I'm Shaking Up Tradition To Re-Inspire The Kandyan

Sri Lankan Australian fashion designer and makeup artist Helani Sarath-Kumara reflects on how the traditional Kandyan Saree has inspired her latest Candy Skies collection.

Helani Sarath Kumara and a model wearing a Kandyan saree

I like to think I am re-inspiring the Kandyan Bride.

I was 14 years old when I wore the Kandyan Saree for the first time. We were in the beautiful mountains of Kandy, Sri Lanka, for my uncle's wedding. My sister, my cousin and I all got matching Kandyan sarees made: gold, coral and mint green. We chose our own colours, had them made and we were so excited to wear them. I remember getting ready and running to our grandmother to show her. She looked at us, and in true South Asian grandmother style, she said: "We don't wear our hair parted to the side with Kandyan sarees". 

The Kandyan Saree (Osariya in Sinhalese), is steeped in tradition and rules of beauty and style. It is uniquely different from the saree that most South Asian women wear. The distinctive feature is the frill or peplum along the midriff and the absence of pleats at the front. There is a lot of value and pride in its authenticity. The name and origin come from the city of Kandy which was the last kingdom of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. The saree itself could be dated back to 543 BC. So yes, so much history and tradition.

I migrated to Australia when I was four. Interestingly, the value of that time came with us, and while Sri Lanka continued to globalise, we grew up with the values of early 90s Sri Lanka.

One of these cultural snapshots was a saree drape that was unique to Sinhalese Sri Lankans – The Kandyan Saree. Both my Attammas (grandmas) and Amma (mum) wore this style. Its elegance had the power to work with any body shape. I fell in love with this piece of Sri Lanka they brought with them. I got to know the rules and traditions before I chose to break them. 

Often a reflection of time and location, style is continuously evolving. This means traditions can come and go. As the values and culture of people at a certain point in time begin to shift, so do the traditions.

Helani Sarath Kumara and a model wearing a Kandyan Saree

Image Source: Supplied/Pannila Weddings

The way I do the Kandyan Saree is not for everyone. It is breaking the rules. It is re-inspiring. While I make so many beautiful ‘traditional’ style sarees too… the Gather and Stitch Couture Candy Skies range is a part of me. It is a reflection of exactly who I am at this point in time. Someone who was born in the east and then raised in the west. I saw the beauty of rich textures and beadwork of my Sri Lankan background and had fallen in love with the simple and elegant shapes of western style that I grew up seeing in magazines. Naturally, my mind combined the two.

I wanted to create something that could transition from ceremony to reception. Where our skin tones and figures were complimented, enhanced and celebrated. I receive messages from women all over the world that love this look because it resonates with who they are. A bit of the east, a bit of the west. Ones who are re-inspired to wear the Kandyan Saree.

Ultimately, Candy Skies is the personality of the women of this generation, the women who are here to challenge norms, embrace their independence and still honour the richness of their heritage. A mirror of this point in time, where we as a whole world are coming closer together and a new style is being born.