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Don't Tell Liz, But the Sari's So Out

Pictures of Elizabeth Hurley wearing a pink and turquoise sari in New York made the front pages of Indian newspapers last week. But in Delhi, where India Fashion Week is now running, style icons have been looking towards the West for inspiration.

By Guardian Newspapers, 4/23/2005

Pictures of Elizabeth Hurley wearing a pink and turquoise sari in New York made the front pages of Indian newspapers last week. But in Delhi, where India Fashion Week is now running, style icons have been looking towards the West for inspiration.

The capital's elite is fast abandoning the national dress in favour of more comfortable clothing.

A debate over the possible death of the sari has captured the attention of Indian fashion writers, as commentators contemplate whether the sari may very slowly be following the kimono towards virtual extinction.

'You can't escape the fact that the sari is just not a very comfortable item of clothing,' Hindol Sengupta, author of Indian Fashion, said. 'You can't slip it on and off like jeans and a T-shirt. It crumples, it slips downs, its pleats get lost - it requires a lot of maintenance. Modern women don't have time for it.'

For the moment, this is a style debate restricted to India's cosmopolitan urban pockets, cut off from the vast rural hinterland where saris are worn by women of all classes. Clearly, with several hundred million women still firmly attached to the six-yard piece of unstitched cloth, there is no imminent prospect that the garment will disappear.

But the change in tastes witnessed in the metropolitan areas has come rapidly, within the space of one generation. Saris are now worn in Delhi only at the most sophisticated, formal occasions or by the most unsophisticated, manual labourers. And politicians still wear them as a matter of national pride.

In the lobby of Delhi's Grand Hotel, which is hosting the fashion week shows, there are tank tops, crop tops, micro minis, denim corsets, Capri pants and embroidered bustiers - but very few saris. Suman Bajpai, 44, a fashion writer for women's magazine 4thD, admitted feeling unexpectedly self-conscious in her maroon sari. 'I think people are looking at me and assuming I've travelled into the city from a village,' she said. 'I usually wear a sari to work, but I'm the exception in the office. Most people wear jeans.'

In the lull before the evening shows, no one in the hotel's Whiskey Bar was dressed in traditional Indian clothes. Designer Gauri Karan had to pause to remember how long it had been since she last wore a sari. 'Two months ago; for a wedding,' she said. Her own collection does not include them. Shibani Malhotra, 31, another designer, was in jeans. 'I'd wear one for a party if I wanted to look very glamorous, but not for everyday,' she said. 'For the ladies of leisure of our mother's generation, saris were fine, but they don't work if you're rushing around all day.'

The complex process of draping the cloth elegantly is not one which comes easily. Young girls in the cities are no longer encouraged to start wearing saris at an early age, and only start putting them on regularly in their later teens - by which time it is a struggle to pick up the art of carrying them well. Those who don't like western fashions but want less time-consuming outfits, are increasingly choosing the salwar kameez (the tunic and trouser suit) which is easier to wear.

Satya Paul, one of India's leading labels, exhibited more saris than most - covering them with Jackson Pollack-inspired splashes - but even his collection was weighted towards slinky, skin-hugging dresses.

Rathi Vinay Jha, director general of the Fashion Design Council of India, conceded that tastes had changed dramatically over the past 20 years. 'I don't think it [the sari] will disappear like the kimono, because the problem in Japan was the extraordinary cost of a good kimono. You can buy a simple sari for 100 rupees (£1.20),' she said.

For Jha, the sari remains an unbeatable outfit. 'The bare midriff keeps you cool; if you've got a good figure it's very alluring, and if you're fat, it hides the flab. You can drape the pallu [the scarf end] over your head as protection against the sun or rain; you can dry your hands on it or wipe your child's tears with it. It will never die.'

© Guardian Newspapers Limited

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