Despite new fashion trends, the kasavu sari and the set-mundu continue to remain a sought-after attire. The appeal lies in its traditional purity

There are few things that remain untouched by change in the world of fashion. Trends, fabrics and even colours are rendered obsolete in a blink of the eye. Some, however, have managed to retain their appeal. Kerala’s classic sartorial statement in white and gold has survived the ravages of fickle fashion trends. Even as the clothing preferences of women and young girls in Kerala shifted to the more “comfortable” and “fuss-free” salwar-kameez, about two decades ago, the Kerala sari and “set-mundu” have prevailed and how!

Popular appeal

Sonam Kapoor’s take on the ‘Kerala sari’ in Aisha gave the costume national mileage. With that people, hitherto unfamiliar with our Kerala sari, wanted to own one ‘traditional’ Kerala sari. The simple gold border on cream cotton is the most basic variety that has always had takers. But over the years, the fabric has reinvented itself to keep up with the fashion dynamics. Attached cotton printed borders, brocade borders, zari borders, block prints, screen-printed, embroidery, lines, checks,colours and paintings—the Kerala sari/set-mundu has undergone a major stylistic evolution.

Embellishments came not just in the Kerala saris, but in the set-mundu, too. Actor Kalaranjini in the tele-serial Kumkumapoov, brought the spotlight back on the set-mundu. She attached colourful borders on the set-mundu and wore them with matching blouses. “I tried the style to break the monotony. I wanted it to look different,” she says. Though the director and the crew were “shocked” when they first saw it, Kalaranjini says, they grew to love her style later, especially after she started receiving calls of appreciation from viewers. “All I did was buy ordinary materials used for stitching nighties and gave it to my tailor to attach them to the set-mundu,” she says.

That set the ball rolling on a trend that some, like Kochi-based fashion designer Shalini James, term sacrilegious. “The set-mundu has become a costume which is worn on special occasions such as Onam, Vishu or certain functions. If change reinvents the garment and keeps the garment alive, then I am all for it…but up to a point and not beyond,” she says.

Designer Hari Anand agrees. He cannot imagine something done by way of surface embellishment on the set-mundu or the Kerala sari. “Can you imagine kadumanga (tender mango) pickle being prepared any other way? It tasting any other way? Same goes for the set-mundu or Kerala sari,” he says. Block printing or embroidery is akin to adulteration in his book.

But Nandu V.S., manager of Kasavukada, an outlet for traditional Kerala kasavu saris and set-mundu, says innovations are important, but not those that compromise on tradition. All the innovations the shop has introduced are those that preserve the “authentic style and feel” of the Kerala fabric. “The quintessential Kerala sari still charms the young and the old alike. There was a time when sales used to be seasonal—around Onam and Vishu. But now, there is a renewed interest . Many youngsters are opting to wear it for their weddings. Only that, they want a little more than the simple format,” he says.

New designs

The most moving among the new patterns at the store, are the ones in which the body is covered in vertical gold lines. The border, with a basket-weave (small gold checks that look like they have been embossed), is also a hit. When it comes to a standard Kerala sari, the pallu has incorporated coloured patterns. Though brown, maroon and green are the most common colours for the borders, now pastel shades are available. One would find a variety of baby pinks, lilacs, lavenders and even powder blues.

For the more adventurous, fluorescent shades are available, too. Silver kasavu made an entry about three years ago and has become a rage, especially among men. The latest on the block, however, are silks. Kasavukada has a range of “tissue” set-mundu and saris, which are woven with alternating kasavu and cotton threads. They have the feel of chiffon, yet retain the grandeur of a traditional ensemble. Kasavukada does the saris and set-mundu in pure silks, too. These are made to order and it takes about 60 days to get a sari done in silk. The “cotton by silk”, a mix of cotton and silk, too are a new variety.

Mural painting on the sari pallu and along the border of the set-mundu, too, is a recent trend. Those who love customising the sari/set-mundu are increasingly going in for having mural paintings.

Other shops in the city which stock the new avatars of the set-mundu, the screen-printed borders and matching blouses, say there is a surge in women buying the latest take on the set-mundu. “I have customers who would not usually wear set-mundu buy these sets from my shop,” says Pramila Shiju, who stocks set-mundu from Koothampalli at her shops. She adds that her customers do not buy these for special occasions, instead for daily wear. But she adds that she likes to wear the traditional variety of set-mundu because it is typically Malayali.

A die-hard fan of the set-mundu, Padma Menon in Kochi, says, whatever be the innovations in the set-mundu, it is one of the best dresses for women. “It is comfortable, easy to wear and much lighter than a sari. It also makes me feel good wearing a set-mundu.”