This article is about the garment. For other uses, see Sari (disambiguation).
Woman and girl dressed in traditional Maharashtra sari

A sari, saree, or shari[note 1] is a female garment from the Indian subcontinent[1] that consists of a drape varying from five to nine yards (4.5 metres to 8 metres) in length[2] and two to four feet (60 cm to 1.20 m) in breadth[3] that is typically wrapped around the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder, baring the midriff.[4][5][6] There are various styles of sari draping, the most common being the Nivi style, which originated in Andhra Pradesh.

The sari is usually worn over a petticoat (called 'parkar' (परकर) in Marathi lahaṅgā or lehenga in the north; pavadai (பாவாடை) in Tamil, pavada (or occasionally langa) in Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu, chaniyo, parkar, ghaghra, or ghagaro in the west; and shaya in eastern India), with a fitted upper garment commonly called a blouse (ravike in South India and choli elsewhere). The blouse has short sleeves and is usually cropped at the midriff. The sari is associated with grace and is widely regarded as a symbol of grace in cultures of the Indian subcontinent.


The word sari described in Sanskrit शाटी śāṭī[7] which means 'strip of cloth'[8] and शाडी śāḍī or साडी sāḍī in Pali, and which was corrupted to sāṛī in modern Indian languages.[9] The word 'Sattika' is mentioned as describing women's attire in ancient India in Sanskrit literature and Buddhist literature called Jatakas.[10] This could be equivalent to modern day 'Sari'.[10] The term for female bodice, the choli evolved from ancient Stanapatta.[11][12] Rajatarangini (meaning the 'river of kings'), a tenth-century literary work by Kalhana, states that the choli from the Deccan was introduced under the royal order in Kashmir.[13]

Origins and history

Sculpture of woman from ancient Braj-Mathura ca. 2nd century AD.
Tara depicted in ancient three-piece attire, c.11th century.
Lady being offered wine, Deccan, 1600 AD

In the history of Indian clothing the sari is traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which flourished during 2800–1800 BC around the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent.[4][5][6] Cotton was first cultivated and woven in Indian subcontinent around 5th millennium BC.[14] Dyes used during this period are still in use, particularly indigo, lac, red madder and turmeric.[15] Silk was woven around 2450 BC and 2000 BC.[16][17] The earliest known depiction of the sari in the Indian subcontinent is the statue of an Indus Valley priest wearing a drape.[4][5][6]

The sari evolved from three-piece attire known as Antariya lower garment, Uttariya veil worn over shoulder or head and Stanapatta a chestband, which finds mentioned in Sanskrit literature and Buddhist Pali literature during 6th century B.C.[18] This complete three-piece dress was known as Poshak, generic term for costume.[19] Ancient Antariya closely resembled dothi wrap in the "fishtail" version which was passed through legs, covered the legs loosely and then flowed into a long, decorative pleats at front of the legs.[4][20][21] It further evolved into Bhairnivasani skirt, today known as ghagri and lehenga.[22] Uttariya was a shawl-like veil worn over the shoulder or head, it evolved into what is known today known as dupatta and ghoongat.[23] Likewise, Stanapatta evolved into choli by 1st century A.D.[11][12] Between 2nd century B.C to 1st century A.D, Antariya and Uttariya was merged to form a single garment known as sari mentioned in Pali literature, which served the purpose of two garments in one-piece.[24][25]

The ancient Sanskrit work, Kadambari by Banabhatta and ancient Tamil poetry, such as the Silappadhikaram, describes women in exquisite drapery or sari.[13][26][27][28] In ancient India, although women wore saris that bared the midriff, the Dharmasastra writers stated that women should be dressed such that the navel would never become visible.[29][30] By which for some time the navel exposure became a taboo and the navel was concealed.[5][31][32] In ancient Indian tradition and the Natya Shastra (an ancient Indian treatise describing ancient dance and costumes), the navel of the Supreme Being is considered to be the source of life and creativity, hence the midriff is to be left bare by the sari.[33][34]

