For the past few months I have been thinking about the arguments for and against updating the saree, changing its more traditional aspects, going for odd new innovations and so on. The sad case of the Japanese kimono is the usual comparison, as in “…we must be creative with saree or it will become stagnant and die out like the kimono!”
These just-off-the-LFW-runway styles combine East Asian motifs that look like kimono patterns with Parsi embroidery techniques, and some fresh twists to the usual saree outfit. My favourite from this line by Ashdeen is the strapless, hip-length blouse with a coordinating simple saree, above.
Nope, our simple and elegant (and oh so adaptable), saree is not going the way of the kimono or dodo bird! Its easy draping and affordability beat the unbelievably complicated, restricting and expensive national dress of Japan by a mile.
This delicate blouse has the European high collar and full sleeves worn around the turn of the 20th century – generally known as Edwardian style. Strangely, I’m not sure I like it with the loose hair and widely sprigged saree on the lovely young woman who is mixing her sartorial metaphors. The sleeve ruffle is whitework on lawn or a similar light cotton. My guess is that the outfit would look better in the original colours, rather than the slightly odd added tints. But the overused title, Bombay Beauty, is certainly true in this case.
The intricate choli on this beauty is worthy of note for its own sake. It follows an early style of construction with embroidery that seems to disappear by the 1890s. The saree is also just incredible – how I wish we could see it today in colour! The palu design reminds me of some sheer Bengali handlooms I saw recently on sarisafari.com. Large fans of European style were trimmed with feathers, of hand-painted silk on ivory sticks, from the 1880s through the turn of the 20th century. The Bombay printing company probably used the lovely photographic portrait some years after it was taken. I doubt the elegant model was some poor girl brought in just to pose for postcards.
This is a lovely portrait of a beautiful young woman in a beautiful saree. But what is unusual is her choice of blouse – a cute short-sleeved knit sweater! Note the yarn pompons at the neck! The saree is delightful, with its windopane weave with a bit of zari and interesting geometric border. The image is probably 1930s or so.
These women definitely have attitude… I just have no idea why. Maybe they are not happy with the local choli choices available some 60 years ago?
An article I saw last week may give insight into this possibility - from a New Indian Express Buzz op-ed by Raji P. Shrivastava:
“My grandmother’s generation wore white blouses even with iridescent Kanjivarams. My mother’s contemporaries were matching-fiends who were obsessed about the blouse and sari being colour-matched to precision. Today’s saris have names, geographical identities, hallmarks and holograms. A ‘designer’ blouse-length is often thoughtfully attached. However, it is near-impossible to find a good blouse-tailor in most cities. With fewer women wearing saris, there are fewer tailors stitching blouses — a perfect vicious circle.”
Saree Dreams readers have written in pleading for choli patterns, and I have wondered if there are few or no commercial patterns in South Asia like we have in North America (including Simplicity, Butterick and Folkwear designs), to address the issue for DIY types. Are there less tailors these days, or do more women want to experiment with their own creativity, and maybe fitting issues? I will do research and reviews on patterns here if you are interested!
Here are more illustrations by Dhurandhar, done about the turn of the 20th century. The group of ladies is particularly interesting because of the variety of blouses shown. At the right is a traditional choli with the woven border decorating the sleeves and back. On the left we see a very short choli with trendy puffed sleeves. The girl in the brownish saree wears a fitted bodice in Anglo/Euro style with a squared neck and tails at the back. The standing figure sports a blouse with long sleeves gathered above and below the elbow, and heeled shoes with her kaccha saree.
This painting is so cheerful and bright that I want to go run through fields of flowers too! Must say that I find the kaccha saree worn with bare feet much more appealing than with tight shoes! The artist’s ability to create the zari shine on the saree and the light on the choli is simply wonderful.