January 25 - March 1, 1998

The Indian Sari: Draping Bodies, Revealing Lives

Funded by The Saint Paul Companies; Minnesota Humanities Commission; Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel; College of Human Ecology; and the Friends of the Goldstein Gallery



Draped garments have been worn in the Indian subcontinent from very early civilizations to the present day. Many of the styles in which Indian women drape their saris today developed in the 19th century under colonialism. In that era styles of draping grew in number to indicate women’s status in the caste hierarchy, a social structure based on Indian concepts of purity and pollution. In the 20th century, a large number of Indian men wear cut and sewn garments, in either northern Indian or European-influenced styles. Women attending college or working in office jobs in cities all across India are increasingly doing the same since the 1980s. However, most Indian women continue to wear draped garments.


Chantal Boulanger, Guest Curator


Chantal Boulanger

Chantal Boulanger, a scholar from France, has traveled extensively throughout India during the last six years, documenting styles of draping women’s and men’s garments. Through photography and interviews, she has collected both contemporary and seldom worn historical styles, as well as publicly and privately worn styles of sari draping.


Susheela Hoefer and Jean Ross, exhibition designer Curators:

Susheela Hoefer, Chantal Boulanger, and Hazel Lutz



Description of the Sari

Sari is defined as both (1) a piece of cloth draped to form the main garment of a woman, and (2) a particular style of draping the cloth on the body of the wearer. A sari has two dimensions: its length, which may vary from two to nine yards, and its height, which varies from two to four feet. The design of most sari cloths includes five important parts, which must be learned in order to correctly drape a sari.


Sari styles and materials demonstrating three different generations of the same family.

Irula sari (simple tribal), Pinkosa (farmer caste), and Nivi Modern (six yard synthetic sari)

Dolls wearing variously draped saris.

Loaned by Gita Kar

Red cotton saris.

Both are examples of Koppla Velam saris draped for agricultural work.


The Families of Sari Draping Styles

The system for categorizing the many draping styles found in India is based on the similarities and differences in draping technique. The families often reflect similarities in region or historic time period of origin. The study of similarities in draping may offer clues to the origin and migration of peoples.

Dhoti Family

The dhoti is the oldest Indian draped garment. It was worn by both men and women in India until the 14th century. Then the women’s dhoti started to become longer. The accessory cloth worn over the shoulders was woven together with the dhoti into a single cloth to make the sari. All dhoti styles of draping wrap each of the legs separately with some part of the sari. This creates a loose trouser-like garment.

Dravidian Family

The historical Dravidian sari, a veshti and mundanai set, is draped in two parts. The veshti covers the lower part of the body, and the separate mundanai is draped on the upper body. Dravidian saris found in Tamil Nadu today are draped with one piece of cloth, but are clearly adapted from the two piece set. The saris found in northeastern India, mostly Bengal and Orissa, are related to the saris worn by the Dravidian people of Tamil Nadu.

Nivi Family

The Nivi family of saris is by far the most widespread. Forms of it are worn all over India, as well as in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. It is also worn by emigrant communities and their descendants around the world. The base from which any Nivi sari is draped is the Modern Sari. The multiple pleats that fall from the center front waist are common to every draping style in this family.


The Goldstein Staff and Exhibition Curators


Gond-Related Family

Many variations of the Gond Sari are found on women of all castes living in the region of the historical Gond Kingdom. Today, sari draping styles related to these varieties are found in communities very distant from each other. Gond-related draping styles are created by first arranging the cloth on the left shoulder. Then the cloth is draped clockwise from the shoulder to around the hips. These styles require either a sari with two elaborate pallavs, or no marked pallav at all.

Tribal Family

Almost all of the draping styles of this family belong to communities that have been called “tribal” because they live in hilly or forested areas of the country. Their geographical isolation has preserved some historic Indian trends in draping styles. Tribal Family draping styles have a rolled or knotted closure above the breasts or over the shoulder. They are often worn with broad ribbons or belts, and sometimes capes are added.



Connecting Sari Drapes to the Context of Wear

In India the sari drape and sometimes the sari textile give clues to the identity of the wearer. They can reveal information such as the caste, class, or marital status of the wearer. They can also reveal the religion, occupation or regional origin of the wearer. Sari textiles and draping styles are also subject to fashion changes. Indian women demand unique and interesting dress which suits their individual personalities and reflects their changing lives. Styles of draping saris continue to change as women adopt the national Nivi Modern Sari draping style or regional styles and give up caste-specific or local styles.


Saris as a Reflection of Social Status

Many government processes in the 19th-century colonial period required individuals to declare their place in ranked caste lists in front of the general public. This increased individuals’ awareness of caste status. Caste prejudice and upward social mobility affected fashion in sari draping. The number of draping styles increased in the 19th century as communities dressed to indicate their caste membership. Yet, as individuals and local caste groups improved their economic status, they also changed the way they draped their saris. The draping style of the Nivi Modern Sari of the 20th century emphasizes equality. It covers the body without indicating the wearer’s caste. It is a strong break with the last century, and is viewed by Indians as a sign of modernity. Today, women tend to give up their historic forms of dress and adopt either higher caste draping styles, or the Modern Sari In this way, some draping styles go down the “caste ladder” and are eventually given up by everyone.


