The History of Saree: A Brief Look At


India celebrates the Saree, the way few countries do and that is why it is the most iconic article of clothing that India owns. The saree is an integral part of every Indian woman’s wardrobe. It has an evergreen presence everywhere be it on runways at fashion shows, to the glitz and glamour-filled world of Bollywood. At the same time, it also makes its presence felt on even the smallest streets and gulleys in both urban and rural India. The saree is a part of our culture the way few things are! But, how many of us know about the history of the saree? Have any of us actually tried to get to know about the origins of Saree and how it evolved to become India’s go-to fashion attire? Well, here’s an in-depth look into the history of the saree and how the saree has evolved over the years.

History of Saree

Woman wearing a red saree

Also read: 4 outfits to easily create using old sarees

Early Beginnings

Being over 5,000 years old, the Indian saree is regarded to be one of the oldest forms of clothing in the world. The Vedas, which are some of the oldest religious manuscripts in the world, mention the use of Saree in the Indus Valley Civilisation. However, while the Saree has been around since 3300–1300 B.C.E., its popularity has not really suffered as a result of it, as it continues to reinvent itself every two or three decades. Hence, the history of the Saree goes all the way back to the origins of life on the Indian Sub-continent itself. The word saree comes from the Sanskrit word “śāṭī” which translates to ‘strip of cloth’.

The Saree originated as a single piece of cloth because Hindu belief states that stitching cloth makes it impure. Hence, people used around four to six meters of cloth to drape their bodies, and hence the Saree was born. A few years down the line, the tactful pleating process used across the upper body gave the Saree the shape we associate with it now. Historians believe that it evolved from a three-piece-attire that comprised of a lower garment, chest band and shoulder or head piece. This predecessor gets several mentions in Sanskrit literature that dates back to the 6th century B.C.E. Several sculptures from the Gandhara and Mathura schools showcase dancers wearing something that resembles a Saree. However, these articles do not have any bodices.

Growing Influences

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By examining the history of the saree, it is clear that it has been influenced by several cultures. Everything from Aryan arrival to the invasion and establishment of the Mughal Empire has had a profound impact on the history of the saree. Several historians believe that the Saree we know and love today got its shape in the post-Mughal era. The two-piece Kerala style of wearing the Saree is actually a survival of the ancient style of draping the Saree. A close observation of the history of the saree will show how the modern one-piece saree is an innovation, that came much later. For instance, the Mughals brought with them various embroidery styles, creative use of embellishments and unique designs. A quick look at the Banarasi saree can confirm without a doubt just how much the Mughals influenced the history of the Saree.

Also read: 10 Incredible Sets of Blouse for Different Sarees

Development and Evolution

The art of stitching came to India through the Greeks. Once it became popular in India, sarees were stitched to ensure the right fall and drape. However, the biggest change in the history of the saree came with the development of weaving and dyeing. In fact, ancient India has such skilled rural artisans that their exemplary textiles achieved worldwide fame. Beautiful Indian silks, printed cotton cloths, and hand-painted sarees were famous throughout the ancient world.

Most of these textiles came through direct orders from queens and members of the aristocracy. This meant that people spared no expenses when it came to weaving sarees. Therefore, rich fabrics, fancy embellishments, and intricate designs became a norm, and continue to inspire designers even to this day. Over time, these motifs garnered special names, and even today continue to uphold the values and quality of their predecessors.

Popularity Around India

One of the main reasons the Saree is so popular is due to its versatility. It has the ability to provide warmth in winter, and some much-needed cooling in summer. Furthermore, it can be sensual and classy at the same time, as the one who wears it decides how the final look should be. Also, it has high utility, as it can be folded and tucked to make shorter, the pleats can be worn in longer for added modesty, and so on. Hence, in many ways, Saree is the perfect attire for South Asian women. The fabric can suit all body types alike, making it a hit with women of all ages and sizes. Furthermore, the wide variety of fabrics available means that sarees can suit any occasion, weather, and even function. This is why we see both farm-workers and Bollywood divas draped in Sarees.

Variations and Fabrics

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While there are several “authentic” ways to drape a saree, most people do not agree on which the correct version is. Also, the history of the saree highlights how its evolution came as a result of fast expansion. Therefore, around India, one can find over 80 different ways to drape a Saree. Other variations include the fabric used to weave the Saree. The tie-dye Bandhani saree, the light-weight Chanderi cotton sarees, and the Kanchipuram silk saree have all brought laurels for India from around the world. If this wasn’t enough, further variations and alterations can be made by changing blouse designs to pair with the saree.

Today, we have everything from saree gowns and pants to cool t-shirt sarees. This means that no woman ever has to face a dearth of choice when it comes to saree options. So what are some of the best places in India to get a unique saree? Read the next blog in our series on Sarees to gain insight into popular draping styles and famous Indian sarees.

Also read: How to wear your saree in 3 different styles