Early Sanskrit literature has a wide vocabulary of terms for the veiling used by women, such as Avagunthana (oguntheti/oguṇthikā), meaning cloak-veil, Uttariya meaning shoulder-veil, Mukha-pata meaning face-veil and Sirovas-tra meaning head-veil.[35] In the Pratimānātaka, a play by Bhāsa describes in context of Avagunthana veil that "ladies may be seen without any blame (for the parties concerned) in a religious session, in marriage festivities, during a calamity and in a forest".[35] The same sentiment is more generically expressed in later Sanskrit literature.[36] Śūdraka, the author of Mṛcchakatika set in fifth century BC says that the Avagaunthaha was not used by women everyday and at every time. He says that a married lady was expected to put on a veil while moving in the public.[36] This may indicate that it was not necessary for unmarried females to put on a veil.[36] In 3rd century CE, Mahayana Buddhists attempt to counter this growing veiling practice (oguntheti/oguṇthikā) in Lalitavistara Sūtra.[37] This form of veiling by married women is still prevalent in Hindi-speaking areas, and is known as ghoonghat where the loose end of a sari is pulled over the head to act as a facial veil.[38]

Based on sculptures and paintings, tight bodices or cholis are believed have evolved between 2nd century B.C to 6th century A.D in various regional styles.[39][39] Early cholis were front covering tied at the back; this style was more common in parts of ancient northern India. This ancient form of bodice or choli are still common in the state of Rajasthan today.[40] Varies styles of decorative traditional embroidery like gota patti, mochi, pakko, kharak, suf, kathi, phulkari and gamthi are done on cholis.[41] In Southern parts of India, choli is known as ravikie which is tied at the front instead of back, kasuti is traditional form of embroidery used for cholis in this region.[42] In Nepal, choli is known as cholo or chaubandi cholo and is traditionally tied at the front.[43]

Red is most favored color for wedding saris and are traditional garment choice for brides in Indian culture.[44] Women traditionally wore various types of regional handloom sarees made of silk, cotton, ikkat, block-print, embroidery and tie-dye textiles. Most sought after brocade silk sarees are Banasari, Kanchipuram, Paithani, Mysore, Uppada, Bagalpuri, Balchuri, Maheshwari, Chanderi, Mekhela, Ghicha, Narayan pet and Eri etc. are traditionally worn for festive and formal occasions.[45] Silk Ikat and cotton sarees known as Patola, Pochampally, Bomkai, Khandua, Sambalpuri, Gadwal, Berhampuri, Bargarh, Jamdani, Tant, Mangalagiri, Guntur, Narayan pet, Chanderi, Maheshwari, Nuapatn, Tussar, Ilkal, Kotpad and Manipuri were worn for both festive and everyday attire.[46] Tie-dyed and block-print sarees known as Bandhani, Leheria/Leheriya, Bagru, Ajrakh, Sungudi, Kota Dabu/Dabu print, Bagh and Kalamkari were traditionally worn during monsoon season.[47] Gota Patti is popular form of traditional embroidery used on saris for formal occasions, various other types of traditional folk embroidery such mochi, pakko, kharak, suf, kathi, phulkari and gamthi are also commonly used for both informal and formal occasion.[48][49] Today, modern fabrics like polyester, georgette and charmeuse are also commonly used.[50][51][52]

Styles of draping

Illustration of different styles of sari, gagra choli & shalwar kameez worn by women in South Asia

There are more than 80 recorded ways to wear a sari.[53][54] The most common style is for the sari to be wrapped around the waist, with the loose end of the drape to be worn over the shoulder, baring the midriff.[55] However, the sari can be draped in several different styles, though some styles do require a sari of a particular length or form. The French cultural anthropologist and sari researcher Chantal Boulanger categorised sari drapes in the following families:[5]

Historic photographs and regional styles

Nivi style

Maharani Ourmilla Devi Of Jubbal in Nivi Sari

The nivi is today's most popular sari style from Andhra Pradesh. The increased interaction with the British saw most women from royal families come out of purdah in the 1900s. This necessitated a change of dress. Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar popularised the chiffon sari. She was widowed early in life and followed the convention of abandoning her richly woven Baroda shalus in favour of the unadorned mourning white as per tradition. Characteristically, she transformed her "mourning" clothes into high fashion. She had saris woven in France to her personal specifications, in white chiffon, and introduced the silk chiffon sari to the royal fashion repertoire.[59]

