The sari, sometimes spelled saree, is a draped dress, created from a single piece of fabric five to nine yards long, which is wrapped around a woman's body in a variety of ways. The resulting garment can be practical working attire or an elegant ceremonial gown, depending on the type of fabric used and the style of draping. While women wear the sari, men wear a version of the wrapped garment called a dhoti. A daily garment worn by approximately 75 percent of the female population of India during the twenty-first century, the sari is one of the oldest known items of clothing that is still in use. Saris were mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient sacred literature of the Hindu religion, which has been dated back to 3000 B.C.E. , and many people believe that saris may have been worn even earlier.
Like the Greeks and Romans who followed them, the ancient people of India mainly wore garments that were wrapped and draped, rather than sewn. This was not because they did not know the art of sewing—early Indian people were experts in fine weaving and embroidery—but because they preferred the flexibility and creativity that draped clothing allowed. Loose, flowing garments were practical in the hot climate of southern Asia, and the sari, woven of cotton or silk, was both cool and graceful. Though rich and poor alike wore the sari, the wealthy could afford to have fine silk fabric with costly decorations, while the poor might wear rough plain cotton.
The basic wrap of a sari usually involves winding it around the waist first then wrapping it around the upper body. Women frequently wear underclothes of a half-slip tied around the waist and a tight blouse or breast-wrap that ends just below the bust, which provide the basis for wrapping the fabric of the sari. There are many different styles of wrapping and draping the sari, and these vary according to gender, region, social class, ethnic background, and personal style. Instead of wrapping the fabric around the chest, the ends of the sari can be simply thrown over one or both shoulders. Sometimes an end is pulled between the legs and tucked into the back of the skirt, making it into loose pants, which are practical for working. Many men wear saris that only cover the lower half of their bodies. Though saris are usually wrapped to the left, people from some regions of India favor wrapping to the right. When the abundant material of the sari is wrapped around the waist, it is usually pleated to create graceful folds and drapes. The number of pleats and the direction they fold can vary and is sometimes dictated by religious belief. Though many modern saris are mass-produced, saris made of handwoven cloth are important to many people as a political symbol of Indian pride.
Though many Indian people, both those living in India and those who live in other countries, have adopted Western dress, it is very common for Indian women to wear the sari for important ceremonies, such as weddings.
Chishti, Rta Kapur, and Amba Sanyal. Saris of India. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1991.
Lynton, Linda. The Sari: Styles, Patterns, History, Techniques. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.
[ See also Volume 1, India: Dhoti and Lungi ]