The Sari Doesn't Need Saving

Why globalization is good for this gorgeous Indian outfit


Globalization produces different anxieties in different people. And for the high-priests of Indian culture it is the sari. Famous novelist, boy genius, and former Indian cabinet minister Shashi Tharoor triggered a major attack of national handwringing a few years ago when he dressed down female reporters for not dressing up in saris for his press conference—and then penning a sappy plea to "save the sari from a sorry fate." Other writers have been worried even longer than Tharoor.

In the wake of all the hyperventilating, many Indian fashionistas, eager to assert their social consciences, adopted the sari as their pet cause. And now, barely a few years later, they are declaring victory in their struggle. No less than The Washington Post recently announced that, thanks to the efforts of India's top designers, the sari has made a comeback. If only the Bengal Tigers were so responsive!

To most Indian women it would be news that the sari was ever gone. The garment has survived for over 4,000 years without any benevolent, top-down intervention—and I suspect it will continue to do so. That's because saris have always enjoyed a special relationship with Indian women and Indian women with them. And globalization will strengthen, not sunder, this relationship, possibly even winning new paramours for the outfit along the way.

Concerns that globalization will wipe out the sari are not entirely baseless of course. After all, many a traditional dress has been swept away by modernity's gales of creative destruction. In India itself, men, especially in cities, began trading their lungis, dhotis, and mundus—varieties of sarongs—for trousers and leisure or safari suits (mercifully out of fashion now!) even before liberalization. So thoroughly Westernized is male attire in Indian cities that at a family sangeet—a pre-wedding music and dance get together—in New Delhi some years ago, my husband was the only one sporting a traditional kurta-pajama—and he's a Jew from New York. Likewise, in Scotland only guys utterly secure in their masculinity don the kilt anymore—and then only on special occasions. But the garment whose fate makes Indians clutch their brocade scarfs in terror is the kimono. This gorgeous, elegant, elaborate outfit that both Japanese men and women wore as a matter of routine till the early 20th century is now more prevalent in Japanese museums than in Japanese closets.

However, except for the fact that both the sari and the kimono inhabit countries east of the prime meridian, they have little in common.

For starters, the Indian government never embarked on an official program to mandate Western clothes in the workplace as the Japanese Emperor Meiji did in the early 1900s, triggering a decline in traditional outfits. It is out of the question that the Indian government would ever have attempted such a stunt—let alone pulled it off—without instigating a major national revolt, especially by Indian women whose sense of femininity is inseparable from this six yards of rectangular cloth.

Part of the Indian woman's attachment to the sari no doubt stems from her cultural conditioning. Indian girls grow up wearing a mix of Indian garments (choli/lehnga, salwar/kamiz) and Western clothes (frocks, skirts, long dresses, and jeans) clothes—not saris. Saris are meant only for grown women who have fully come into their own. When a girl first wears one—typically at her school's graduation or farewell party, the equivalent of prom night—it marks a rite of passage. The sari and all its resplendent accessories—glass bangles, chunky hand-crafted silver or gold jewelry, the bindi on the forehead—are their first full encounter with their femininity and, like a first love, it leaves an indelible impression.

But an Indian woman's acculturation in the sari begins much before she actually wears one. Saris are an essential part of a bride's trousseau that mothers sometimes start planning from the day a daughter is born. My mother had barely left the maternity ward when she decided that she would give me at least 21 silk saris when I got married. And, over the years, I witnessed her painstakingly assemble my collection with pieces from all over the country: rich, double-shaded benaresis; sumptuous tanchoies woven with strands of real gold; South Indian kanchiwarams whose bright magentas and fuchsias with contrasting borders are sadly out of fashion now; diaphanous, delicate chanderis; simple, weightless French chiffons in soothing pastels; Bengali kanthas whose elaborate embroidery depicts stories from ancient Hindu epics; and gorgeous, sumptuous tassars—my personal favorite—whose shine seems to come from an inner glow like the brides they often adorn.

By the time Indian girls exit puberty, they are acquainted with these regional designs and fabrics, having acquired an education during countless family shopping expeditions. I remember as a little girl scouring the bazaars of New Delhi with an entourage of cousins and aunts, all on a collective quest to find the perfect sari for some family function.

We'd start with the posh stores of Connaught Place such as Glamour where gray-haired, well-scrubbed salesmen in starched kurtas gingerly extricated sari after sari from white tissue wrappings, methodically unfurling them, one by one, on the gleaming glass counter till we'd thoroughly discussed and dissected every element of each: the border that runs across the bottom and drapes the feet; the middle that's folded into pleats that cascade waist-down; and the pallu—the last two yards of the sari—that typically goes across the chest and over the left shoulder, covering the exposed mid-riff.