The chiffon sari did what years of fashion interaction had not done in India. It homogenised fashion across this land. Its softness, lightness and beautiful, elegant, caressing drape was ideally suited to the Indian climate. Different courts adopted their own styles of draping and indigenising the sari. In most of the courts the sari was embellished with stitching hand-woven borders in gold from Varanasi, delicate zardozi work, gota, makaish and tilla work that embellished the plain fabric, simultaneously satisfying both traditional demands and ingrained love for ornamentation. Some images of maharanis in the Deccan show the women wearing a sleeveless, richly embellished waistcoat over their blouses. The Begum of Savanur remembers how sumptuous the chiffon sari became at their gatherings. At some courts it was worn with jaali, or net kurtas and embossed silk waist length sadris or jackets. Some of them were so rich that the entire ground was embroidered over with pearls and zardozi.[59][60]

Nivi drape starts with one end of the sari tucked into the waistband of the petticoat, usually a plain skirt. The cloth is wrapped around the lower body once, then hand-gathered into even pleats below the navel. The pleats are tucked into the waistband of the petticoat.[61] They create a graceful, decorative effect which poets have likened to the petals of a flower.[61] After one more turn around the waist, the loose end is draped over the shoulder.[61] The loose end is called the pallu, pallav, seragu, or paita depending on the language. It is draped diagonally in front of the torso. It is worn across the right hip to over the left shoulder, partly baring the midriff.[61] The navel can be revealed or concealed by the wearer by adjusting the pallu, depending on the social setting. The long end of the pallu hanging from the back of the shoulder is often intricately decorated. The pallu may be hanging freely, tucked in at the waist, used to cover the head, or used to cover the neck, by draping it across the right shoulder as well. Some nivi styles are worn with the pallu draped from the back towards the front, coming from the back over the right shoulder with one corner tucked by the left hip, covering the torso/waist. The nivi sari was popularised through the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma.[62] In one of his paintings, the Indian subcontinent was shown as a mother wearing a flowing nivi sari.[62] The ornaments generally accepted by the Hindu culture that can be worn in the midriff region are the waist chains. They are considered to be a part of bridal jewellery.[63]

Professional style of draping

Sonia Gandhi in a professional sari with extended blouse.

Because of the harsh extremes in temperature on the Indian Subcontinent, the sari fills a practical role as well as a decorative one. It is not only warming in winter and cooling in summer, but its loose-fitting tailoring is preferred by women who must be free to move as their duties require. For this reason, it is the clothing of choice of air hostesses on Air India.[64][65] This led to a professional style of draping a sari which is referred to "Air-Hostess style sari". An air hostess style sari is tied in just the same way as a normal sari except that the pleats are held together quite nicely with the help of pins. A bordered sari will be just perfect for an Air-Hostess style drape where the pallu is heavily pleated and pinned on the shoulder. Even the vertical pleats that are tucked at the navel are severely pleated and pressed. Same goes for the pallu pleats that are pinned at the shoulder. To get the perfect "Air-hostess" a complimentary U-shaped blouse that covers the upper body completely is worn which gives a very elegant and formal look. Mastering the "Air-hostess" style drape helps to create the desired impact in a formal setting like an interview or a conference.[66][67]

Saris are worn as uniforms by the female hotel staff of many five star luxury hotels in India as symbol of culture. Recently, in a makeover design, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, decided the welcoming staff at the group's Luxury Hotels would be draped in the rich colours and designs of the Banarasi six yards. The new saris were unveiled at the Taj property in Mumbai. It will be subsequently replicated at all 10 Luxury Hotels of the group across the country for duty managers and front office staff. Taj had adopted three villages in Varanasi and employed 25 master weavers there for the project. The vision finally took shape after 14 months, once the weavers had a good work environment, understood the designs and fine-tuned the motifs.[68][69][70][71][72][73]

Similarly, the female politicians of India wear the sari in a professional manner. The women of Nehru–Gandhi family like Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi wear the special blouse for the campaign trail which is longer than usually and is tucked in to prevent any midriff show while waving to the crowds. Stylist Prasad Bidapa has to say, "I think Sonia Gandhi is the country's most stylish politician. But that's because she's inherited the best collection of saris from her mother-in-law. I'm also happy that she supports the Indian handloom industry with her selection." BJP politician Sushma Swaraj maintains her prim housewife look with a pinned-up pallu while general secretary of AIADMK Jayalalithaa wears her saris like a suit of armour.[74]


Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a Rajshahi silk sari at the Moscow Kremlin in 2013

