While traveling in India in the 1920s, Lucy Truman Aldrich purchased many of the saris shown here. She viewed them as objects of art; and, indeed, saris as a class represent spectacular achievement in textile design and technology. They also represent a unique, enduring style of dress that first appears in terracotta depictions of around 100 BCE. Although the age and fragility of the Museum’s saris prohibit displaying them as draped and pleated garments, they must be understood as the traditional and fashionable women’s attire of India as well as the ultimate in textile art.
The Hindi term sari derives from the Sanskrit word meaning “strip of cloth,” a literal description of the rectangular, unstitched garment measuring about four feet wide by between thirteen and twenty-seven feet long. The cloth nearly always includes three design sections: central field, lengthwise borders, and endpiece (pallu). Out of such deceptive simplicity has emerged a dynamic garment that to this day symbolizes Indian nationality and culture. Women drape, manipulate, and structure the sari to express religious belief, social custom, regional identity, and class status, in addition to personal aesthetics. (Please view the accompanying video to see how this is done.)
Despite some degree of regional standardization today, the material, pattern, color, weave structure, embellishment, and manner of draping continue to convey local tradition and current urban fashion, as well as the craftsperson’s great creativity and striking technical dexterity.