Next stop usually would be the crowded and squalid Karol Bagh market. The casual sensuality of their sales staff was so different from the sedate, prudish sophistication of the Connaught Place stores that we might as well have been on a different planet. Lissome sales boys in tight shirts and pants—sporting a long pinky nail that made us snicker—would spring into action the moment we entered the store. They'd pull out bundles and bundles of silks tied with cotton rope or nalla. At the slightest hint that we liked one, they'd leap up and wrap the sari around themselves, deftly making the pleats and tucking them into their belt—and then, in a final flourish, swinging the pallu across their shoulder to show us the full "get up." Sometimes we'd walk away without buying even one after they had performed this modeling routine scores of times, leaving them forlorn to stash away yards and yards of fabric.

No doubt Japanese girls go through their own acculturation in the kimono. But there is something about the sari that gives it a unique staying power.

The sari, in a way, is the antithesis of the kimono. The kimono is a structured, multi-layered garment with many parts, all of which are meticulously tailored in advance before they are finally assembled on the woman with ties and sashes. It is like a stylized robe that encases the figure, compressing its curves and contours, imparting a regal but prim uniformity that is indifferent to the frame beneath.

The sari, by contrast, is formless and fluid. It moulds itself to the shape of the woman, highlighting—rather than obscuring—her special configuration. If a kimono is like a cloak that swaddles a woman, a sari is like a veil that hides or flaunts what a woman chooses. The sari's formlessness opens up endless possibilities. Japanese women too are experimenting with different lengths and sleeve styles to give the kimono a more contemporary look. But there is a way in which the sari can completely transform itself without losing its integrity that is at the root of its enduring appeal to Indian women.

The fear that saris won't survive globalization stems from an insecurity that somehow things traditional are incompatible with a modern lifestyle. Modernity's fast pace breeds a rough-and-ready culture, a casualness of attire that allows people to move quickly to grab opportunities, get things done, deliver results. It is not a coincidence that jeans are the de facto national outfit of America! A sari, by contrast, is a time-consuming, fussy affair, difficult to drape (I still can't do it without help) and even more difficult to maintain. It is cumbersome and constricts mobility, one reason Indian feminists regard is as a patriarchal invention designed to confine women to the home—although in Pakistan, where President Zia-ul-Haq declared a sari unIslamic in the 1970s, it has become a symbol of women's liberation, a subversive pleasure that women indulge in to taunt authorities. Be that as it may, sari worry-warts have some empirical grounds for their pessimism in that as more Indian women have entered the workplace, the sari has lost its predominance in everyday wear.

But that hardly means that the sari is headed for extinction.

Globalization is certainly giving Indian women options outside the sari, forcing it to share wardrobe space with cocktail dresses, evening gowns, and corporate pant-suits. But it is also giving them more options within the sari. The stodgy-old men and the Indian guidos are still there in Connaught Place and Karol Bagh respectively selling traditional benaresis and tanchois. But these markets are now supplemented with trendy new malls such as Square One in the outskirts of New Delhi whose sales staff consists of well-turned out girls with trim figures. More to the point, Square One saris reflect a cross-pollination of ideas, a blending of traditional and Western elements, that wouldn't be possible without globalization. The biggest transformation is the cocktailization of the blouses worn beneath the sari that are becoming skimpier and bolder—driving traditionalists crazy. But the saris themselves are experimenting with all kinds of new fabrics and designs, sometimes with absolutely stunning results. I am still fantasizing about a black crepe sari I saw some years ago studded with Swarovski crystals and kundan stones—kind of like rough-cut diamonds used in Indian jewelry—with a matching backless blouse, all for the modest sum of $10,000, which, incidentally, Indian woman can more easily afford thanks to the greater disposable income that globalization has put in their bejeweled purses!

I canvassed a group of Indian friends—engineers, Bollywood script-writers, entrepreneurs, executives, doctors, dancers—inside and outside India, all of whom have a healthy interest in fashion, and asked them how they felt when they wore a sari. The words they used were: feminine, beautiful, sexy, glamorous, chic, classy, different, comfortable, rooted, confident, and, above all, in keeping with our modern times, powerful. I am sure if I had posed the same question to women in my mother's generation, they would have said: traditional, beautiful, honorable, appropriate, respectable, chaste/pure, domestic, spiritual.