Sharee or saree (in Bengali=শাড়ি, Śāṛi ) is the national wear of Bangladeshi women. Most women who are married wear sharee as their regular dress while young-unmarried girls wear sharee as an occasional dress. The shari is worn by women throughout Bangladesh. Sari is the most popular dress for women in Bangladesh, both for casual and formal occasion. Although Dhakai Jamdani (hand made shari) is worldwide known and most famous to all women who wear shari but there are also many variety of shari in Bangladesh. There are many regional variations of them in both silk and cotton. e.g.- Tanta/Tant cotton shari, Dhakai Banarasi sari, Rajshahi silk, Tangail Tant saree, Tassar silk shari, Manipuri shari and Katan shari are the most popular in Bangladesh.


In Pakistan, the sarees are still popular and worn on special occasions. The Shalwar kameez, however, is worn throughout the country on a daily basis. The sari nevertheless remains a popular garment among the middle and upper class for many formal functions. Sarees can be seen worn commonly in metropolitan cities such as Karachi and Islamabad and are worn regularly to weddings and other business type of functions. Sarees are also worn by many Muslim women in Sindh to show their status or to enhance their beauty. [75] The sari is worn as daily wear by Pakistani Hindus, by elderly Muslim women who were used to wearing it in pre-partition India[76] and by some of the new generation who have reintroduced the interest in saris.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan women wear saris in many styles. Two ways of draping the sari are popular and tend to dominate: the Indian style (classic nivi drape) and the Kandyan style (or osaria in Sinhalese). The Kandyan style is generally more popular in the hill country region of Kandy from which the style gets its name. Though local preferences play a role, most women decide on style depending on personal preference or what is perceived to be most flattering for their figure.

The traditional Kandyan (osaria) style consists of a full blouse which covers the midriff completely and is partially tucked in at the front as is seen in this 19th-century portrait. However, modern intermingling of styles has led to most wearers baring the midriff. The final tail of the sari is neatly pleated rather than free-flowing. This is rather similar to the pleated rosette used in the Dravidian style noted earlier in the article.

The Kandyan style is considered the national dress of Sinhalese women. It is the uniform of the air hostesses of SriLankan Airlines.

During the 1960s, the mini sari known as 'hipster' sari created a wrinkle in Sri Lankan fashion, since it was worn below the navel and barely above the line of prosecution for indecent exposure. The conservative people described the 'hipster' as "an absolute travesty of a beautiful costume almost a desecration" and "a hideous and purposeless garment".[77][78]


The sari is the most commonly worn women's clothing in Nepal where a special style of sari draping is called haku patasihh. The sari is draped around the waist and a shawl is worn covering the upper half of the sari, which is used in place of a pallu.

Similarities and differences with other Asian clothing

While the sari is typical to Indian traditional wear, clothing worn by South-East Asian countries like Burma, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore resemble it, where a long rectangular piece of cloth is draped around the body. These are different from the sari as they are wrapped around the lower-half of body as a skirt, worn with a shirt/blouse, resembling a sarong, as seen in the Burmese Longyi, Filipino Malong, Tapis, Laotian Xout lao, Thai Sinh's, and Timorese Tais. Saris, worn predominantly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal are usually draped with one end of the cloth fastened around the waist, and the other end placed over the shoulder baring the midriff.[4][5][6]

Ornamentation and decorative accessories

Display of traditional sarees with gota patti embroidery for festive occasions at clothing store.

Saris are woven with one plain end (the end that is concealed inside the wrap), two long decorative borders running the length of the sari, and a one to three-foot section at the other end which continues and elaborates the length-wise decoration. This end is called the pallu; it is the part thrown over the shoulder in the nivi style of draping.

In past times, saris were woven of silk or cotton. The rich could afford finely woven, diaphanous silk saris that, according to folklore, could be passed through a finger ring. The poor wore coarsely woven cotton saris. All saris were handwoven and represented a considerable investment of time or money.

Simple hand-woven villagers' saris are often decorated with checks or stripes woven into the cloth. Inexpensive saris were also decorated with block printing using carved wooden blocks and vegetable dyes, or tie-dyeing, known in India as bhandani work.

More expensive saris had elaborate geometric, floral, or figurative ornaments or brocades created on the loom, as part of the fabric. Sometimes warp and weft threads were tie-dyed and then woven, creating ikat patterns. Sometimes threads of different colours were woven into the base fabric in patterns; an ornamented border, an elaborate pallu, and often, small repeated accents in the cloth itself. These accents are called buttis or bhuttis (spellings vary). For fancy saris, these patterns could be woven with gold or silver thread, which is called zari work.

