The sari is one of the beautiful garments a woman can wear. Sensuous yet modest, traditional yet modern, it is the one Indian silhouette that has been most referenced by global designers, be it Elie Saab, Hermes, or Dior. What makes it a continuous style staple is its versatility—let’s not forget that 108 different drapes of the sari where documented by textile historians Martand Singh and Rta Kapur Chishti in their book Sari: Tradition and Beyond.
But what we often forget is that the sari is a three-piece garment — a blouse (or choli), the drape (usually a six-yard drape of textile), and the petticoat. It was not until very recently that I started looking at the sari this way — like a three-piece separate that you can mix and match. As Good Earth’s Shalini Seth, who heads their label Sustain, says, “Over the centuries in its evolution, the petticoat and the blouse became an integral part of the attire, but given its structure or the lack of it, one does not think of it as multiple pieces.”
It is widely believed that the blouse only became a de rigueur garment in India, thanks to the British. Until then, many women did not wear a blouse with their sari — they covered their breasts with a strip of cloth, and or through their sari drape. This was something India’s new rulers, the righteous Victorians, found distasteful. And if you look at blouses from the times of the British Raj, they often feature high necks, lace, and other details borrowed from Victorians.
Payal Asnani, creative director of contemporary fashion label Cherie D, explains, “The common perception, especially in recent times, is to view the sari through a traditionalist lens — the result being that there’s a tendency for that reverence to lend it an almost museum-like status when in truth, the magical quality of the drape is its versatility. If you look at vintage photographs, there are examples of stylish Maharanis pairing their silks with white Victorian high neck blouses. So the sari as a separate is not a new idea.”
Since my mother and grandmother have always worn their saris in sets, this is how I dressed. Though, if you look through the 20th century, the concept of the mix and matched sari blouse has always existed (as shown so well in the recent BBC adaptation of A Suitable Boy, based in 1950s India). Today, most fashion brands are selling the blouse as a solo item.
My journey with the blouse started as I became wore mindful in my approach to fashion. I have always been a serial repeater but wanted to extend the life of my clothes, especially my beloved saris, and always admired girls who teamed their drapes with an athleisure crop top, bikini, or an even a blazer. As Ekaya’s Palak Shah, who is known for her own experimental ways of wearing a sari, says, “If we look at every drape and blouse ‘set,’ there are endless ways in which it can be dressed up or down, when we consider accessories like shoes or jewellery. This scope widens when we pair the blouse of one sari and pair it with the blouse of another, and vice versa.”
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A few years ago, before attending a wedding, I took out all my special occasion saris and laid them flat on my bed, with their corresponding blouses. While figuring how to give each of a new twist, I realised the answer was to mix and match the blouse—a gold halter Amit Aggarwal blouse added a modern twist to my vintage vibrant pink bandhini, perfect for a mehendi lunch. A Sabyasachi black jacket style blouse with silver zari details added an elegant vibe to a grey lace pashmina sari by the young label Taani by Tanira Sethi for the wedding reception, and a burgundy silk Dolce and Gabbana corset made my black chiffon Anju Modi cocktail sari an ensemble I could dance the Sangeet night away in.
With Diwali around the corner, here’s a tip for those looking for value-conscious ways to shop: The blouse can truly be your sari’s best friend. Here are my top five picks for timeless blouses.
All images: Courtesy brands