-author of The Sari says that there is certainly a correlation between wearing a sari and "feminine" beauty. Women would transition to wearing a sari after their marriage, and the garment was a symbol of their femininity. "A sari is seen to be transformative in self-presentation in a way that a suit is for a man," she says.
For many married women, the sari became essential attire rather than a fashion choice. They had a sari to wear at home, there was a sari for market and temple, and more lavish saris for occasions like weddings. Over the years, however, many married women have adapted tunic tops and skirts for easier movement.
The Indian brand The Saree Sneakers has helped popularise pairing a sari with trainers (Credit: The Saree Sneakers)
Banerjee says that the idea of the sari as "restricting movement" is debunked by the millions of working women who are construction workers and farmers. "For them, it's the most economical option," says Banerjee.
Narratives around saris embedded in religion, marital status, colour and body shape exist till this day, and this is what we are trying to combat – Aiza Hussain
However, Jaseena Backer, of the Facebook group Saree in Style, says that many urban women have a strong belief that saris could be restrictive and cumbersome to wear. "I love saris but I wouldn't wear them while I use public transport. I feel that it wouldn't be so comfortable to move around [in a sari]," she says. "In cities and towns, the average middle-aged woman thinks that sari limits their movement and freedom to do anything while wearing it." The sari continues to be labelled as the modest attire for married south Asian women who represent the conventional standards of "feminine" beauty: thin, delicate and reserved.
Despite these nuances, in recent years, designers, artists and influencers have been challenging the traditional feminine ideals attached to the garment. With innovative styles introduced by young south Asian women, the sari is making a comeback as everyday clothing. Designers and stylists are moving away from conventional sari draping; they wrap it around jeans instead of the petticoat, and wear it over a t-shirt instead of the tailored blouse.
Indian brands like The Saree Sneakers popularise the idea of pairing sneakers with saris, while in Sri Lanka, designer brand Urban Drape specialises in saris with crop tops. Banerjee says that these recent innovations, especially with blouses, make the sari more popular and every day. "It takes the pressure off matching fabrics, tailoring, and ironing. This hassle was one of the main reasons women gave up saris. But changing its accessories makes it easier to adopt it and wear it on a daily basis."
Aiza Hussain, 24, owner of the Pakistani brand The Saari Girl, is one of those younger people embracing the sari. During the dictatorship of Zia ul Haque (1978-1988), saris were banned in most spaces in Pakistan. Some celebrities stood out in resistance to these campaigns, such as the singer Iqbal Bano, who sang Faiz Ahmed Faiz's famous Urdu poem Hum Dekhenge at Alhamra Arts Council in 1985 clad in a black sari. Hussain tells BBC Culture: "Narratives around saris embedded in religion, marital status, colour and body shape exist till this day, and this is what we are trying to combat. We want to normalise saris. After all, these six yards of loose cloth can be for anyone and everyone."
The Saari Girl is a Pakistani brand – it is keen to 'reclaim heritage' and combat stereotypes arounds the sari (Credit: The Saari Girl)
In Pakistan, Hussain is seeing change. While her mother's generation only wore saris for formal events like weddings, she says many young women now are purchasing them for daily wear. "Eminent Pakistani brands who never offered saris before are now selling saris. When that happens, you know there is a growing market for them."
Sari designer Adila Murtaza of Shahkaar by Adila agrees. While she says saris were mostly limited to married women in the past, it was also an heirloom garment. "If your grandmother or mother never wore one, you were far less likely to wear a sari," she tells BBC Culture. "But now, young women have so much more fun with saris. They wear them casually and style them in innovative ways – with belts, blazers, pants and sneakers. For people who don't know how to tie a sari, there are ready-to-wear stitched options."
Murtaza notices that some sari purists scoff at these non-traditional ways, but she loves seeing people having fun with a piece of fabric and expressing their authentic self. "Earlier, there was the belief that saris were only for thinner women, but now, we are embracing the size inclusivity of the garment. For plus-size Pakistani fashion bloggers, sari is a fashion statement now," she says.
