At the recent Oscar event, Guneet Monga, the producer of “Elephant Whispers,” deviated from the norm of Indian women wearing gowns at global events by wearing a silk saree while celebrating the documentary’s win. Seeing the unpretentious silk saree being showcased on a global stage is heartening. One can only hope it will continue gaining recognition as a beautiful and culturally significant garment in the international fashion world.
Dressing is a powerful medium of self-expression. Clothing has a deeper meaning than just being aesthetically pleasing or comfortable. For instance, Khadi, a hand-spun and handwoven fabric, symbolized India’s economic independence and self-reliance. It embodies Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and self-sufficiency and signifies India’s struggle for freedom from British rule.
The unpretentious saree is deeply rooted in the Indian ethos and has strong connections to the country’s religious, cultural, and economic foundations. Its versatility and regional variations make it a symbol of India’s rich cultural heritage and diversity. In addition, saree production provides livelihoods for thousands of weavers and artisans, making it an essential part of the country’s economic fabric. The saree represents much more than a garment – a tangible expression of India’s history, traditions, and values. Furthermore, it is also a powerful saga of Indian feminity.
I looked up to my college and University teachers as my primary influencers, and what struck me the most was their impeccable taste in clothing, specifically their preference for silk and cotton sarees. Their vibrant-colored handloom sarees paired with silver earrings and dainty necklaces represented the pinnacle of style and grace. Even though my college was attended by young women from the upper echelons of society, it was the teachers who donned traditional Indian attire that genuinely stood out in terms of fashion.
Back home, I observed my mother’s closet was filled with similar silk sarees that had not been used in many years, possibly even decades. This was because she did not wear sarees daily, as is typical among Punjabis who consider it formal attire reserved for special occasions like weddings and social gatherings. Being Punjabis who migrated to the secular side of India during India’s partition in 1947, we often struggle to define our identity. In the confluence of many emerging identities in new India, we find ourselves in a unique position – caught between the life left behind and a new culture that took shape due to intermingling many identities. However, Punjabi women opted for a middle ground regarding clothing choices, where we are situated between wearing sarees and salwar kameez (commonly referred to as Punjabi suits) at home.
Sarees made from blended fabrics with tacky borders were considered more fashionable. While my mother’s collection consisted of plain sarees with contrasting borders, considered outdated or reminiscent of the Doordarshan era when newsreaders would wear similar sarees. Similar to how newsreaders are now referred to as news anchors, the saree’s fabric has seen many changes per the audience’s preferences.
Vidya Balan brought the saree back to the fashion scene like never before, decades after it had almost faded into obscurity, especially with the younger generation. Her iconic kohl-eyed and silver jewellery look revived interest in this humble garment and sparked a craze for sarees on social media. As a result, a vibrant online community emerged, with women selling handwoven silk and cotton sarees and nurturing a new following for this iconic form of clothing.
Despite the widespread popularity of sarees on social media, the resulting hype and marketing gimmicks have come at a cost. The price of these traditional garments has significantly increased, with high-quality linen sarees now retailing for around INR 30,000 and silk sarees costing even more. It is disheartening to see that these high-quality sarees, an integral part of Indian culture for centuries, have become so expensive that they are out of reach for the common people. Instead, factory-made synthetic fabrics have become the most popular choice due to their affordability and availability, despite the negative environmental impact and lack of cultural significance.
Despite its rising popularity among younger urbane women in India, the saree has yet to impact the international fashion scene significantly. As Dior prepares to showcase its pre-fall collection in India, it remains to be seen whether our humble handwoven garments, which were at the forefront of our freedom struggle, will be given a space in the international fashion scene. It would be an excellent opportunity to showcase the saree’s beauty and cultural significance on a global stage and highlight the importance of preserving traditional weaving techniques and supporting local artisans. Let’s hope that Dior and other international fashion brands recognize the value of these humble yet stunning tales of our history and incorporate them into their collections.
Image Credit: Guneet Monga’s Facebook page.