Chantal and docent Carla Prakash


Modesty in Sari Draping

How much of her body a woman covers or leaves visible differs according to age, economic and marital status, or activity. Religion and geographical region alter the effects of these factors across India. High socio-economic status is now associated in India with high degrees of body coverage. In adulthood and after marriage, women usually cover more of their body.

Work activities, especially manual labor, are the most significant factor increasing women’s body exposure. Longer draping styles may inhibit women from doing long periods of heavy work. Many draping styles allow the sari to be temporarily adjusted to a shorter style for work. It is the body exposure of lower class women who do heavy work which allows upper class women to keep their bodies covered.

Religious Symbolism in Sari Draping

Aspects of some sari draping styles carry religious significance for the wearer. The Aiyar Sari is an example. The symbolism of the sari is highlighted by contrasting borders. The lower border crosses the front of the body five times, in reference to the five manifestations of the god Shiva, as the five-faced Sadasiva.

The Aiyar Sari also has a male and female side, which parallels the Ardhnarisvara manifestation of Shiva. The lower left side of the sari is draped with kosu pleating inside the back, a detail common to the sari draping styles of Tamil women. The lower right side is draped like a man’s dhoti.

Sari Fashion

The textiles and draping styles of saris change with fashion. Consider the 6-yard sari textile. The width of borders and length of pallavs all change from one fashion period to the next. Fashion changes also occur in the accessories to the sari. The design of sari blouses changes quite quite a lot. Length and shape of the sleeves, neckline, and bodice, as well as the closures and fabric, constantly change through time.

One on-going fashion trend continuing from the 1980s has been dubbed Ethnic Chic. Worn mostly by urban middle and upper class women, it incorporates regional rural and village textiles, embroidery styles, and forms of dress considered unsophisticated until quite recently.

The dress of Europe, and more recently from the United States as well, has been a source of inspiration for Indian fashion. Forms of Indian dress often incorporate details of Western fashion.

Fashionable saris have also been inspired by ethnic arts originally having nothing to do with dress. For example, painting that originated as an art form for walls and floors of houses, is now being done on silk saris. Another example is the kantha embroidery used to quilt old saris together in Bengal. Today, kantha-style stitches are also used as decorativeembroidery on fashionable saris.


Beige double-pallav silk check ikat sari

Loaned by Gita Kar

Orange polyester sari with discontinuous weft and brocade border

Aiyar sari draping style parallels one manifestation of Shiva

Green silk check and brocade sari

Loaned by Chantal Boulanger


Related Events:Resources for Further Learning & Enjoyment


Movies: Saris in Motion

Indian Women in the Films of Satyajit Ray at Seventh Street Cinema: Oak Street Arts, in collaboration with The Goldstein is presenting three Ray films on the lives of Indian women. Mondays through Wednesday for three consecutive weeks, starting Jan. 26th. Seventh Street Cinema is located in the Historic Hamm Building, just off the pedestrian mall between St. Peter and Wabasha on 20 West 7th Place in downtown St. Paul. For more information call (612) 228-3070.

Dance: Black Candle

Black Candle by Nritya Jyoti Dance Company: In collaboration with The Goldstein, the Nritya Jyoti Companay presents Black Candle, with additional sequences choregraphed exclusively for The Goldstein’s exhibition of The Indian Sari. Based on the poetry of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, this nationally-acclaimed collection of dance poems explores the pain, beauty, and passionate will of Asian-Indian women by uniting poetry and contemporary dance. Saturday, Feb. 14, 1998, 7 p.m. at St. Paul Student Center Theatre.




History of Indian Costume

Biswas, A. (1985). Indian costumes. Delhi: Publications Divisions.

Bhushan, J. (1958). The costumes and textiles of India. Bombay: Taraporevala’s.

Dar, S.N. (1969). Costumes of India and Pakistan: A historical and cultural study. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons.

Mohapatra, R.P. (1992). Fashion styles of ancient India: A study of Kalinga from earliest times to 16th century AD. New Delhi: D.K. Publishers.

Ghurye, G.S. (1966). Indian costume. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

The Sari

Boulanger, C. (1998). An illustrated guide to the Indian art of draping. New York: Shakti Press International.

Chishti, R.K., & Sanyal, A. (1989). Madhya Pradesh saris of India. New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd. & Amr Vastra Kosh.

Chisti, R.K., & Sanyal, A. (1995). Bihar and West Bengal saris of India New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd. & Amr Vastra Kosh.

Dongerkey, K.S. (1961). The Indian sari. New Delhi: The All Handicrafts Board, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India.

Lynton, L. (1995). The sari: Styles, patterns, history, techniques. London: Thames & Hudson.

Indian Fashion

Castelino, M. (1994). Fashion kaleidoscope. Calcutta: Rupa

Indian Influence on Western Fashion

Martin, Richard & Koda, Harold (1994). Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.).

Indian Dress and the Socio-cultural Context

Raheja, G.G. (1988). The poison in the gift: Ritual, prestation, and the dominant caste in a North Indian village. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tarlo, E. (1996). Clothing matters: Dress and identity in India. Chicago: University of Chicago.

The books listed above, and many others, are located in the Ames Library of South Asia in the sub-basement of Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota.

For more comprehensive information on community resources contact one of the student curators.


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