Saris, Lehengas and Why Carrie Bradshaw Should Know the Difference

When the sixth episode of “And Just Like That,” the reboot of “Sex and the City,” aired earlier this month, it garnered a lot of attention from the South Asian community. Named after the Hindu festival Diwali, the episode used the celebration as a plot point and provoked strong reactions to a faux pas that is now being called sari-gate.

In one scene, Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, and Seema Patel, a real estate broker played by the Indian-British actress Sarita Choudhury, are shown buying outfits for a Diwali party at what Ms. Bradshaw calls a “sari shop.” After the episode aired, many viewers pointed out that the store was actually stocked with Indian garments beyond the sari, and that Ms. Bradshaw ultimately bought a lehenga, a three-piece garment worn at Indian weddings and celebrations.

Later in the episode, Ms. Patel and her mother are seen wearing saris, which consist of an uncut piece of fabric that’s wrapped around the body and draped over a shoulder, along with complimenting blouses. But the script never makes an effort to distinguish between their saris and Ms. Bradshaw’s lehenga, an oversight that disappointed some viewers who were otherwise heartened to see Indian culture and fashion enjoy prime real estate on a mainstream TV show.

In an Instagram post shared the day after the episode aired, Imran Amed, the founder and CEO of Business of Fashion said “I think it’s really cool” that Ms. Bradshaw wanted to wear Indian clothes to the Diwali party. “The issue is that there are now millions of people out there who think what Carrie is wearing is a sari,” said Mr. Amed, who lives in London. “It’s not.”

What’s in a name, really? In this case, centuries of cultural history.

The lehenga (or ghagra) is believed to have emerged in popularity around the 10th century, during the Mughal reign over India, and is more predominant in northern India.

“The lehenga set is typically made of three elements — the voluminous floor-length skirt called the lehenga; the blouse or choli, often like a crop top; and a dupatta or stole-like drape,” said Divyak D’Souza, a stylist in Mumbai and the host of the Indian edition of “Say Yes To The Dress,” a reality TV show.

Ms. Bradshaw’s much-discussed lehenga is a burgundy skirt and midnight-blue blouse ensemble from the spring-summer 2020 collection of Falguni Shane Peacock, a line founded by husband-and-wife designers Falguni Peacock and Shane Peacock. The ornate ensemble, made at the designers’ atelier in Mumbai, features colorful embroidery and gold thread accents on a jacquard fabric, and also comes with a matching tulle net dupatta that Ms. Bradshaw does not wear in the episode.

“The motifs on the lehenga feature architectural domes, inspired by the palaces of Udaipur, Rajasthan,” said Ms. Peacock, whose brand enjoys popularity with several celebrities of the diaspora — its lehengas were also recently worn by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Mindy Kaling for Diwali celebrations in 2021. Mr. Peacock added that he and his wife approach their lehengas almost like gowns, which also makes them a hit with a younger crowd.

The sari is an even older garment. K.H. Radharaman, the creative director of Advaya, a brand that is known for its technical innovations of the sari, said that the drape has a rich history. “The sari is one of the oldest surviving garments in human history, with its origins going back to the Indus Valley civilization.”

“The nature of our ceremonies has changed, but the sari has stayed constant,” said Mr. Radharaman, who lives in Bengaluru. “It represents centuries of continuity in thought, tying us to our past and its traditions.”

Saris, he said, are paired with a stitched blouse and mostly worn by women, though some men also wear them. “The commonly depicted way of wearing one is that it’s wrapped around the waist down in concentric pleats, while the extended part — the pallu or tail piece — is thrown over the left shoulder,” said Mr. Radharaman. More contemporary ways to style a sari include wearing it with a tailored jacket, crisp white shirt or even a cape.

In its undiluted form, the sari is a textile that assumes the form of a wearer, which means there are as many ways to drape it as there are communities in India.

“Every region has its own sari and corresponding visual design vocabulary, with motifs and techniques whose lineage and origin are steeped in history or mythology,” Mr. Radharaman said. “It is deeply symbolic of the culture of both the wearer and its maker — thus representing different cultural sensibilities in a way few garments around the world can.”

Between it and the lehenga, is one more popular or more appropriate for certain occasions than the other? In a country as culturally diverse as India, it’s hard to generalize, as both have been part of Indians’ collective sartorial lexicon for centuries (alongside other garments like anarkalis, kurtas and shararas to name a few). Every community has its own mandate on their preferred silhouette or drape for festivities, though Mr. D’Souza said the lehenga is often a choice when an event calls for more formal dressing.

“The sari is common garb for many Indian women even for everyday wear,” he said. “The lehenga, in comparison, tends to be brought out more for festive occasions and weddings; seen on both the bride or the guests.”

A lehenga’s “colors and surface ornamentation are often linked to the bride’s cultural context,” added Mr. D’Souza, who noted that not every version is spice-colored or high on bling and floral patterns. “The silhouette has evolved immensely. Many designers are taking a modernist approach; experimenting with traditional weaves, contemporary updates and modern styling.”

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