A major exhibition celebrating the sari is coming to the UK

Exhibition The Offbeat Sari is one of the 2023 exhibitions announced for the Design Museum (The Design Museum/PA) (PA Media)
Exhibition The Offbeat Sari is one of the 2023 exhibitions announced for the Design Museum (The Design Museum/PA) (PA Media)

An exhibition showcasing the contemporary Indian sari – the first large-scale show of it’s kind in the UK – is set to open this spring.The Offbeat Sari, at the Design Museum in London in May, will bring together more than 90 examples of innovative and iconic saris from trailblazing studios and designers across India – including the first ever sari worn at the Met Gala and a foil jersey sari worn by Lady Gaga.

It aims to give visitors a snapshot of the fashion revolution that the sari is experiencing right now.

“A sari is one of the most ubiquitous garments in the world,” says Priya Khanchandani, the exhibition’s curator.

The sari – a single piece of unstitched cloth that varies in density and is draped across the body – has a long history of around 5000 years.

“Over the course of its history it has survived and evolved in texture, material, ornamentation to reflect changing social context.”

Khanchandani adds: “30 years ago, as a young person, you may not have worn it at all, [it was] more of a mother or grandmother thing. It was nostalgic and elegant. While it was beautifully crafted and adored, it may not have been worn.

“Today it is appreciated in a different light by a younger generation, it is being played with. Handloom fabrics are appreciated now, a variety of materials –  shimmer saris for example, or translucent saris – as shown in the exhibition.”

The evolution of the sari will be well-documented at the museum, with innovative techniques and new materials being used in this traditional style of dress by designers such as Abraham & Thakore, Raw Mango, Akaaro and NorBlackNorWhite.

Examples of couture saris such as Tarun Tahiliani’s foil jersey sari made for Lady Gaga in 2010, and Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla’s ruffled sari worn by Bollywood star Deepika Padukone at Cannes Film Festival in 2022, will also be on show.

“We are seeing changes in its form, with pre-stitched, hybrid sari dresses and changes in the material,” says Khanchandan. “I am wearing a distressed denim sari today, by Diksha Khanna, which is unconventional. I am wearing it with a white shirt, while a sari is normally worn with a blouse. There is one in the exhibition made of recycled plastic bottles and sequins made from cut up X-rays.”

With saris now being worn at major fashion events, like the outfit by designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee worn by Natasha Poonawalla at the MET Gala last year, young women are keen to change the narrative of the traditional dress.

Mukherjee said at the time: “I interpreted the dress code, