A beautiful sari is a delight to behold at formal occasions like weddings or India’s many festivals. Historically, dress has always revealed a lot about a persons social position. I have found no more complicated example that the tradition of handing down worn saris to maids in a quasi family relationship.
Consider: The mistress of the house edits her sari collection. Perhaps an older woman is gifted too many expensive saris by her daughter. She cant refuse them but as an older woman she prefers soften thinner clothing than the new heavier textiles.
But sadly a maid is rarely asked what she wants to wear, leading to misunderstandings and tensions.
The mistress no doubt believes she has discriminating taste but believes her poorer maid lacks taste ability to chose well, instead assuming the girl enters a store to buy a maids sari set by budgetary limits probably synthetic and not, she assumes, of cotton.
Rarely are the assumptions justified. True, a maid probably admit a synthetic cotton is suited to her work but would be delighted by a more delicate but not necessarily more expensive sari.
A maid must balance her mistress expectations with the village expectations, still held by her family, and the town where she works. Frequent harvest and life cycle festivals require her frequent return home, where gifting is an expected ritual. From the city, a village family probably expect their daughter to return from the rich city with classier gifts.
This is rarely understood by the mistress. A maid working in several homes may be the primary source of saris in an impoverished village!
The incessant demands of the village pressure the girl. Unfortunately the mistress may interpret this as proof the girl is greedy. The young maid cannot return home to modern without censure, and yet if she returns home in to homely a fashion relatives assume she must be wasteful.
Mukulika Banerjee illustrates in her wonderful book The Sari, (2003, Berg, Oxford) illustrates the problem:
“A kindly employer had given her maid, Lakshmi, an expensive off-white Bengal handloom sari with a woven zari border. The maids experience in the city allowed her to appreciate its quality, and she treasured having it in her trunk. After some time she travelled to the countryside to visit first her in-laws and then her mother. But her disapproving mother in law and sister in law made her change it. They felt there would be talk in the village because it looked like an old garment, the colours pallid and seemingly faded. Lakshmi felt they didn’t like it because even though the sari had green, yellow and white stripes on a cream base with a yellow and zari border, it did not have any ‘designs’ or ‘flowers’ on it. Lakshmi felt contempt at the way a much cheaper and older sari, with loud flowers, met with more approval. She passed on the expensive sari to her mother who, being a widow, was unlikely to encounter such censure for its gentle colours.”
Another difficulty occurs because a mistress who dresses up for functions may want to relax into unstarched, sari a little unkempt. The maid will smartly dress for work which may threaten the mistress. She in turn ensures the hand me downs reflect the girls lower social status.
Another mistress may demand her girls to dress up to show the style and respectability of her house.
There has been a shift as maids now negotiate more openly for saris that better suit there needs. Some mistresses even giving money so the maid can by what she needs instead.
Though perhaps well intentioned the convoluted and contradictory projections of staff patronage remain.