India's Little Black Dress


A beautifully draped sari is always fashionable, whether the occasion is fancy, casual, or holy.

The Basics
Saris are made of six yards of fabric. The most ornate work usually appears on the pallav, which is slung over your shoulder and hangs to just below the knees. Some stitching is needed or a sari will curl up at the edges. A tailor attaches a thin stretch of starched cloth, called a fall piece, along the edge that drapes around your feet. A bidding, or hem, is sewn at each short side. Underneath the sari, you wear a blouse and a petticoat, no exceptions. (For more background on the sari, go to Locals almost never buy blouses off the rack, though some shops sell packages that include a pre-stitched sari with a petticoat sewn in and a T-shirt-like blouse--fine if all you want is a souvenir.

Finding a Shop
Stores in big cities have fantastic fabrics, salespeople who speak English, and firm prices (no haggling). The most reputable shops tend to be glittery places, but even the splashiest stock reasonably priced saris. Emporiums such as Kala Niketan in Mumbai (95 Queens Rd., near the Marine Lines station, 011-91/22-2200-5001) and Nalli Silk Sarees, with locations in Mumbai, Chennai, and Delhi (F-44, in South Extension 1, Delhi, 011-91/11-2462-9926), have in-house tailors who will stitch the fall piece and bidding for free or for a nominal charge. If the shop doesn't have an in-house tailor, it probably works with one nearby. Likewise, a matching center, where petticoats and blouse fabrics are sold, may not be in the same store as the one selling saris. The price is about the same whether you have all the work done in one building or three, so try for a store that does it all. Getting an outfit made usually takes three days.

Picking a Fabric
Cotton saris can cost anywhere from $10 to $100 depending on the weave and the thread count (100-120 is good) and whether the fabric is hand-loomed. Polyester and cotton-poly blends cost the same as or less than pure cotton. Muslin saris start at about $50, and you'll pay $120 to $3,000 for silk. On the high end, you can expect exquisite handiwork and perhaps a smattering of crystals.

Colors and Prints
Younger women tend to like vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges, even neon pink. White and muted colors turn up more on older women. Black is fashionable for everyone as evening wear. But saris are rarely a solid color; nearly all are jazzed up with golden embroidery, jacquard weaves, tie-dyes, sequins, and other touches.

Creating an Outfit
Material for a blouse typically costs $2 to $10 ($3 to $12 more for tailoring), though it's sometimes included with the sari. Blouse styles include low and high backs, spaghetti straps, cap sleeves, and tank-top shoulders. Petticoats, in cotton poplin or satin, usually come in small, medium, and large. They're not supposed to be seen, so the color should match the sari. Middle-class Indians pay $5 to $10 for petticoats, but shopkeepers may charge tourists a little bit more. If they ask for double or triple that, they're ripping you off.

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