Miller on the Sari

Daniel Miller takes an in-depth look at the aesthetic, cultural, and psychological dimensions of a ‘staple’ of Indian clothing.

A sari is a single piece of entirely unsewn cloth, usually around 6 metres, worn by being draped around the body. Usually these days it is worn in association with a petticoat, a blouse piece, and beneath these, pants and a bra. The aim of this section is not to tell you how Indian women wear a sari, or how the sari represents their identity. Quite the opposite. The intention is to explain how the sari wears the Indian woman, how it makes her what she is – both woman and Indian. If, in Trinidad, clothing challenges what we meant by the concept of being, in India we shall see how a phrase such as ‘being a woman’ is also subject to comparative analysis. As will become apparent, being a woman is quite different if it is accomplished through wearing a sari rather than through wearing a skirt or dress. Clothes are among our most personal possessions. They are the main medium between our sense of our bodies and our sense of the external world. First then let’s consider how it feels to wear a sari.

In the now widespread Nivi style, the sari is draped from right to left, passing over the lower body twice – the second time in a cluster of fan-shaped pleats – and the upper body once. The pallu, the free and usually more decorated end of the sari, falls over the left shoulder down to the waist. Given the asymmgtry of the sari, no sensation in one part of the body is repeated in any other. The right leg does not feel like the mirror of the left. The two shoulders and the two breasts are touched by the garment in quite different ways. The right shoulder can remain untouched by the sari, while the left bears the weight of the pallu. The right breast feels the pressure of the pleats of the pallu pulled across the bosom, whereas the left one feels exposed, covered from the front but visible from the side. The right side of the waist is hot from the pleats passing over it, but the left side is uncovered and cool. …

Clearly then wearing a sari has a specific feel. But this is only a hint of much more profound differences. To appreciate these we need to zoom in upon just one part of the sari – the pallu, the often highly decorated end of the sari that falls over the shoulder. The pallu represents a prosthetic quality to the garment that is not shared by any Western clothing. This is most obvious in its functional usage. As a woman does her household chores, the pallu is in constant use as a kind of third hand, lifting hot vessels in the kitchen, wiping the seat she is about to sit on in a public place, cleaning her spectacles, gathering up rupee notes in a purse-like knot, or protecting her face from smoke and smog. The pallu’s presence is so constant and available, so taken for granted, that it almost seems part of the body itself. Yet the same quality that extends the capacity of a person also gives the pallu the power to betray them. When something happens that represents the unwelcome intrusion of the external world upon the self, it may well have the pallu at the end of it. …

For adults, the ambiguity of the pallu being simultaneously part of someone, yet separate from them, continues when it comes to their own attempts to form relationships. Given the natural propensity of the pallu to slip down from the bosom, the action of constantly covering up one’s chest can have the effect, if done well (and some do it very well), of constantly drawing attention to the area that is ostensibly being protected. So a man has no idea whether a woman is re-covering herself because of what she does not want him to see, or is pointing out what she does want him to see. …

Just as the sari starts off as far more oppressive than most Western garments, it now has the capacity to be far more powerful. Men working in offices complained that they could not compete with some women, simply because men don’t wear a sari. A woman at one with her sari knows exactly how to place her pallu. While everyone else looking at her thinks it is just about to fall from her shoulder, she knows it isn’t. She has command of a tool that allows her to express a variety of subtle emotions and claims, manipulating the sari’s particular capacity for ambiguity especially with respect to eroticism. The sari by this stage becomes an instrument of power. …

The sari is like a fellow actor, constantly on stage, whose presence must always be remembered. The sari turns a woman into a person who interacts with others and with the self through this constantly shifting material. A sari can be extremely supportive when attended to, helping accomplish all manner of tasks, practical, social and emotional. But when neglected it can be quick to betray, causing others to judge you harshly for quirks of appearance that you did not intend. Such varied and ambivalent experiences with the sari have a far-reaching bearing upon a woman’s sense of herself, as an individual. Simply saying that someone is an Indian woman is merely a labelling. By examining the minutiae of sari-wearing we can start to see that there are a multitude of different expectations and experiences that are a direct result of wearing a particular item of clothing. These all create the specific experience of being a sari-wearing Indian woman.


Miller, Daniel. 2009. Stuff. Malden, MA: Polity Press. pp. 23-31. || Amazon || WorldCat


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