In short, the sari has seamlessly transformed itself, trading the values of tradition for those of modernity. Some garments are specific, sociologically contingent. A sari is eternal because ever evolving. And as it evolves, far from fading in India, its appeal will likely spread, gaining it new converts outside India. I am waiting for Angelina Jolie to appear in a black lycra sari with a leather bustier in the next Tomb Raider!

All that designers need to do to "save" the sari then is to figure out what women want from their saris and give it to them. If they are looking for a crusade, the Bengal Tigers really could use some help.

Shikha Dalmia, a native of India, is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a Forbes columnist. This column originally appeared at Forbes.

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  1. Q: How is the sari an important libertarian concern?


    1. In the same way circumcision/Harry Potter/comic books/Video Games
      are Libertarian concern.

      1. Circumcision is a legit concern, when the subject is legally compelling them. Video games are a legit concern, when the subject is censoring or controlling them.

        1. Male circumcision has been defended in the medical community, it’s a parent’s choice for their babies, or would you prefer to have the state raise the kids?

      2. That was a bleek statement. Obummer!

    2. A: When it’s an excuse to post pictures of attractive women.

    3. Defense of free trade.

    4. Interstate commerce?

    5. Illiberal, anti-market, status quo loving mental midgets use the sari, in the case of India, and any other culturally resonant touchstones they can point to, to instill fear against change, the world, progress, freedom, markets, etc. Article explains why they’re wrong. Capiche?

  2. Holy shit…just when I think the subjects here can’t get any more inane…you prove me wrong!

  3. …and it’s horrible the way they forced you guys to read those articles. Horrible. Almost TSA-like in their level of brutality, demanding you scour every inch, every word.

    As for me, what I’m getting sick of are the whiny posts about some thread not being someone’s cup of tea. Here’s a tip: if you don’t think you’ll like it, don’t fucking read it.

    I don’t read a lot of Ron Bailey’s stuff. Because I think he’s wrong, or a crappy writer? No. Because I don’t like his disclosures? No. It’s because I’m not super interested in AGW, GM foods, human-animal chimeras, etc. Here’s what I don’t do: go on those threads and whine about how boring they are, and demand that they entertain me harder, or provide proof that this is a True Libertarian Issue ?.

    1. Ah, but the only way to changes things is to agitate! Enough protestations against certain kinds of content could alter the content selection criteria. You probably don’t think people should voter either, huh, Mr. Oppressor?

      You’ve kinda played yourself here, since you could apply the same principles to your own behavior. You didn’t have to tell them you didn’t like their not liking, but you did. You weren’t forced to read or respond to their comments either. Rank hypocrisy!

      1. True, but their comments don’t have headlines that explain the content in advance. Otherwise, I could have known to avoid them, and not clicked to add a comment.

    2. Hey dick breath, I was giving my opinion just like you! If you don’t like my opinion don’t fucking read it.

      1. How do I know I don’t like your opinion if I don’t fucking read it?

      2. I’ll know not to read your comments from now on.

        1. That will work out well for you….you can stay the dumb fuck you always have been!

          1. Yes, missing such shining wit, I will obviously remained unenlightened. Such is life.

    3. “entertain”???? Maybe that’s the problem….I thought Reason was suppose to be serious.

      1. You don’t like hot women in sexy outfits?

      2. You can do both. And doing so makes for a more interesting magazine.

    4. Your complaints about my complaints undermine your argument, fool. That’s right. I called you a fool. If you don’t like it, stop reading it. Fool.

      1. As I said above, your comment didn’t have a headline that explained the content in advance. I’ll now know not to read your crap anymore.

  4. I live in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, and in a 2 mile radius of my office there are at least 4 sari shops/tailors/whatever.

    Yeah. It “needs” saving.

  5. Why do we need to tiptoe around these cultural “values”? If clothing can even be called that. We make fun of Americans who try to do basically the same thing. Why the double standard with “foreigners”?

    1. Who is asking you to tiptoe? Shikha Dalmia expressed that a traditional Indian garment was not really threatened by globalization, the reasons being maybe aesthetic and emotional, but the point being reasonable. I don’t think anybody here is demanding you be PC and not express what a silly subject you think this is.

      1. I was making a general point about multiculturalism. Not specific to this article. But still, this is Reason. I would expect cries about fundamentalism, theocracy and what have you this was about a methodist or baptist issue. Unlike this article. I wasn’t just calling it a stupid topic.