Vaddanam or Kamarband is type of sari belt used to keep complex drapes in place.

Sometimes the saris were further decorated, after weaving, with various sorts of embroidery. Resham work is embroidery done with coloured silk thread. Zardozi embroidery uses gold and silver thread, and sometimes pearls and precious stones. Cheap modern versions of zardozi use synthetic metallic thread and imitation stones, such as fake pearls and Swarovski crystals.

In modern times, saris are increasingly woven on mechanical looms and made of artificial fibres, such as polyester, nylon, or rayon, which do not require starching or ironing. They are printed by machine, or woven in simple patterns made with floats across the back of the sari. This can create an elaborate appearance on the front, while looking ugly on the back. The punchra work is imitated with inexpensive machine-made tassel trim. Fashion designer Aaditya Sharma declared, "I can drape a sari in 54 different styles".[79]

Hand-woven, hand-decorated saris are naturally much more expensive than the machine imitations. While the overall market for handweaving has plummeted (leading to much distress among Indian handweavers), hand-woven saris are still popular for weddings and other grand social occasions.

Sari outside South Asia

Aishwarya bachchan in a sari at the London premiere of her film Raavan

The traditional sari made an impact in the United States during the 1970s. Eugene Novack who ran the New York store, Royal Saree House told that he had been selling it mainly to the Indian women in New York area but later many American business women and housewives became his customers who preferred their saris to resemble the full gown of the western world. He also said that men appeared intrigued by the fragility and the femininity it confers on the wearer.[80] Newcomers to the sari report that it is comfortable to wear, requiring no girdles or stockings and that the flowing garb feels so feminine with unusual grace.[81][82]

The sari has gained its popularity internationally because of the growth of Indian fashion trends globally. Many Bollywood celebrities, like Aishwarya Rai,[83][84] have worn it at international events representing the Indian culture. In 2010, Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone wanted to represent her country at an international event, wearing the national costume. On her very first red carpet appearance at the Cannes International Film Festival, she stepped out on the red carpet in a Rohit Bal sari.[85][86]

Even popular Hollywood celebrities have worn this traditional attire.[87] Pamela Anderson made a surprise guest appearance on Bigg Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother, dressed in a sari that was specially designed for her by Mumbai-based fashion designer Ashley Rebello.[88] Ashley Judd donned a purple sari at the YouthAIDS Benefit Gala in November 2007 at the Ritz Carlton in Mclean, Virginia.[89][90][91] There was an Indian flavour to the red carpet at the annual Fashion Rocks concert in New York, with designer Rocky S walking the ramp along with Jessica, Ashley, Nicole, Kimberly and Melody – the Pussycat Dolls – dressed in saris.[92] in 2014, American singer Selena Gomez was seen in a sari for an UNICEF charity event at Nepal.[93]


While an international image of the modern style sari may have been popularised by airline stewardesses, each region in the Indian subcontinent has developed, over the centuries, its own unique sari style. Following are other well-known varieties, distinct on the basis of fabric, weaving style, or motif, in South Asia:

Sambalpuri saree

Central styles

Eastern styles

Silk sari from India (1970, Collection of PFF, Nauplio)
Bomkai Silk Saree of Odisha

Western styles

Kota sari
Bandhani saris of Gujarat and Rajasthan

Southern styles

Mysore silk saree with golden zari.
Banarasi sari

Northern styles


See also


  1. The name of the garment in various regional languages include:
    Bengali: শাড়ি shaṛi, Hindi: साड़ी sāṛī, Odia: ଶାଢୀ sāddhi, Kannada: ಸೀರೆ, sīre, Konkani: साडी, कापड, चीरे, sāḍī, kāpaḍ, cīre, Malayalam: സാരി sāri, Marathi: साडी sāḍī, Nepali: सारी sārī, Punjabi: ਸਾਰੀ sārī, Tamil: புடவை puṭavai, Telugu: చీర cīra, Urdu: ساڑى sāṛī


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  3. Boulanger, Chantal (1997). Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping. New York: Shakti Press International. p. 6.
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  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Boulanger, Chantal; (1997) Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping, Shakti Press International, New York.
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