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Om Sweet Om


A Sari State of Affairs

posted by Vineet Chander

Ravi_Varma-North_Indian_lady.jpgI remember attending a sort of “Hindu pride” class as a pre-teen tween, and being taught the glories of all things Indian (or “Vedic” as our teacher would say).  “Vedic clothes” — dhoti for the males and sari for the females — “are simple, clean, modest, and chaste,” our teacher told us about our dress-codes.

Modest? Chaste? Was he kidding? He obviously wasn’t contemplating the mysterious female form draped in that slinky, satiny cloth the same way I was. Moreover, he seemed to have missed the fact that the sari produced the holy grail for hormone-raging 12-year-old boys: the exposed midriff. 

I distinctly remember a few Diwali evenings spent sneaking furtive and lusty glances over at the teenage girls decked out in their navel-showing finest.

I also remember feigning disinterest in Bollywood dance numbers with heroines gyrating in rain-soaked saris, only to go back and rewind the video cassettes to ogle those very dance sequences when my parents weren’t home. Particularly memorable (and scandalous) were Mandakaini’s infamous white sari waterfall scene in Ram Teri Ganga Mali, Raveena Tandon’s rainy day in Mohra, and Sridevi’s sari-clad dalliance with an invisible man in Mr. India.

(Okay, okay… fine. Check out the whole collection, here in CNN Go’s round-up of “Sexy Sari Moments.” See, it wasn’t just me.)

Since then, I’ve come to realize that the sari could be scandalous or pious, sexy or sophisticated, chaste or to-be-chased, based on who’s wearing it, and how.

Case in point: Elizabeth Hurley’s recent wardrobe malfunction involving a sheer sari and nothing on underneath.

ELIZABETH-HURLEY-SARI.jpgReports the Wall Street Journal:

… nothing showed more of Hurley’s cross-cultural fashion sense-or
more of the actress herself-than the sari in which she showed up to the
Love Ball fundraiser in London on Wednesday night. Donning a very sheer
and see-through black outfit, Hurley did not think it necessary to wear
a choli, or cropped blouse, which is customarily worn under the sari.
She also didn’t wear a bra, so photographs of Hurley from that night
leave very little to the imagination. The outfit is sparking serious
sartorial questions: is Hurley a global style pioneer or an
international fashion bandit?


Cross-cultural fashion sense? More like nonsense. I’m going to have to call this as I see it: a
cheap, tasteless publicity stunt. She knew exactly what she was doing: turning nine meters of cloth into a way of grabbing headlines.

hurley-wedding_mag.jpgFor starters, Liz is no novice to the sari. The fellow on her arm is her husband, Indian textile heir Arun Nayar. The two were wed in a Hindu ceremony in 2007, where the blushing bride proudly (and beautifully) wore a sari. And she
was famously photographed in a sari with Gwyneth Paltrow and Elton John for the
Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s “Hottest Pink Party Ever” in 2008.

Liz knows how a sari is worn. And if she had any doubt, she could have asked hubby Arun. “Sweetie, am I forgetting something, here? Could you give me your expert opinion on this… you know, especially since you are Indian, and run a textile company and all.”

To be fair, it is possible that the nature of the sari’s fabric made it look one way at home, and another under the glare of a paparazzi’s flashbulb. But as a celebrity used to attending showbiz parties, shouldn’t she have been aware of the revealing glare of the camera flash?

And the question still remains: why in the world would she not where anything — not the traditional choli blouse, not even a bra — under a light wrap of cloth?

Of course, some of the media have rushed to Hurley’s aid to answer this rather simple question with an unexpected answer: Liz is just keeping it real, bringing the sari back to its (supposed) roots. Here’s the WSJ again:

But even sans choli, Hurley has gotten support from many Indian
designers and journalists for her fashion selections. The Daily Mail in
Mumbai says: “By contemporary Indian standards, [wearing a sari without
a choli] is unthinkable. But it would seem, at the very least, Hurley
has history on her side.” The Daily Mail goes on to say that the choli
was non-existent in India before the British arrived. In fact, it was
Victorian ideas of modesty that led to its invention.

Um, right. Even if one accepts the (highly debatable) idea that the choli was a British import and that Indian women traditionally went commndo, are we seriously to believe that Liz has been boning up on her pre-colonial Indian history? And that she intentionally renounced her choli to kick off some retro-Vedic equivalent of the bra burning movement? Really?

Do I think that Liz’s choice was deliberate? Definitely. Do I think that it was an affront to Hinduism or Indian culture? Maybe. Or maybe just poor taste in general. In using a sari — a garment that will forever be linked to India’s culture and traditions — as a prop in her little stunt, she cheapened it and degraded it. But no more so, I might add, than the Bollywood starlets dancing in the rain (or, more aptly, the male audiences whose ticket revenues drive them to do so).

