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What is a Saree?

By Caitlin Kenney
Updated May 21, 2024
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A saree, also called a sari, is a large, seamless fabric traditionally worn by women in India. The garment is also common in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and many other countries throughout the world. Historically, the cloth was woven from cotton or silk, but it is often made with artificial fibers today. The saree can be worn in several different styles, most being draped around the body and tucked into a petticoat. The pleats, folds, and methods of wrapping are designed to accentuate women’s curves and often expose the midriff.

It is believed that the saree originated thousands of years ago in India with the dhoti, a large cloth that was wrapped around the legs like pants and tied at the waist. Though it is popularly known as a men’s garment, dhotis were likely worn by both men and women until the 1500s. Indeed, the saree and dhoti may have looked very similar until the British colonized India and imposed European ideas of modesty. Both the dhoti and sari are still worn today, though dhotis are typically reserved for formal occasions.

Perhaps due to the British occupation, Indians began wearing cholis and petticoats underneath their sarees. Prior to this time, there is much evidence that women would wear sarees that left their midriff and breasts bare. A choli is a tight-fitting shirt that exposes the midriff and is often decorated with mirrors and embroidery. Today, saris are hemmed and decorated with stitched borders and embroidered designs. Traditionally, however, the sari had no stitching because Hindus believed that the bone needles in prevalent use at that time were impure.

The saree is mentioned in several legends. The epic Mahabharata told the story of Draupadi, a beautiful queen whose husband lost her to a group of men in a gambling match. As the men tried to remove the cloth from her body, they found that the fabric continued eternally. This 5,000 year-old story is the first known reference to the sari. Another legend explains the origin of the garment, telling of a weaver who dreamed of the feminine touch, moods, hair, and tears and wove these aspects of woman into a long piece of cloth.

The borders of the cloth are also decorated, as well as the end of the fabric which will show after being draped around the woman. A sari can be worn in many different ways depending on the region, the time, and the woman’s personal preference. The fabric can be draped to make a gown, shorts, pants, or a shorter skirt-like design. The available styles may be limited by the length of the cloth, however, which can range from five to nine and a half yards (3.7m-8.7m).

One of the most common methods of wrapping a saree is the nivi style. In this style, the cloth is tucked into the waistband of the petticoat and passed around the waist twice, gathering the fabric to create pleats. The saree is secured again in the waistband, draped around the waist and then slung over the shoulder. The belly button may remain exposed or may be covered by a choli.

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