More than 'ethnic fabric': Rediscovering the overlooked magic of the sari

The last eighteen months has allowed many people to take stock of what is really important.

As the lines between work and home have blurred, I have had the opportunity to reaffirm my connection with certain aspects of my culture. Specifically, the sari.

I grew up in a household with a mother who wore saris all the time – while I only took mine out of the wardrobe for special occasions. But now, the enduring magic of the garment is pulling me back.

There is something special about the act of draping a sari, tucking it into the petticoat, twirling around, expertly making the pleats (or not so expertly in my case), and throwing it over your shoulder.

It breeds confidence. Nostalgia too.

Some of my happiest memories involve getting ready for an event with family and friends. Growing up, I was eager to make my sari debut. While I was waiting for my time, I remember being excited to wear my lehenga blouse, which had hooks in the front, similar to a sari blouse.

Could I find that feeling again?

With most of my family in Birmingham, I decided to head to Brick Lane to the heart of London’s Bangladeshi community, in search of a sari shop. The staff at Zari in Bethnal Green kindly dressed me in one of their finest.

They were pleased to be open for business, with the surge in post-lockdown weddings keeping their hands full.

While wearing the embellished cloths draped beautifully around my body, I began to realise that an unexpected consequence of these strange times is that I have felt the urge to seek comfort in my cultural dress, and it has sparked a renewed interest in this form of creative expression.

I am certainly not alone in finding a renewed sense of identity and magical connection within the folds of brightly coloured and intricately adorned fabric.

Laxmi Patil has been living in London for the past eight and half years, having moved here from India. She tells Metro.co.uk that she started draping saris at the age of eight.

‘It is my second skin,’ says Laxmi. ‘Wearing a sari feels like carrying your inheritance, finding comfort in your roots for where you belong. There is always this thing of immigrants trying to have that belonging while also adapting in the new culture they are in, so it does that for me.’

Laxmi also challenges the idea that a sari has to be traditional: ‘In India especially, the way the saris are worn now, it is modern wear as is being draped with hip T-shirt blouses, and people are going really bold with it.’

She references the Kashta style, where the sari is tucked at the back and has a trouser-like appearance, giving the wearer extra comfort.

Comfort is important to Laxmi, and having a positive self-image is part of her attachment to the sari.

‘I feel very comfortable with what I am and how I portray myself,’ she tells us. ‘This is something that I feel is very important, and the sari makes me feel like me. The way I dress is more about finding myself than it is about how I look.

‘Who needs an occasion to wear a sari anyway? When I go back to work later this year, I would be happy if I am able to choose a sari over a skirt suit as my go-to wardrobe.’ 

Research has shown that authenticity in the workplace – such as feeling able to wear cultural dress – and the subsequent space that it can create for meaningful interactions and relationships to form, can lead to stronger employee engagement.

Sonya Madeira has found that her style and sense of identity has been impacted by the different places she has lived.

‘When I moved to Singapore [from India], I felt a strong need to not stand out, but to fit into a different culture,’ Sonya tells Metro.co.uk.

‘A different work wardrobe was required, and that is what I did for the longest time. I stopped wearing saris.

‘Later, I became more confident. I had my own business in Singapore and I thought, “nobody is going to tell me off in the office for wearing Indian wear.” So, I started investing in saris again.

‘I was not making a lot of trips to India. I ended up buying crop tops [to wear as sari blouses]. You could walk into an H&M, rather than wait to go to a tailor, and then hope you would not grow out of it very quickly as you ate more Rasogulla [a syrupy, South Asian dessert].’

She speaks of the impact of social media and finding fellow sari aficionados: ‘I found community on Instagram,’ she says. ‘During lockdown, it gave me something to look forward to.’

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Lisa Hussain, founder of The Rooted Observer, remembers being ‘mesmerised’ by her mum and her collection of saris.

‘You do feel very feminine and grown-up in it,’ says Lisa. ‘I was one of the few in my family to actually learn to wear a sari. I could do all the pleats myself, I still can. I take a lot of pride in that.’

Lisa has an avid interest in textiles and a love for the different types of fabrics and looms that are used for saris.

‘I wear and I am really fascinated by the history of Jamdani, how it was made and how it is a dying art now,’ she says.

In 2013, Jamdani weaving was declared part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which was created to celebrate humanity’s achievements in creativity, skills and other fluid feats of ingenuity found around the world.

These living practices and artistry are also deserving of their plaudits and place in global history. For Lisa, and many others, learning about these traditions instill a sense of identity, pride and belonging to those communities, no matter where they are in the world.

What is the traditional art of Jamandi weaving?

Jamdani is a vividly patterned, sheer cotton fabric, traditionally woven on a handloom by craftspeople and apprentices around Dhaka.

Jamdani textiles combine intricacy of design with muted or vibrant colours, and the finished garments are highly breathable.

Jamdani is a time-consuming and labour-intensive form of weaving because of the richness of its motifs, which are created directly on the loom using the discontinuous weft technique. 

‘The sari is such a beautiful form of art and people do not know enough about it. It is such a very niche area,’ says Lisa.

Lockdown has given her time to reflect. She adds: ‘I got so much more clarity. I started to cook a lot more Bengali food for my children. The pandemic allowed us to get connected back to our roots. To question and embrace things, and put our own twist to it as well.

‘The sari is part of that real, deep connection I have with my Bengali heritage. My family, my cousins, my khalas, we all wear saris. I feel really proud when I wear them.’

Lisa had a photo taken wearing a hand-painted sari that belonged to her mum, transposed with a photo of her mum wearing a sari years ago. Passing that tradition on feels like the linking of the past with the present.

Saris remind me of my mum. Looking at a photo of my parents in 1970s Bangladesh, it brings home how much has changed in our lives.

My mum learnt to wear a sari and she taught me how to, along with many other valuable things. There is beauty in that, and so much power in preserving our past.

Malika Verma, creator of The Sari Series: A Digital Anthology of Drape, documenting India’s regional clothing traditions, told us there is a resurgence of what she terms ‘cultural confidence’ in global diaspora communities.

‘We are allowing that feeling to be front-facing,’ Malika tells Metro.co.uk.

‘People were certainly confident and proud before, but now there is definitely a reclamation of who we are.

‘That is what we are seeing where the idea of handmade, craft culture, including those elements of silhouette, are emerging in our clothing.’

Part of keeping the tradition alive is finding ways to wear these styles in modern settings.

‘The question really is – how can someone in the diaspora have the agency to say what does a sari look like, on me today walking the streets of London, or of Montreal, or of Toronto? How do I make this mine and not feel bound, how do I create anew, given that culture is always evolving?’ says Malika.

The multiplicity of the sari represents the strength of feeling, the mix of fun and reverence that the garment inspires – there is so much more to it than it simply being a piece of ‘ethnic fabric.’

‘Dress is a sign of the times, what we wear is sartorial,’ adds Malika. ‘What we wear reflects the economy, politics, the socioeconomic realities of our daily life.

‘So, there is an opportunity here to look at the sari truly as an unstitched piece of cloth, which is limitless and was very much born from adaptation.’

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