December 5, 2019
“In my first performance, I wore my mother’s sari,” recalls Alex Mathew, a communications officer from Bengaluru, India who is more famously known as their drag persona Mayamma. “That was how I was able to start my journey as a drag queen. I feel a sense of empowerment when I wear a sari, which is why I position myself as a very powerful matriarch.”
Alex performs almost only in saris.
For many in South Asia, the sari is an iconic coming-of-age garment, the first step into adulthood and independence. Though the sari will never become completely irrelevant, it's at a critical juncture today. Young urban women can see it as impractical, a garment restricted to weddings and graduation ceremonies. It is assumed to be “traditional” Indian attire, weighed down by the assumptions of demure femininity.
But for a garment as ancient and culturally charged as the sari, it is surprisingly modern, especially by today’s standards — its size-agnostic, heirloom pieces are preserved and passed down for generations and it is widely accepted by the queer and trans community. So it is no surprise that today, more than ever, the sari has its champions. Designers, writers, and textile experts are turning their attention to this instantly recognizable symbol of South Asia, reimagining its living history and positioning it as a 21st-century garment. By experimenting with narratives depicting its comfort, cultural perspectives, and draping techniques, these sari crusaders are putting new visions for the sari back in the public eye.