A step-by-step guide to buying and wearing a sari for the first time

If you’ve never worn a sari before, you may think that draping nine yards of fabric around yourself in an attractive way while ensuring it does not unravel even through vigorous dancing seems pretty complicated and daunting. Well guess what – it is complicated and daunting! But only at the beginning… after living in Sri Lanka for 8+ years I now view it as only mildly difficult and have now come to believe that if I were to try it myself I might actually be able to do it after practicing a bit. (There are expats more industrious than me who have told me they have draped their own sari, so I just need to get with the program I think).

But not only is the draping part difficult for those of us new to the glam, midriff-revealing world of saris, but even just buying a sari can be bewildering. There is a lot of prep work that goes on before you can look like a Bollywood star, people, and if you are as clueless as I was, this is the place to be.

First off, let’s review the basics.

Anatomy of a sari:

Sari: A sari is a loooong piece of cloth (usually 9 yards) that can be draped in over 80 different ways (or so I’ve read). The sari cloth has a beginning, middle and end, just like a good book.

  • Beginning: The inner edge of the sari is what is tucked into the underskirt in front.
  • Middle: The body of the sari is the part that is pleated.
  • End: The end of the sari is called the “pallu” and is the fanciest part. It is usually more heavily embroidered, or has added bling like sequins and shimmering material, or has a different, more striking pattern. You show this part off by draping it over your arm usually. (Since you can drape your sari in different ways though, you might decide to drape the pallu over your shoulder, which is also a very cool way of draping, and much more comfortable IMHO.)

Sari blouse or jacket: The fitted top that is worn with the sari. This part needs to be made by a seamstress or tailor, and can either be made from the material that comes with the sari, or a different material you need to buy separately.

Underskirt or petticoat: The straight skirt you wear under the sari. This also needs to be made by someone, and you need to buy material for this separately. Feeling lazy and thinking about skipping this step? Turns out you can’t, sorry! The underskirt is where you actually tuck the sari into so that it doesn’t fall off (a slightly minor detail).

An old picture of me and my stepdaughter – who thought it would be funny to wear my husband’s coat. FYI, organza saris (like the one I’m wearing here) are quite stiff and don’t drape as nicely as the softer cotton ones.

So what’s the big deal here?

Well, buying a sari is not like buying a dress. You have to come up with the design for the top, you have to buy material for it and the underskirt, and you have to get it stitched by a tailor or seamstress, all of which may have to be done in different places.

That said, most saris come with material for the sari jacket, which is sometimes attached to the sari itself and the seamstress will just cut it off and make it into a blouse. However, a lot of people decide to buy a different material based on the look they are going for. Read on below for detailed instructions on how to do this… even though it’s a bit of work, once you’ve done it a few times and have identified good places to go to get everything done, it becomes a piece of cake. I mean, not a piece of cake like the store-bought variety, more like a piece of cake that you have to make from scratch and find difficult ingredients for. Ok enough rambling, here’s how to go about buying and draping a sari:

My step-by-step guide to buying and wearing a sari for the first time

  1. Google and Pin it! Do a quick search online to see what types of sari looks appeal to you before you go shopping. Pinterest has millions of options and you can create a board for materials, designs, and drapes that inspire you. Know that some physical shops have literally thousands of different saris, so it will really help you if you decide roughly what color you want and what type of material you want beforehand so when you go to the shop you can show a picture to the sales clerk so that they can help you find something similar.
  2. Design your sari blouse: I recommend doing this before you buy a sari, as this will have a bearing on what type of material to buy. Also, it is very popular now to have a really fancy embellished sari blouse and pair it with a more neutral sari. So deciding on the blouse ahead of time will ensure you know what type of sari to go for as well. Elements you need to decide on: the neckline, the design for the back, and the length of the sleeves. If you’re not sure what type of material would go well with the cut you have selected, it’s a good idea to show the picture to the sales clerk and ask for recommendations.
  3. Shop till you drop (almost literally):
    1. For the sari: Once you have an idea of what you’re after, go shopping! In Sri Lanka, just as there are upscale sari boutiques with really luxurious saris (and luxurious prices), there are little hole-in-the-wall places that will sometimes surprise you with really nice designs and will be much easier on the wallet. There are also HUGE sari shops with multiple floors crammed with saris and fabrics. I would say to try to avoid these as it is completely overwhelming for newbies to try to navigate all the different materials and styles. A good option if you don’t want any stress is to try out an online shop. I recommend checking out www.fashionmarket.lk, which has many sari designs in different price brackets. The cool thing about saris is that the part you are buying is one-size fits all, so you don’t need to worry about trying it on. Also, with , and they deliver straight to your home.
    2. For the sari blouse material: For material you can go to a separate store that sells fabrics, or some sari shops will also sell material.
    3. For the underskirt material: For the underskirt you just need a plain cotton material in a similar color to your sari so that it can’t be seen underneath. It’s a good idea to take the sari with you so you can show the sales clerk and they can help you select a good material for the underskirt that matches the sari.
  4. Find a seamstress/tailor: The next step is to find a good seamstress or tailor to make your sari blouse and underskirt. The best is to ask people you know for recommendations, as sari blouses can go quite wrong if you don’t get a good person to stitch it for you. If you’re in a rush to get it done, Orchard Plaza in Wellawatte is a good one-stop shop for all things sari-related. It has sari shops, seamstresses and tailors, and fabric shops all in one place so you can get everything done at once. Be mindful though that the place is a little grungy and you will need to try on the sari blouse and underskirt once they make it for you, and the “changing rooms” are basically sometimes just a curtain in the back of a very tiny shop crammed with material and sewing machines. As such, it might make sense to choose a female seamstress.
    When you go to the seamstress it would be good to have pictures saved on your phone of the design you want for the sari blouse so you can show them exactly how you want it to look, front and back. Also show the sari material you bought to the seamstress, as in certain instances you might need to get it hemmed.
    You will usually need to wait a few days for the blouse to be completed but there are many places now that offer same-day services, so be sure to ask.
  5. Find some bling: Once you have all the pieces made, you need to go in search of some accessories, including heels, a clutch, and any jewellery you want to wear.
    Gold, silver or black accessories are a great choice since you will be able to wear them with a lot of different saris. (I usually use dull gold heels with gold jewelry.)
    Going to one of the older malls in Colombo, like Liberty Plaza or Majestic City is a good idea to shop for accessories, as they have lots of little shops that sell clutches and shoes all in one place.
  6. Make a sari draping appointment at a salon: Once you have secured all the pieces of clothing you need, all that is left to do is find a salon to drape the sari for you and do your hair or makeup if you would like. You need to make an appointment for sari drapings, they usually charge a couple of thousand rupees for doing it, and they usually take around 30-45 minutes. Bear this in mind when deciding how much time to leave between your salon appointment and your event. Another important detail: You need to bring the heels you are going to be wearing with you to the salon, as they will ask you to wear them while draping you so that they can get the length right.
Sari blouses come in all sorts of shapes and designs, so make sure to choose how you want yours before going to the seamstress.

So there you have it! Buying a sari and getting ready for an event is waaaaaay more work than buying a dress and throwing it on before a party, but all that work is definitely worth it. It’s such a beautiful thing to wear, if you have been living here for some time and haven’t yet worn one, be sure to find an event to wear one to before you go, it is definitely an experience!  


1 Comment

  1. December 7, 2019 / 9:39 am

    In 27 dresses, she wore something called a half saree in which the skirt is ready to wear. If you look closely, there are no pleats on her costume, that saves time 🙂 All she had to do was put on the blouse, the skirt and drape the shawl around.

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