What are Sarees?

Brendan McGuigan

Sarees are a type of clothing worn throughout India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. They are also known as saris or podavis, depending on spelling and region. Sarees are basically long pieces of cloth worn draped in a number of styles around the body. Sarees are usually worn over a blouse and petticoat, to cover the upper portion of the body and to keep the saree from sticking to the skin.

Members of the Brahmin caste traditionally wore longer sarees.
Members of the Brahmin caste traditionally wore longer sarees.

Sarees range in length from about five yards (4.5 meters) to nine yards (8 meters), depending on the style. Traditionally, longer sarees were worn by the Brahmin caste, while shorter sarees were worn by everyone else. Sarees are made out of a number of different fabrics, from rough cotton on the cheapest end of the spectrum to incredibly fine silk on the most expensive, with synthetics such as nylon and polyester making up the middle-ground. Folklore holds that the finest silk sarees were so fine they could be passed through a small ring, of the sort worn on a woman’s finger.

Sarees are worn throughout India.
Sarees are worn throughout India.

The most basic sarees are a single length of fabric with a rough end and a decorated end. The decoration of the saree depends on its purpose and the amount of time that goes into its creation. Peasant sarees for everyday use are often decorated very simply, with plain lines or checked patterns. Nicer sarees make use of sometimes amazingly ornate decorative work, through tie-dying, weaving in colored threads – sometimes even made of gold or silver, and embroidery work.

Many modern, mass-produced sarees make use of synthetic materials that are woven into patterns by machine. These materials have the convenience of not needing to be ironed, but overall, they are less fine in craftsmanship than artisan sarees. While the demand for sarees made by hand has decreased in recent years in India, an increase in global demand is creating a new specialty market in hand-woven sarees for export.

There are many different styles of sarees and ways to drape them, from the Kandyan style of Sri Lanka, to the widely popular nivi style of India. The basic draping entails wrapping the saree around the waist and draping the decorated end over the shoulder; different styles dictate where parts of the saree are tucked, which shoulder the saree is draped over, and where the saree is tied. The blouse worn with a saree is usually a fairly simple blouse, with the color sometimes closely matching that of the saree itself and sometimes acting as a counterpoint to the base color of the saree. The petticoat worn with a saree is a full-length slip with a drawstring around the waist; it acts as a protective layer to make sure the saree doesn’t stick to the body, and also gives the wearer somewhere to tuck the saree into.

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