What dates back 5,000 years and is worn by almost a billion women in the world? Saris. In India, they brighten the dusty grey of dilapidated streets and fly like flags on passing scooters, as women hang on to both the driver and a child. But most fascinating were those worn by women tending parks: joyful colors bent over weeds.
Not a day of our train trip through Rajasthan ended without our local guide taking us shopping at state-owned emporiums, often part of the site we visited. There, I found the luminous colors of saris in particular (and fabrics, shawls, and linens as well) to be irresistible. Emporiums are pricier than the frenetic street stalls, but browsing is more enjoyable, and choice and quality are better.
Shopping for Saris and Fabrics in Chandni Chowk in Delhi
Our honking rickshaw driver dodged other vehicles — and precarious food stalls too – as he zigzagged among pedestrians in Dehli’s bustling 17th-century labyrinth of narrow streets. Chandni Chowk (meaning Chandni Square) in central Old Delhi is the largest trade center of India. It’s also the best and cheapest place to buy saris and trimmings. There, street after street, stores grabbed my attention with their display of saris in every color, print, and material. Imagine hundreds of dozens of spools of silk, satin, crepe, muslin, cotton and organza for custom-made clothing! Fancy lace, ribbons, trimmings and tassels made me feel like a child in a candy store. And I don’t even sew.
But, if wearing a sari is on your bucket list, know a sari before you buy one: There is more to it than the elegant layered look, and the peaking of skin for a sensuous tease – although the latter is more about mitigating the Indian heat.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The fabrics are beautiful works of art.
- India’s clothing industry is of excellent quality.
- For the traveler with a penchant for exotic fashion.
Learn about the Traditional Art of the Sari
I discovered that a sari is not what I though it was. A derivative of the word “Sanskrit,” meaning a “piece of cloth,” a sari is one unstitched piece of fabric, usually four feet wide and up to nine yards long. Although very humble, Mother Teresa’s white and blue cotton outfit was also a sari, as was Gandhi’s iconic “piece of cloth”– called a dhoti as a man’s garment.
Since a sari is not the whole outfit (although Gandhi’s dhoti was), be prepared to put on a petticoat (a long skirt) and a choli (a short-sleeve top cropped above the belly button). Yes, you must buy three pieces of clothing, or you will find – as I did — that a sari alone is no decent cover-up.
This ethnic apparel has sustained the traditional textile arts of India. Varasani — the holy city where pilgrims wash their sins in the Ganges River – is famous for fine weaving and embroidering, whereas Kota — an industrial city known for its temples – is famed for delicate designs on muslin. Festive saris are made from silk threads painstakingly dyed individually, hand-loomed, adorned with mirror-sequins, pearls, or semi-precious stones, and often embroidered with gold and silver threads. Don’t miss observing how it’s done at the Kinari Bazaar in Chandni Chowk! Emporiums sell pieces of vintage wedding saris, as mural art, bedspreads, cushion cases, and table runners – no bargaining there.
About Wearing a Sari
Styles vary with regions: In Rajasthan it is about pleats in the front, while elsewhere the sari might wrap each leg to create wide pants. Since the end of the caste system women are free to choose among dozens of styles. Putting on a traditional sari is a complicated process: tuck, wrap, pleat, drape, and drop enough material over your shoulder so that it will end at knee level. Uh? Fortunately, you can find helpful video demonstrations online.
As for colors, symbolism has replaced social status etiquette. White is no longer for high castes — colors were considered impure due to the fermentation process. In Northern India, widows wear white saris: a symbol of mourning. Indian brides wear red: a symbol of fertility, and green saris tend to symbolize Islam.
Bollywood Designers and the Sari Fashion
Enter the Bollywood culture in the 60s, when designers merged tradition and innovation. Black saris were made of transparent silk chiffon, for example–black is no longer inauspicious–or fancy leggings were paired with embellished kurti tops. Some styles known as Kurti pajamas include matching leggings. Indian designers are finding the Haute-Couture groove: as time for creations goes up, so does the price: $8,000 for an embellished custom-made sari. In fact, the French luxury brand Hermès recently introduced a sari line in India.
Readymade Saris and Pleat-Makers
If you’re serious about sari shopping, do your research before your trip. I didn’t buy a choli in India, so when I came home to Vancouver, I went to the Punjabi market of Little India. There, I discovered ready-to-wear saris with a petticoat stitch-attached: it can be slipped on like a dress. Shops also sold gadgets such as pleat-makers. Prices aren’t always cheaper when you shop as a traveler, so if you live near an Indian neighborhood, check them out before you go. You might find equal quality and prices at home. Besides, it’s hard to beat the $35 price-tag of specialized websites that will get you a readymade silk sari outfit.
As for men’s fashion, dhotis are definitely out. Instead, men wear collarless shirts called kurtas. Short or long they can be custom-made in one day from beautiful airy cottons ($20). My husband found them irresistible and wore them throughout our trip.
Saris are lightweight and thinly packaged in cellophane. If you intend to buy silk, make sure it is really silk. Cholis and petticoats can be replaced by a tee-shirt and leggings. Kurtas (tunics) look nice with jeans. Saris dyed traditionally hold the fragrance of pigments (for example, saffron). Note that the prices indicated vary with location.