The surprising history of India’s vibrant sari tradition

South Asian women have draped themselves in colorful silks and cottons for eons. The ways they’re made and worn are dazzling and diverse.

The word “sari” means “strip of cloth” in Sanskrit. But for the Indian women—and a few men—who have been wrapping themselves in silk, cotton, or linen for millennia, these swaths of fabric are more than just simple garments. They’re symbols of national pride, ambassadors for traditional (and cutting-edge) design and craftsmanship, and a prime example of the rich differences in India’s 29 states.

“The sari both as symbol and reality has filled the imagination of the subcontinent, with its appeal and its ability to conceal and reveal the personality of the person wearing it,” says Delhi-based textile historian Rta Kapur Chishti, author of Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond and co-founder of Taanbaan, a fabric company devoted to reviving and preserving traditional Indian spinning and weaving methods.

The first mention of saris (alternately spelled sarees) is in the Rig Veda, a Hindu book of hymns dating to 3,000 B.C.; draped garments show up on Indian sculptures from the first through sixth centuries, too. What Chishti calls the “magical unstitched garment” is ideally suited to India’s blazingly hot climate and the modest-dress customs of both Hindu and Muslim communities. Saris also remain traditional for women in other South Asian countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

India remains one of the last great handicraft cultures. It’s a powerhouse for dyeing, printing, and silk weaving, all represented in at least one of the estimated 30 regional varieties of saris. In the Ganges riverfront city of Varanasi, weavers bend over old-school wooden looms to make Banarasi silk ones, usually in bright red, trimmed with metallic zari thread, and prized by brides. In tropical Kerala, predominantly white sett mundu saris reflect styles popular before 19th-century industrialization brought the colorful aniline dyes—and Crayola-box brights—spotted around the subcontinent today.

In West Bengal, Balchuri saris flaunt trim based on designs found on the walls of the region’s burned clay terracotta temples. “Every sari has a story about the society and people around it,” says Darshan Dudhoria, the chief executive officer of online retailer Indian Silk House Agencies.

Still, globalization and competition for ever-cheaper merchandise have made machine-loomed saris prevalent in recent decades. Many bad copies of traditional garb are being shipped in from China. Long-time weaving families have found themselves out of work, their looms worthless.

Some women, particularly in rural areas, still wrap and fold themselves into lengths of cotton, linen, or other fabrics for everyday work. “You’re more likely to see saris on older women, the aunties and grandmas in some regions. They might wear one all the time,” says Cristin McKnight Sethi, a South Asian textile expert and professor of art history at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Younger women and city dwellers, she says, might opt for Western clothing or a salwar (tunic and pants suit) most days but a vibrant sari for a wedding or other party. The textile is a symbolic rite of passage for young Hindu girls, who wear a sari or half-length sari for a Ritu Kala Samskara coming-of-age ceremony. The garment has even been wielded as a political prop.

According to Chishti, there are more than one hundred ways to drape a sari depending on region, fabric, length and width of the garment, and what the wearer might be doing that day. She created a series of videos showcasing dozens of ways to tie one on. “The younger generation wants to be able to experiment with it, to wear it in various ways,” she says.

Among the techniques for wearing a sari: the ubiquitous Nivi drape (pleated, wrapped around the waist, with the pallu (the embellished end of the garment) flung over the left shoulder); and the rural Dharampur drape, which cleverly transforms a long rectangle of material into knee-length bloomers. Most sari presentations require a choli (cropped top) and slender half petticoat, the latter often helps to anchor all that textile wrapping and fabric manipulation. Some sari folds need to be held with stitches or pins, others are more free form, like fabric origami for the body.

Saris weave their way across much of India, on women rainbowing through the streets of Mumbai on bicycles, on actresses starring in Bollywood movies, or decking out multiple generations of a family in Rajasthan.

Visitors seduced by the vibrancy and mythology of saris can shop for one to take home. Unlike other traditional garments in some cultures, the sari isn’t reserved for people of one nationality or set of beliefs. “I don’t think it’s disrespectful for Westerners to wear a sari,” says Chishti. “It’s more of an honor.” There is nothing wrong with sewing a dazzling one into a skirt or displaying it like art on a wall, says Sethi.

Tourists, locals, and bridal parties hunt for saris in the shops that seem to line every azure alley in Jodhpur or buzzing street in Mumbai. You’ll find them at grander, more expensive boutiques such as Delhi’s Ekaya Banaras, known for its handloomed silks and support of over 8,000 Banaras weavers, or Chennai’s Nalli, open since 1928, and sprawled over two floors of an Art Deco building in the T. Nagar neighborhood.

Wherever they go, sari browsers find themselves overwhelmed by candy-colored stacks of neatly folded silks, cottons, and chiffons. A sari can be had for as little as $20 from a street seller or as much as $10,000 for a Banarasi beauty. “When you buy a sari, it’s usually a long process—you get the sari fabric at one store, have a blouse tailored somewhere else, and purchase a petticoat at yet another store,” says Sethi.

It’s a complex dance through stores and tailors to score a sari, and not an item of clothing you throw on quickly. “But its a piece of fabric that has become iconic, and there are so many variations,” says Sethi. “Saris are so important, and certainly worthy of a celebration.”

Born in Madurai, India, Charu Suri is a U.S.-based travel writer and an Indian-American jazz composer and pianist. Follow her on Instagram.
Tuul and Bruno Morandi are France-based photographers. Follow them on Instagram.