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Trac­ing the evo­lu­tion of the sari

Open­ing the show for Pra­bal Gu­rung’s au­tumn/win­ter 2018 col­lec­tion at New York Fash­ion Week last month was Gigi Ha­did, dressed in a fuch­sia-toned wrap skirt paired with a pat­terned scarf that was draped across her torso. The scarf was also wrapped around her neck, with one fringed tail hang­ing over her shoul­der.

To some, it may have just looked like an in­ter­est­ing form of drap­ing. Those in the know, how­ever, might have seen a sub­tle nod to the sari. And as the show went on, the lat­ter ap­peared more likely. The Nepalese-Amer­i­can de­signer’s col­lec­tion showed all the mak­ings of an au­tumn/win­ter line, with ca­ble knits, turtle­necks and check­ered trousers. But in the asym­me­try, di­ag­o­nal lines and wrap sil­hou­ettes were no­tice­able al­lu­sions to sari-ty­ing tech­niques dat­ing back cen­turies. Gu­rung’s adap­ta­tion of these age-old el­e­ments was clever and in­no­va­tive, and avoided putting the brand at risk of any cul­tur­alap­pro­pri­a­tion con­tro­versy. Some ref­er­ences were so con­tem­po­rary you could eas­ily miss them – like a black blazer de­signed with a one-sided white lapel, and an off-cen­tre tie clo­sure.

Sari, in San­skrit, trans­lates as “strip of cloth”, and it usu­ally mea­sures six to eight me­tres in length. The gar­ment is be­lieved to have orig­i­nated in the In­dus Val­ley as early as 2800 BC, and to­day rep­re­sents the na­tional dress of coun­tries such as In­dia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Tra­di­tion­ally, women wear cho­lis, or blouses, along with a pet­ti­coat, or long skirt, un­der a sari. There are many dif­fer­ent ways to drape the cloth, al­though it’s usu­ally wrapped around the waist a few times, pleated and tucked into the waist­band, with the re­main­ing fabric draped over one shoul­der. In South Asian cir­cles, drap­ing a sari is some­thing of an art, lost on younger gen­er­a­tions who, with­out the help of a grand­mother or el­der rel­a­tive’s help, must re­sort to YouTube tu­to­ri­als to guide them.

Gu­rung’s au­tumn/win­ter 2018 show­ing was not the first time that sari in­flu­ences have been spot­ted on an in­ter­na­tional run­way. Who can for­get the flam­boy­ant sari-in­spired cos­tumes pa­raded by John Gal­liano for spring 2003, or the pre-fall 2012 col­lec­tion by Chanel, where Karl Lager­feld paid homage to Ra­jasthan, and even adorned his mod­els with In­dian-in­spired head jewellery? Or the March­esa spring/sum­mer 2013 show, where dresses were given a Bol­ly­wood up­grade, com­plete with del­i­cate Chan­tilly lace, one-shoul­der drapes, elab­o­rate bead­work and bare midriffs?

Though the sari has evolved to re­veal more and more skin, many el­ders in South Asian so­ci­eties wear theirs with­out show­ing an inch of flesh, even cov­er­ing their head with the ex­cess fabric. At times, In­dian de­sign­ers take the com­plete op­po­site ap­proach, re­plac­ing the tra­di­tional blouse with a skimpy bralette, and opt­ing for sheer tex­tiles for the draped por­tion – these are par­tic­u­larly preva­lent in Bol­ly­wood movie dance se­quences. But since modesty has had a heavy hand in in­spir­ing in­ter­na­tional fash­ion trends of late, In­dian de­sign­ers, too, have re­verted to tra­di­tional con­cepts. Rahul Mishra, for in­stance, added jack­ets and capes to his saris – a styling method used pre­vi­ously by In­dian queens.

In many cul­tures through­out In­dia, a red sari is the tra­di­tional out­fit of choice for a bride on her wed­ding day. But light, pas­tel tones fea­tur­ing washed-out, vin­tage-in­spired flo­ral prints are cur­rently in vogue. Renowned In­dian de­signer Sabyasachi Mukher­jee is one of the gar­ment’s most vo­cal en­thu­si­asts – he re­cently courted con­tro­versy by say­ing that ev­ery In­dian woman, young or old, should know how to drape her own sari. Al­though best known for his heavy, eth­nic pieces, Mukher­jee has also cre­ated a range of lehenga-saris – wide, vo­lu­mi­nous skirts with short blouses and shorter scarves draped across the torso. His re­cent de­signs fea­ture wall­pa­per-style flo­ral skirts, paired with em­bel­lished silk blouses and be­daz­zled net scarves.

Payal Sing­hal’s saris fea­ture head-to-toe fem­i­nine blooms, while Ar­chana Rao’s ver­sions are white and sheer, with em­broi­dered flo­ral mo­tifs. Other In­dian de­sign­ers, such as Anamika Khanna and Son­aak­shi Raaj, have taken to pair­ing the sari with trousers, a style com­monly called the sari-pant, pop­u­larised by Bol­ly­wood ac­tress Sonam Kapoor.

One year ago, Gu­rung’s run­way show fea­tured fem­i­nist slo­gan T-shirts, and his new, sari-in­spired pieces cel­e­brate women, too. His colour choice for Ha­did’s open­ing look was was di­rectly in­spired by Gu­labi Gang, an In­dian ac­tivist group that speaks up against do­mes­tic abuse. Their uni­form con­sists of saris in the same shade of pink that Gu­rung draped Gigi in – “gu­labi” means “rosy” in Hindi. The gang’s mem­bers could never have dreamed that their saris would in­spire a New York de­signer in such a pro­found way. And while saris might never fully make it into the main­stream, could “gu­labi” be­come the new mil­len­nial pink?

RICH TRA­DI­TION Above, Pra­bal Gu­rung’s adap­ta­tion of a sari. Right, the gar­ment is known for its bright hues and creative pat­terns

MOD­ERN TWIST The tra­di­tional gar­ment has in­spired adap­ta­tions from de­sign­ers such as, from le , March­esa, Anamika Khanna and Ma Yanli

DAILY DRAPE Top le , a tra­di­tional sari and blouse from North In­dia. Above, ac­tivists from the Gu­labi Gang in their pink sari uni­forms

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