The evolution of the sari: from ancient India to international runways

Though the sari has evolved to reveal more and more skin, many women in South Asian societies wear theirs without showing an inch of flesh, even covering their head with the excess fabric

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 15:  Sonam Kapoor attends the Opening Ceremony and premiere of 'The Great Gatsby' during the 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 15, 2013 in Cannes, France.  (Photo by Venturelli/WireImage/Getty Images)

Opening the show for Prabal Gurung’s autumn/winter 2018 collection at New York Fashion Week last month was Gigi Hadid, dressed in a fuchsia-toned wrap skirt paired with a patterned scarf that was draped across her torso. The scarf was also wrapped around her neck, with one fringed tail hanging over her shoulder.

To some, it may have just looked like an interesting form of draping. Those in the know, however, might have seen a subtle nod to the sari. And as the show went on, the latter appeared more likely. The Nepalese-American designer’s collection showed all the makings of an autumn/winter line, with cable knits, turtlenecks and checkered trousers. But in the asymmetry, diagonal lines and wrap silhouettes were noticeable allusions to sari-tying techniques dating back centuries. Gurung’s adaptation of these age-old elements was clever and innovative, and avoided putting the brand at risk of any cultural-appropriation controversy. Some references were so contemporary you could easily miss them – like a black blazer designed with a one-sided white lapel, and an off-centre tie closure.

The Prabal Gurung collection is modeled by Gigi Hadid during Fashion Week in New York, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

The history of the sari

Sari, in Sanskrit, translates as “strip of cloth”, and it usually measures six to eight metres in length. The garment is believed to have originated in the Indus Valley as early as 2800 BC, and today represents the national dress of countries such as India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Traditionally, women wear cholis, or blouses, along with a petticoat, or long skirt, under a sari.

There are many different ways to drape the cloth, although it’s usually wrapped around the waist a few times, pleated and tucked into the waistband, with the remaining fabric draped over one shoulder. In South Asian circles, draping a sari is something of an art, lost on younger generations who, without the help of a grandmother or elder relative’s help, must resort to YouTube tutorials to guide them.

Gurung's autumn/winter 2018 showing was not the first time that sari influences have been spotted on an international runway. Who can forget the flamboyant sari-inspired costumes paraded by John Galliano for spring 2003, or the pre-fall 2012 collection by Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld paid homage to Rajasthan, and even adorned his models with Indian-inspired head jewellery? Or the Marchesa spring/summer 2013 show, where dresses were given a Bollywood upgrade, complete with delicate Chantilly lace, one-shoulder drapes, elaborate beadwork and bare midriffs?

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  A model walks the runway at the Marchesa Spring Summer 2013 fashion show during New York Fashion Week on September 12, 2012 in New York, United States.  (Photo by Karl Prouse/Catwalking/Getty Images)

The sari and modesty 

Though the sari has evolved to reveal more and more skin, many women in South Asian societies wear theirs without showing an inch of flesh, even covering their head with the excess fabric. At times, Indian designers take the complete opposite approach, replacing the traditional blouse with a skimpy bralette, and opting for sheer textiles for the draped portion – these are particularly prevalent in Bollywood movie dance sequences. But since modesty has had a heavy hand in inspiring international fashion trends of late, Indian designers, too, have reverted to traditional concepts. Rahul Mishra, for instance, added jackets and capes to his saris – a styling method used previously by Indian queens.

MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 21:  Fashion designer Rahul Mishra acknowledges the applause of the audience after his show  during the International Woolmark Prize as part of Milan Fashion Week Womenswear Autumn/Winter 2014 on February 21, 2014 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

The colours and styles of saris

In many cultures throughout India, a red sari is the traditional outfit of choice for a bride on her wedding day. But light, pastel tones featuring washed-out, vintage-inspired floral prints are currently in vogue. Renowned Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is one of the garment's most vocal enthusiasts – he recently courted controversy by saying that every Indian woman, young or old, should know how to drape her own sari. Although best known for his heavy, ethnic pieces, Mukherjee has also created a range of lehenga-saris – wide, voluminous skirts with short blouses and shorter scarves draped across the torso. His recent designs feature wallpaper-style floral skirts, paired with embellished silk blouses and bedazzled net scarves.

Payal Singhal’s saris feature head-to-toe feminine blooms, while Archana Rao’s versions are white and sheer, with embroidered floral motifs. Other Indian designers, such as Anamika Khanna and Sonaakshi Raaj, have taken to pairing the sari with trousers, a style commonly called the sari-pant, popularised by Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor.

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 15:  Sonam Kapoor attends the Opening Ceremony and premiere of 'The Great Gatsby' during the 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 15, 2013 in Cannes, France.  (Photo by Venturelli/WireImage/Getty Images)

One year ago, Gurung's runway show featured feminist slogan T-shirts, and his new, sari-inspired pieces celebrate women, too. His colour choice for Hadid's opening look was was directly inspired by Gulabi Gang, an Indian activist group that speaks up against domestic abuse. Their uniform consists of saris in the same shade of pink that Gurung draped Gigi in – "gulabi" means "rosy" in Hindi.

UTTAR PRADESH, INDIA - 2011/12/10: Members of Gulabi Gang pose for a picture before the meeting.

The Gulabi gang, or "the pink gang" as in direct translation from Hindi, is a group of women who basically take justice in their own hands. Out of desperation in the government officials' incompetency in dealing with abusive and domestic violence, Sampat Pal Devi forms the Gulabi Gang. Its main purpose is to help promote better living conditions for women around India. After being in operation for more than half a decade, the Gulabi Gang is reported to have more than 20,000 members and has saved thousands of women's lives across the country. The Gulabi gang, or "the pink gang" (a direct translation from Hindi), is a group of women who have decided to take justice into their own hands. Out of desperation following government officials' incompetence in dealing with abusive domestic violence, Sampat Pal Devi formed the Gulabi Gang. Its main purpose is to help promote better living conditions for women around India. After being in operation for more than half a decade, the Gulabi Gang is reported to have more than 20,000 members and has saved thousands of women's lives across the country.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The gang’s members could never have dreamed that their saris would inspire a New York designer in such a profound way. And while saris might never fully make it into the mainstream, could “gulabi” become the new millennial pink?

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