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CULTURAL TRADITIONS in FASHION. Ancient to Modern: The Success of the Sari

5_Ancient-to-Modern-the-Success-of-the-Sari_BCINGU-Title-ArtworkWe know the sari to be a stunning and ornately decorated garment, with lively colours and accessorized with glittering jewellery, but under its beautiful surface lies a history that spans millennia.

Known to be one of the oldest garments in the world, the traditional Indian sari is a piece of cloth that has been worn for over 5000 years. The sari has remained a staple in Indian culture and being such a versatile garment, its popularity expands beyond a formal party dress and can be seen on the runway, Bollywood, and simply out on the street. Like many traditional garments, the sari has taken on many forms throughout its reign and adapts to the current culture, giving it a diverse design history to discover.



The sari, often referred to as the saree, has a deep past dating as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 B.C.E.). Its early beginnings were uncovered in a record from the Vedas, which is one of the oldest known written works. The roots of the sari derive from a three-piece garment, alongside other traditional clothes that came before it, such as the cholis and lehengas which date back to the 6th Century B.C.E. As a single piece of cloth, the sari is worn using strategic draping and pleating due to its lack of stitching. This unstitched style has ties to an old Hindu belief which found stitching in clothing to be an impurity, with this view only challenged by later Greek influence.



With influences from surrounding countries, the sari has undergone many transformations over time, beginning with its name. The garment was originally called a sati, derived from the Prakrit word sattkia, which can be found in Buddhist literature. What began as a cloth with no stitching of any kind eventually became a blouse and skirt, as well as a long cloth, starting at 6-9 yards, that is wrapped around the wearer. Once the Greeks and Mughals introduced stitch work, this opened the doors to embellishments, embroidery, and various fabrics.


The shift from no stitching to stitching was not the only change that the sari has experienced. Each region of India had its own interpretation on the garment, starting with the colors, patterns, and embroidery. Every sari expresses the origin of the wearer through its drapery and design, telling onlookers a story with more than 80 style variations. Below we discuss the styles of sari from different regions:


The Mekhela Chador

A drape that comes from the Assam people is the Mekhela Chador, which is a formal garment worn for traditional occasions and holidays. This piece is made up of two parts, with a cloth thrown over the shoulder and another tucked at the waist.


The Madisar Drape

Typically worn after one is married, the Madisar sari is a drape worn in the style that a woman would use on the lower half and draped as a man would use on the top half, making it difficult to put on. Due to how it is worn, this style of draping is called the ardhanareeshwara style which translates to ‘half man, half woman’, likely relating to the fact that it was worn this way after marriage.


The Parsi Gol

This sari is only worn by a Parsi woman once her rite of passage ceremony known as the Saree Perawan has ended. The sari is usually made of a lighter material, such as chiffon or georgette and paired with jewellery that compliments the design.

The Kappulu Drape


Worn by those living near the coast, the Kappulu style of draping allows the sari to flatter a curvy figure by the nature of how it is tied. It is tied from left to right and twists at the end of the pleat in the back.

The Nauvari Drape


The Nauvari Sari is a drape worn by the Maharashtra that is worn around the legs and symbolizes the independence of the Marathi women. It is draped in such a way that allows the wearer to move freely, often worn for dancing. 

Coorgi Drape


Draped for climbing, the Coorgi women styled the sari in a fashion that enabled them to move up the Western Ghat hills and trees using a tight style of knotting for the belt at the back of the dress.

The Athpourey Drape


This is the most traditional style of draping, worn by women of power in a household. It can be worn with a knot at the right shoulder, containing keys to signify the social status of the home of the wearer at a special occasion.


Although the sari has been in existence for thousands of years, it remains culturally relevant through its deep roots in Indian culture and its importance in the world of fashion. The sari has taken over the runway in recent years, being recreated by well-known designers such as Chanel and Alexander McQueen. Once again, we must be overtly careful to appreciate, rather than appropriate, such an important garment.