I think Liz ought to say  sa– er, sorry, and let us all move on. I, for one, am getting pretty tired of focusing this much energy on the image of a sari-clad choli-less attention-seeking celebrity.

Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that I probably would’ve felt quite differently when I was 12.



  • BJ Abbott

    I remember checking out a large photo book from our local library with many photos of elderly women without a choli or blouse. It was of a certain sect of Hinduism and if I remember correctly the photos were taken in southern India.

  • Niermala Gahar

    I like the article and I think Liz knows what she was doing when she went bare under the saree. Most of these celebrities know how to get attention and Liz is no exception to the rule. I don’t think Liz insulted the Hinduism or Indian culture. Have you seen Bollywood movies lately? I think some of the actresses in Bollywood are insulting their culture themselves.

  • Ms.Crabby

    Yeah I got the same impression!! Thought it was a disrespect to such a beautiful traditional culture.

  • Lisa

    Thanks for the thought provoking commentary.

  • Lakshmi

    I think the blouse as a foreign invention isn’t as crazy as it initially sounds. A good Hindu is not to wear a cloth that has been pierced with a needle (they were once made of animal bone, and thus unclean.) That didn’t mean that there were bare breasted women running around. There were cloths that were tied around the area and quite a few ways to drape a sari that resulted in the the preservation of modesty. Check out Chantal Boulanger, an anthropologist who traveled through the south Indian states (where saris are now and have always been daily wear) and documented as many different styles as she could find, along with a how-to guide. The Nivi (thought to have originated in Andhra Pradesh) is the way we’re now used to seeing it worn, but the drape once told quite a story of the position of a woman in society.
    It is doubtful that Liz was making some statement other than showing off her assets, but not all the “defenses” are completely out there :-D I think the her choice was rather tacky and unattractive, and thus should have been panned by the fashionistas, but they seemed to be caught in their own ignorance.

  • Mrs. Murthy

    As an Indian woman who was half-raised here, I think Liz knew exactly what she was doing. If she is married to an Indian man, he should have been intelligent enough to tell his wife that she is disgracing the sanctity of the beautiful sari garment. Each piece of cloth representing various countries around the universe has to be respected and worn the way it is supposed to be worn. For example, we can not wear a swimsuit fully draped in a 6 yard piece of cloth and call it a swimsuit can we? The same way a sari is meant to be worn with a blouse. Even in the old days when women of India did not wear a choli or blouse they knew how to wrap the sari so that it completely covers their bear body from top to bottom. This again is just my opinion.Thank you.

  • Priya

    As far as I know, the sari was THE chosen chaste clothes for women in India, because, just like Mrs. Murthy mentioned,women knew how to very carefully wrap this 6 yard piece of cloth around themselves, so that it covers them from head to toe, in a beautiful way, not revealing a single piece of flesh, except their feet, or toes, while walking. It was this only long piece of cloth which could also cover their head completely like a ‘ghughat’…but obviously, like everything with time, fashion has changed everything, and we cannot even start comparing what the sari meant at that time in India and now, whether saris are worn by Indians born and bred, or any other women around the world.

  • RiverButterfly

    thank you.

  • Bob

    Just looking at Indian culture in the light of various criteria of excellence, there is a lot there to recommend it as the cream of the crop of societies. The trouble sometimes seems to be the insistence that everything about a certain culture is the best, and that can later lead disappointment, later, to find out that no society has all the top indicators. I remember how inspiring it was to read some of the sacred science instructions from Vivekananda, but then they were interspersed with the insistence that Indian culture was the best, etc. etc. I think that for a sensitive, scientific, thinking person with shamanic and philosophical gifts, the top notch work of India is self evident. Sometimes, I think it is good to remember the Seed Giving Father and also appreciate how other cultures developed Indian ideas.

  • http://wfash.com/category/bollywood-actress-affairs/ umair

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work Look forward to reading more from you in the future.
    plz watch out mine and suggest me ur advices.

  • Kalipadma

    If you look at Hindu paintings of women and goddesses from long ago, you will see that many women wore nothing above their waists but jewelry and flower garlands. There is a famous legend about Radha and Krisha, after a night of love-making, dressing in the dark and discovering, when the sun rose, that they put on each others’ clothes! In ages past, for both men and women, clothing consisted of a long dhoti, covering from waist to ankles, and a dhupatta or scarf wrapped around shoulders and arms.
    Elizabeth Hurley does not live in ancient Vedic times, and she should have been more modest in her dressing.

  • http://gluten-free.viviti.com DQ

    I don’t have any trouble believing that the blouse was a British import and that she studied Indian pre-colonial history.

  • http://henzaireciprocal.blogspot.com Lizzie Cummings

    If only more people would read this.

  • http://www.ashleymadisonreviews.org Ashley madison

    I love the sari, I used to wear them quite often when i lived in india, now as a us cititzen I don’t get to put one on as much. Mostly formal affairs. Thanks for the article.

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