The first time I went into a sari shop (also saree) in India was when I was 16, while on summer vacation with my family to visit relatives. The experience was nothing like when I went shopping for clothing in the U.S. Upon entering the shop, our entourage of family members was guided to an area of cushioned seats and floor pillows, motioned to sit down, and offered tea and cool refreshments. While I sat quietly on the floor with my younger cousins, my gaze moved to the wall in front of us which was lined end to end with tall, wide shelves. They were almost like bookshelves, except that these were filled with stacks of neatly-folded saris. Looking back and forth across the wall, I tried to find a pattern in how they were organized. But the ordering of saris was not obvious as there was a wide variety of colors, prints, and sparkle spanning the wall, creating a vibrant and spectacular display.
After refreshments were brought on a tray and distributed, and it was confirmed that everyone in our group was comfortable, the shopping session began. A man in a loose, white button-down, dark pants and barefoot, stood before our group on a clothlike carpet that separated us from the wall of saris. He was our attendant for this day, and he spoke directly to my mother (she was the customer), asking her several questions in order to understand what she wanted to buy. Then he turned around and rapidly called out to his assistant, who began pulling saris out of the stacks based on his instructions. With a new stack of saris in hand, the assistant moved forward towards the attendant, who then took the first, folded sari off the top. Deftly, he unfurled the sari so that it ballooned out in front of us and then slowly settled down onto the carpet as the air beneath it escaped. It landed open just a few inches away from where my mother sat, and she reached forward to pick up the silky cloth, rub it between her fingers and examine the beautiful pattern laid out before her. She nodded to the attendant, who then undertook the same motion with the second sari in the stack. And then again. And again…several more times. When she was ready to make a decision, my mother shuffled through the sheets of fabric piled in front of her, debated her preferences with my relatives, and then voiced her selections to the attendant. The chosen saris were loosely folded and set aside. The other saris were pulled away into a crumpled pile where they sat until they were folded again and returned to the wall.
A sari is the traditional dress for East Indian (or South Asian) women. It is comprised of a long piece of fabric that is worn wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder, combined with a short, fitted blouse that exposes the midriff. While this is the most common way to drape a sari, there are actually dozens of ways to wear it, with different forms popular in different regions of the country. However, whether it is wrapped this way, or tucked that way, the basic components and silhouette of the sari remain the same. And so, for the hundreds of years that it was the main form of dress for adult Indian women, and before western dress started to compete with it, it can be recognized as a uniform style of dress. It is the same uniform style that is worn by women, no matter their age, shape, or size. But it is not boring, because the real variations in this dress come from the beautiful colors, patterns and embellishments of its fabrics. And it is flattering because its flexible, draping style allows it to highlight or conceal one’s body shape. Practically, it is also a versatile form of dress as it can be worn as everyday wear, professional wear or formal wear.
At Lily Kastur, elegant design and timelessness are features that inspire us. In a world where women’s western clothing styles change at an unprecedented pace, the simplicity of the sari and its enduring presence offer some lessons about things that should matter most in how we dress. In particular, the more we learn about the elements of uniform style – simple + timeless + beautiful + functional – the more compelling it becomes.