  6. _

  7. I thought Reason was suppose to be serious.

    Close enough, if you know what I mean…

    1. Don’t you mean “sariuous?”

  8. Bunch of dorky looking chicks.

    1. There was a more interesting picture of a lone woman, a South Asian, affixed to this story earlier.

      For demographic purposes, please note that I didn’t read this article either.

  9. I’m wrapping up attending a (3 day long) wedding where my wife wore a sari. Since she is entirely Western, perhaps we should be more worried about Indian attire threatening traditional Western modes of dress.

    In all seriousness, however, shrieking about loss of national identity (and promotion of accompanying regulation) is a staple of Indian politics. Libertarianism would do the south Asian nation much good, which was the point of this article.

    A pox on all those who complained this article wasn’t relevant. It was an excellent article on fashion that was also imbued with libertarian ideology.

    If Reason ran more articles like this, they might get more readers.

  10. Oh, and I forgot to add that I am noticing saris worn in Western workplaces from time to time. I would expect it to eventually be commonplace in workplaces with a liberal dress code.

    1. And guys are still stuck with khakis and a collared shirt. Sexism, straight-up.

      1. It’s amazing that 40+ years later, dudes are still dressing like the Professor from Gilligan’s Island.

        Note: he didn’t get to bang Ginger or Mary Ann, because he looked like a fucking Blockbuster employee.

        1. What’s “Blockbuster”?

  11. I’ll be in my bunk.

  12. Dear Reason,

    Entertain me harder.


    Slacking at work on a Friday

      1. Reason:
        The Internet content “Tasteless” is filtered.

        1. phalkor waffles

          You are so right! I need your expert tutelage. I love your style!

          If only, they would filter the most boring shit I have ever read. This Felix guy is a toad

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          I never thought I’d make it out alive, but I did. Now I can live on to tell the tale. 1,248,488,056,000.00 via web
          nevermind, going to crash now. thank you and good night. 1,248,224,618,000.00 via web
          let it go, afterglow! 1,248,193,602,000.00 via web
          Whether I realize it or not, everything keeps on getting better. This Saturday is chill and focused; high time to get clipped! 1,247,942,329,000.00 via web
          This Friday, like almost all others, makes me tired and restless. To Mount Washington to gaze upon the ‘burgh with new eyes. 1,247,886,198,000.00 via web
          This too, will pass. For fucks sake, I won’t let Thursday get the best of me. 1,247,779,453,000.00 via web
          Wednesdays may be gone, but there’s still plenty of future to be had. 6:16 AM Jul 16th, 2009 via web
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          1. you’re such a tool. I was at work and it was what the webfilter said. Way to go crazy cyberstalker on me, freak.

  13. I’m trying to figure out what my “oh no, multiculturalism is ruining it” cultural artifact would be.

    Porn if we all got more religious?
    Short skirts if the world entered a new ice age?
    Jeans if the workplace got a formalistic bug up its butt?

    yeah, probably that last one.

  14. Way too much dick swinging here. Is this a boys only club?

    1. Most women would prefer trolling retail sites on ebay/, checking out the latest celebrity divorce scandal on, or at best, reading news on MSNBC or CNN.

      1. With sparkling conversationalists such as yourself, who could blame us?

        Or maybe we just tend to avoid the comments sections to get away from the boring sexist trolls.

  15. The sari will evolve. There will be fashion creations that include the styling and colors if people want it without the attendant inconveniences.

  16. Shashi Tharoor is a jerk, unless those reporters are naked it’s none of his goddamm business. Moreover, I’m not against cultural globalization if it helps Indians get rid of some of their backward practices, such as worshiping cows, the rat temple, phobias regarding the showing a man kissing a woman in a movie, etc. Of course, it’s politically incorrect to call any culture “backwards,” but if Indian women want to get rid of their Sari’s I say let them. India would be better off embracing the cultural superiority of western civilization and letting go of their backward third world ways. Of course, this is if they want to, I do believe that people have the right to be stupid.

  17. I almost fell asleeping.

  18. The usage of the saree, especially among working women, has reduced. It’s more convenient to put on a a shirt and pant or a Salvar (Indian version of pant) and Kameez (Indian long shirt).

    A saree is a think of beauty.

  19. Great piece. One of the many things I enjoy about Reason is that they can report on a variety of topics (free minds/free markets is a big umbrella) without the obligatory anti-colonial anti-western slop. The article was informative and had a distinct personal autonomy position – standard Reason fare.

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