When is a saree not just a colorful garment worn by women of India?

When it's a way to break down walls between cultures.

It began in September 2015 with Tanya Rawal-Jindia's "Saree Not Sorry" teaching experiment.

A professor of gender, sustainability and media studies at the University of California Riverside, Rawal-Jindia had come home to Baton Rouge to visit her parents over the summer and borrowed sarees from her mom and some of her friends to wear when she returned to California.

"It was in response to many of us not feeling comfortable in our culture, to the feeling regarding immigrants," Rawal-Jindia says. "People always think California is more liberal, but not necessarily. This was a fun way to bring attention to those prejudices."

From her 300-plus Instagram posts showing her wearing the sarees brought back from Baton Rouge with messages such as "I don't look like a terrorist," the project soon went viral, even capturing the attention of NBC's "Today."

On social media sites like Instagram and Twitter, Rawal-Jindia says she's "using fashion to speak back to the rising anti-immigration discourse in America … because borders are for saris."

Among those jumping on her bandwagon were Baton Rouge friends Sri Murali and Malini Dasari.

But it was about more than politics.

"It's a way to connect with our roots," says Murali, an investment adviser who's been known to wear a saree to work. "Sarees have borders that define them, but we shouldn't have borders that define us as a people. We're all the same."

The women love wearing their sarees to make a statement. And, sometimes, that's a fashion statement.

"It's very traditional attire, everyday wear in India," says Dasari, a physician. "The saree brings a lot of dignity and a different elegance in each wearer in the way it drapes your shape. It's my favorite piece of clothing. I find every excuse to wear it."

There are more than 80 ways to wear a saree, the most common being wrapped around the waist with the loose end of the drape worn over the shoulder, baring the midriff.

"North India differs from the south in how it drapes the saree," says Murali, adding that the average saree is made from 6 yards of fabric. "It also varies from state to state."

Just like in western fashion, sarees come in everyday and evening styles, usually determined by the fabric and embellishments. Cotton is typically used for the more casual styles while silk and charmeuse rule for formal sarees.

Sarees are woven with one plain end (the end that is concealed inside the wrap), two long decorative borders running the length of the saree and a 1- to 3-foot section at the other end, which continues and elaborates the lengthwise decoration. This end is called the pallu; it's the part thrown over the shoulder in the Nivi style of draping.

A saree's border gives it definition and an added design element. In south India, stories are woven into the saree.

"Usually, the story has a moral," says Murali. "My sister gave me one for Christmas that was the story of Jesus."

Dasari added that different areas use different weaves. "You can usually look at a saree and tell which region it's from," she said.

Because of the harsh extremes in temperature on the Indian subcontinent, the saree is both practical and fashionable. It warms in winter and cools in the summer, and its loose fit allows women to move freely.

"I've always been a fan of skirts and dresses," Rawal-Jindia says. "Sarees are very comfortable. They're fun to wear with all the different types of fabrics, and I like the femininity of it."

Murali says wearing the sarees started out as fun, "but it also sends a message to the community that we're like everybody else."

Follow Pam Bordelon on Twitter, @pamspartyline.