From being a part of the freedom movement to becoming a political symbol, there are few garments in the Indian closet that are as multifaceted as the sari. Female political leaders and members of the parliament make their presence felt not just through fiery speeches but also their sartorial choices, albeit owing to a staunch patriarchal system. Each of these women striding through the corridors of power and politics has carefully cultivated a signature style with the sari at the Centre; each uses fashion as a powerful tool to reclaim their space amidst a sea of Nehru jackets and starched kurta pyjamas.
When Indira Gandhi became the first female Prime Minister of an independent India, she chose the sari as her uniform of choice, putting the humble garment on the international map. In her book Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister, author Sagarika Ghose recalls an incident when Indira travelled atop an elephant—wearing a sari no less— when her jeep got stuck. From Banarasi saris paired with chic sleeveless blouses to crisp cotton drapes worn with preppy sweaters, as head of state, she pioneered a new style vocabulary that women leaders who came after drew from.
The significance of the sari in India’s political landscape has only grown over the years, with each politician’s attempt to make it her own. For West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, the white sari with a blue border is a part of her personal brand. In 2018, when she attended the much talked about Ambani wedding, she chose to give the wedding dress code a pass and showed up in her trademark sari, with matching flip flops, managing to stand out amid the heavily embellished finery that everyone from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry were sporting. The Dhaniakhali weave that she favours is even known as the Mamata sari popularly.
For Jayalalitha, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the sari was not just a preferred choice of garment but also a medium to radiate political power. In the early years of her career, amma (as the politician is known among her supporters) was involved in an episode where supporters of the rival party physically attacked her in the Assembly. When she came to power as the chief minister in 1991, she chose to drape the sari like a cape shielding her against the world. Coupled with her stoic expression, this deliberate costume became a symbol of strength, elevating her to god-like status.
India’s Minister of Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani’s sari choices are tuned into current fashion conversations. While she attended the Lakmé Fashion Week 2019 in a black and gold number, she showed an affinity for bright colours and homespun handwoven saris, always paired with her signature bindis. She further channels her love for saris into promoting the National Handloom Day.
Indira Gandhi’s granddaughter Priyanka Gandhi is often seen in handwoven cotton and jute silk saris that she teams with long-sleeved blouses. Political commentators over the years have remarked that she likes to reflect what the crowd is wearing in her fashion choices to spark a connection. Her mother, Sonia Gandhi, has a similar sari wardrobe; she prefers lighter tones, easy-to-handle fabrics, and fuss-free accessories, all of which draw and keep the focus on the person and not the garment.
India’s Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, Nirmala Sitharaman loves her Gadwal sarees, block-printed cottons and South Indian silks. Sushma Swaraj former Minister of External Affairs, had established her trademark of donning sleeveless jackets over the sari, complete with a big red bindi and sindoor. Newer entrants to politics such as Trinamool Congress MP, Mahua Moitra, Nationalist Congress Party’s MP Supriya Sule and BJD’s MP Chandrani Murmu from Keonjar, Orissa, are more adventurous in their choices. Mahua, in particular, is known for her perfectly ironed, often colour-blocked, handloom saris. Supriya is often seen in saris of bright yellows, pinks and blues, a nod to her Maharashtrian roots.
The flipside to the relationship between the sari and politics is the fact that women politicians are often trolled when they (occasionally) choose western clothing over saris, insinuating that they aren’t patriotic enough. It’s interesting to note that this comparison absolutely doesn’t come up for the men. With the countrywide rise in Hindu nationalist sentiment over the last decade, women in saris have become further imbued with religious connotations. While patriarchal norms and socio-religious factors continue to limit and challenge women’s wardrobe choices, in the political world, they spell power.
Photographs: Instagram and Pinterest
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