Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Half a Billion Indian Women Can't Be Wrong

Glittering goodies at one of my favorite Vancouver sari shops

I've managed to avoid most of the worst addictions the world has to offer. Shook off religion early, got my drug experiments out of the way in my 20s, flirted with various excesses here and there, but none of them really stuck. Except maybe shoes and handbags. And nice jewelry. And hot tubs.

And fabrics. That's what's in my dusty, disorganized basement: boxes of books and piles and piles of textiles. When other people go abroad, they bring back shot glasses. Me, I'm off on the back streets looking for the local fabric dealers, so I can come home with every nook and cranny of my suitcase filled with examples of the local weavers' art. Thirty years of this has turned my basement into a private Xanadu filled with antique Chinese mandarin coats, Japanese kimonos, kalamkari wood-block prints from India, embroideries from Crete to Michoacan, handloomed Indonesian ikat wall hangings that took months to weave, star-spangled silk brocades, glorious sapphire panne velvet from the 70s like they don't make anymore, exquisite shibori and hand-marbled pieces made by friends, and gossamer Liberty cottons from London I've had for 20 years and am still too intimidated to cut into.

Whatever you want to make, I've probably got something absolutely divine down there to make it out of. The only trick is to dig into the stacks and find it. Pack a lunch. And good luck.

In Vancouver, the best fabric dealers in town (and any other town you can name) are the sariwallahs down in the Punjabi Market on 49th and Main, who sell all kinds of amazing stuff you absolutely will not find at Jo-Ann. Nobody warned me -- and concerned friends really should have -- that those charming bewhiskered and turbaned gentlemen are nothing more than drug dealers for people like me. They have the goods that will not only enable a textile addiction; their chatty cheerfulness (they're usually very educated, and love to talk American politics) and endlessly beautiful wares will fan that addiction into a budget-busting, life-consuming passion. I'm on a first-name basis with a few of them now, so it's probably too late. Under their influence, I've become a crazed historian of Indian weaving traditions -- and a stone devotee of the sari.

The sari is one of the oldest garments known. There are 4,000-year-old statues all over South Asia featuring gracefully draped goddesses, their curves defined by the sheer silk wrappings. The garment is simple and basic: it's just six yards of finely-woven cotton or silk, printed in patterns or shot through with gold. There's a small border at one end (the mundu) and a large, ornate border at the other (the pallu), and perhaps a narrow border along the sides of the piece. Some variant of the sari is still in daily wear from Thailand all the way to Pakistan; and with all the regional variations, there are dozens and dozens of ways to wrap them.

For years, I've made a point of traveling with sarongs, which are conceptually nothing more than a short sari. So I suppose it's natural that I'd eventually graduate to the Big Time. You can turn a basic sari into pants (kaccha or dhoti wraps) as men all over south Asia do (yes, that's what Yul Brynner wore in The King and I: a six-yard piece of silk wrapped into blooming trousers, and I can show you how he did it); or turn them into jumpsuits, short dresses, skirts, or the familiar full-length draped sari gown. Learning these drapes is part of the fascination of the sari: it's like doing very large-scale origami around your own body.

Over the past few months, I've acquired seven or eight saris. A couple of them were bought new from the online sari shop at SariSafari, a site run by an American woman whose pages are essentially a quick graduate seminar on traditional Indian textiles. Once I knew what I was looking at, I went over to eBay (one great vendor's here)and found similar pure cotton and silk goodies -- ikats and block prints and shot silk and a gorgeous red Benares kanchi silk with thick gold zari borders that had never been worn -- for eight or ten bucks apiece.

Wearing a sari isn't like wearing anything else. Different figures require different kinds of fabric; and every body has its own favorite drape, which can take some experimenting to find. Most drapes end up with the pallu end falling off of one shoulder or the other, which is annoying until you get the hang of keeping it in place. Learning how to make pleats that hang right takes practice, practice, and more practice. But when it all comes together right, the result makes me feel tall, curvy, elegant, and more overtly sexy than any garment I've ever worn.

And it seems to have that magic for any woman, regardless of age or shape. A sari can be a sublimely erotic piece of bedroom lingerie; a sturdy and practical work-dress; or the opulent state-occasion gown of an elderly queen. Which is why it's still around after five millennia, and why half a billion Indian women -- many of whom have closets full of western-style clothing -- still keep a collection of saris neatly folded on their closet shelves.

So far, I've only been wearing my colorful new acquisitions around the house, on days when I'm hanging around writing and won't be likely to go out. (Today, it's a black silk georgette number with a fabulous hot-pink-gold-and-green brocaded pallu.) Anglo women generally look pretty stupid in most non-European ethnic clothing (our curves, for example, have no place at all in a properly-done kimono) -- and wearing saris in the street is a great way to get yourself mistaken for an errant Hare Krishna who somehow got separated from the group. But there's an underground West Coast sari sisterhood of women who think that the time has come for the sari to go mainstream. They're banding together to come out of the closet and gain public acceptance for their private obsession. They're sharing the lore -- and the love -- by wearing their cherished saris out wherever they figure they can get away with it. If they have their way, saris may soon enter the American fashion scene as the next casual summer classic.

My own coming-out moment may be at hand. My daughter is graduating from high school next month, and there's going to be a big formal banquet for parents. For weeks, I've been dutifully -- and fruitlessly -- shopping around for a gown to wear. It's begun to niggle at me that, for the price of the middling, dowdy mother-of-the-bride dresses I'm finding -- dresses that will make me feel every bit of 50 (which I'm turning that same week) -- I could go down to my favorite sariwallah and ask him to drape me in a sexy, rich pour of modest black silk georgette, glittering with a tasteful trim of embroidery and sequins...something, maybe, like this:

I sure as hell won't look like the other moms (except the ones who are actually Indian, of which there may be one or two). But I will feel timeless, appropriate, tasteful, and as glamorous as I'm ever likely to feel at my age.

And sexy. Very sexy.