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Why Saris are Indian Material Culture

indian sari

Every time a woman drapes a sari anywhere in the world, she is creating Indian material culture. Both the weaver and the wearer are considered to be artists. To understand why folklorist Pravina Shukla calls it Indian material culture1, it helps to examine how saris are made, sold, and worn.

To begin with, one never cuts or stitches a sari. It’s a single woven length, and comes off of the loom ready to wear. This represents purity and unity. Variations come in with the color, weave, and drape technique. Some examples include the red-bordered saris from West Bengal, the brocaded saris from Banaras, and the Boggili Posi Kattukodam pleated drape from Andhra Pradesh. There were times in history when a woman brought her own weavers as part of her marriage dowry because her saris were part of her identity.

Since weavers create the textile and wearers assemble it, the creation of the sari is a collaborative effort, supported by an industry that includes technology (looms), technicians, and salespeople.

Between 1996 and 2003, Shukla studied the connection between handlooms (technology), sari makers (producers), and sari wearers (consumers) in the ancient city of Banaras. Banaras handlooms combine the Indian pit loom and the nineteenth-century French Jacquard loom. Master weavers and their apprentices use three pedals and “perforated cards that control the design” to weave gold-brocaded weft into silk. A sari like this takes one-and-a-half to two weeks to make; many brides choose these to wear for their weddings.

The traditional sari buying process can take several visits to the shops. Women come in groups, and sit and drink tea while shopkeepers show them new collections. Their comments influence future designs. Different social classes and different religions all come together; Shukla goes as far as to say that it helps to “create social order.1

This explains mounting concern about the disappearance of handloom weavers and related skilled jobs, like spinners, weavers, printers, dyers, card-makers, and designers. When competition from powerlooms and imports forces handloom weavers out of business, it impacts a rare and rich cultural history. Economist P. Dharmaraju has found, however, “large local demand for traditional handloom products.2” Handloom weavers can stay in business by joining in cooperatives. Modern websites show women different ways to drape their saris in an effort to keep the sari current.

As an art form and material culture, the sari is a symbol of Indian culture that has lasted for over a millennium.

References:

  1. Shukla, Pravina. “Evaluating Saris: Social Tension and Aesthetic Complexity in the Textile of Modern India.” Western Folklore 67, no. 2/3 (2008): 163-178.
  2. Dharmaraju, P. “Marketing in Handloom Cooperatives.” Economic and Political Weekly (2006): 3385-3387.

First published on February 23, 2018 in JSTOR Daily by Cynthia Green

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What is Wrong with Men’s Clothing

Men's Clothing

Clothes make the man in respects more vital than mere appearance and social acceptability. It is true that a slender man looks more stout in a double-breasted coat, or that suiting with a vertical stripe makes the short man look taller. But these are not especially vital factors. Research and scientific opinion are rapidly accumulating data which indicate rather definitely that clothing may almost remake the course of human history.

This newer knowledge helps one understand why we make more mistakes in summer, why usually sensible Germany has a growing number of nude societies, why the Alps are healthful, how to keep cool in summer; and it also makes us pause and wonder about man’s place in the decades to come.

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The Price of Fast Fashion

fast fashion

When individuals are considering how to minimize their carbon footprint, thoughts often turn to air travel with its large emissions, while some small day-to-day changes may be overlooked. The obvious daily changes that can be made include food choices—such as reducing meat and dairy consumption; personal energy use and supplier; and reduced consumerism.

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Human Ancestors Were Fashion Conscious

Neandertals fashion

The 2013 Academy Awards were, as always, as much about making appearances as about making films, as red carpet watchers noted fashion trends and faux pas. Both Jessica Chastain and Naomi Watts wore Armani, although fortunately not the same dress. And Best Supporting Actress Anne Hathaway switched from Valentino to a controversial pale pink Prada at the last minute because her original dress looked too much like someone else’s. Of course, no actress would be caught dead wearing the same style 2 years in a row. A new study of ancient beaded jewelry from a South African cave finds that ancient humans were no different, avoiding outdated styles as early as 75,000 years ago.

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Fashion’s Potential to Influence Politics and Culture

The Black Panther Party

Political dressing is fashionable right now, but is it fashion? Celebrities and stars turned up dressed in black at the 75th Golden Globes Award ceremony. Instantly the media was in frenzy over what they dubbed “political fashion statements on the red carpet.” This is just the most recent droplet of a rainy season of purportedly political fashion.

It all started with the pantsuit parties in solidarity with U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. It then progressed with white supremacists uniformed in polos and khaki during their infamous Charlottesville demonstrations last year.

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How Beards Put a Brave Face on Threatened Masculinity

David Beckham

In the West, for many centuries, shaving has identified a good man properly oriented to a higher order, whether divine or political. Defying this regulation meant being ostracised. But on occasion, a general reorganisation of masculine norms has interrupted the shaving-respectability regime.

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The Resurrection of Dov Charney

Dov Charney

Dov Charney paces across the bedroom in a bathrobe and sweatpants, flip-flops and socks. “Don’t worry, I know this business!” he says, nearly yelling into his phone. He’s unshaven, and his sandals slap the travertine floor as he walks. “Trust me! I’ve sold $5 billion of apparel!”

It’s February 2016, barely a month since a judge ruled that Charney had failed to win back American Apparel, the company that suspended him 20 months earlier, the company he built from scratch. It had been a bitter fight. There were lawsuits and demonstrations by workers protesting the new management, allegations of death threats. As ever, Charney was a polarizing figure. Some saw a progressive visionary who paid his workers a decent wage and proved that textile jobs didn’t need to be outsourced for a company to make a profit. Others saw a sexist “troglodyte” (the Web site Jezebel) who slept with staffers half his age and whose recklessness destroyed the business.

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