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The Offbeat Sari: Design Museum’s beautiful new exhibition charts the power of the sari

 (Bikramjit Bose.)
(Bikramjit Bose.)

An exhibition showcasing the contemporary Indian sari opens its doors today at the Design Museum in Kensington.

Curated by the Design Museum’s Head of Curatorial Priya Khanchandani, ‘The Offbeat Sari’ brings together over 60 examples of modern saris, on loan from designers and studios across India, including the first ever sari worn at the Met Gala in 2022 and a foil jersey sari worn by Lady Gaga.

“I think the sari is a really interesting canvas through which to explore where India is at in terms of cultural trends, the role of women and issues like climate change, identity and gender,” says Khanchandani at an exhibition preview.

Design Museum's Head of Curatorial Priya Khanchandani looks at the sari by Sabyasachi saree with a bustier by Schiaparelli, worn by Indian businesswoman and socialite Natasha Poonawalla at the 2022 Met Gala (AFP via Getty Images)
Design Museum's Head of Curatorial Priya Khanchandani looks at the sari by Sabyasachi saree with a bustier by Schiaparelli, worn by Indian businesswoman and socialite Natasha Poonawalla at the 2022 Met Gala (AFP via Getty Images)

Conventionally a single piece of unstitched fabric, the sari has been adapted in drape and form over millennia. From the 1960s to the early 2000s, the traditional garment declined in popularity as a form of everyday wear, with many women choosing to part with an item of clothing long-associated with restrictive formalwear and domesticity.

Yet, in the past decade, the sari has been reenergised thanks to a new wave of designers and craftspeople innovating the ways in which the sari is made, worn and perceived in contemporary urban India.

“It’s experiencing what is conceivably its most rapid reinvention in its 5,000-year history,” says Khanchandani, who had the idea for the exhibition when she was living in Delhi in 2015-16 and discovered a burgeoning and creative sari design scene.

A modern sari by Bodice (The Design Museum)
A modern sari by Bodice (The Design Museum)

Several of the brands she discovered are on display, from Diksha Khan’s distressed denim version, to a sari adorned with sequins cut from disused X-ray images obtained from hospital waste and by Abraham & Thakore. Among the most spectacular is a golden sari constructed from hair-thin stainless steel wires by Rimzim Dadu.

“India has one of the biggest populations of young people in the world so inevitably there’s going to be innovation and creativity,” she continues. “These designers have not had a platform to celebrate their work internationally, and given the calibre of the work and its significance to such a huge population of the world I felt it was time those stories were told.”

The exhibition charts the evolution of the sari (Andy Stagg for the Design Museum)
The exhibition charts the evolution of the sari (Andy Stagg for the Design Museum)

There’s a fascinating section on saris as a means of empowerment — with examples of  the red silk sari worn by Tamil-Swiss singer-songwriter Priya Ragu and the block-print sari worn by self-proclaimed ‘Saree Man’ Himanshu Verma — and as a tool for protest, such as the bright pink saris worn by the domestic violence protest group The Gulabi Gang and stork motif saris of the The Hargila Army, which is fighting to save the stork population of India.

The final of the three rooms focuses on production, highlighting those making sustainable innovations. Standout is New Delhi-based designer Guava J Gupta, who has addressed the issue of Delhi’s terrible pollution by developing a textile dye that recycles airborne carbon and soot to make ink.

Gigi Hadid poses for pictures during the inauguration of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) at the Jio World Centre (JWC) in Mumbai (AFP via Getty Images)
Gigi Hadid poses for pictures during the inauguration of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) at the Jio World Centre (JWC) in Mumbai (AFP via Getty Images)

Recently named the world’s most populated country, India’s significance within contemporary culture is vast. In the last few months the fashion world has been taking note: a month ago Dior held a star-studded Pre-Fall 2023 show at Mumbai’s Gateway of India landmark, and earlier in April a host of celebrities, among them Tom Holland, Gigi Hadid and Zendaya, also landed in Mumbai for the launch of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre. Hadid and Zendaya both wore saris to attend the red carpet event.

Is it problematic for non-Indians to wear and design saris, I ask Khanchandani? “I think Indians are very open to people of other nationalities wearing saris,” she says. “I think they get very excited when other cultures celebrate their forms of national dress, but i think it’s down to individual context and the intention behind the wearer. Are they wearing it to celebrate? Are they wearing it for their own financial gain? I think there are mixed opinions and the questions of cultural appropriation is very divisive.”

Never is this clearer than on social media, where saris and sari influencers are trending, explains another section of the exhibition, and hashtags like “sareenotsorry” are getting millions of views. “Saris have gone hugely viral,” says Khanchandani. If your feed isn’t yet flooded with sensational sari content, something tells me this exhibition means it will be soon.

The Offbeat Sari opens at the Design Museum on Friday 19 May and runs until 17 September 2023. Tickets on sale now. designmuseum.org