Social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram have helped promote to these designers' work, and to popularise the idea that women can do anything while wearing a sari. When dancer Eshna Kutty, 24, posted her #sareeflow video, spinning a hula hoop to the Bollywood song, Genda Phool, it went viral; the video received more than two million views. Kutty draped her mother's sari over jeans and a sports bra while wearing sneakers. "That was my personality shining through it," she says with a laugh. "See, hooping is such a Western art form. I wanted to popularise it among the masses of India, and what's a better way to do it than wearing a sari?"
I wanted to express myself, be happy and comfortable while wearing a sari – Eshna Kutty
The idea that the sari could be restrictive to wear, she says, is a "mental block". For many people, Kutty's videos are a powerful reminder of the flexibility of the garment, and she wanted to show that a woman can still be authentic as herself while wearing a sari. "When you drape a sari, you are pressurised to wear makeup, heavy jewellery and be a delicate lady. I wanted to express myself, be happy and comfortable while wearing a sari," she says.
Kutty believes that the sari is making a striking comeback among young girls. After her #sareeflow videos, thousands of women joined the Instagram trend. Some of them, like Kutty, twirled a hula hoop clad in a sari, while others backflipped or simply styled a sari in their own way.
Shahkaar by Adila is a brand that embraces size inclusivity and innovative design (Credit: Shahkaar by Adila)
"Gen Z didn't grow up seeing their mothers wearing saris every day. For their mothers, sari was occasion wear. So young people find the sari as something trendy as opposed to boring, traditional attire," Kutty adds. "Yoga is ours, but we only found it cool when the West did yoga. I think it's great that we found our tradition cool with the sari. The only way to keep the sari on-trend is to be innovative with it."
The garment's comeback expands beyond south Asia, with the sari becoming the representation of south Asian culture in the Western fashion industry. Co-founder Sofi Kassam of the Canadian label The Saree Room says that she and her partner decided to start the brand in 2015 because of how difficult it was for her to shop for south Asian clothes. "Our families are south Asian, and when I decided to go for a wedding, it was increasingly difficult to find a sari that fits a young woman's taste."
The Saree Room receives most of its orders from women between the ages 18-34, and a growing number of customers – about 18% – are from outside the south Asian community. Kassam notices that young south Asian people in North America are reviving vintage vibes with printed saris, a best-seller at her brand. As a young girl, Kassam recalls walking into her grandmother's closet and dressing up in her old floral saris. "I love the simplicity of wearing a printed sari. They are truly a timeless piece we can pass on to future generations," says Kassam.
"It's finally nice to see so much representation, and have the younger generation be proud of their heritage. Social media has given south Asian women a great platform to express their culture like never before," she adds.
North American Gen-Z fashion influencer Milan Mathew – whose family comes from Kerala in south India – turns to social media to represent her Malayali culture. Mathew says that there is a lack of South Asian, and especially Malayali, representation in the Western fashion industry, and with her more than 800,000 followers on TikTok, her sari videos, she says, play a part in establishing the Malayali rendition. In one of her "How I Drape My Saree" videos, with more than 8 million likes, Mathew wraps her sari over leggings instead of the traditional petticoat.
North American fashion influencer Milan Mathew – whose family is from Kerala – posts sari styling tips on social media (Credit: Milan Mathew)
"I wanted to show what a sari is to my followers from outside the community. My south Asian following loves it because they can relate to my videos, and it's their culture represented by a Malayali woman, a woman who looks like them," says Mathew, who receives questions from curious young south Asian women looking for fashion advice. "I feel like I am the 'big sister' to so many young girls who want to embrace their culture in today's world, be it styling a lehenga or wearing a sari over your jeans."
A garment that champions inclusivity, cultural representation and expression of self, it's no wonder that the sari is growing in popularity as everyday wear. It seems young people across the world are changing the narrative and reclaiming the heritage garment, with creators, designers and artists reshaping established beliefs about what a sari is and who wears it.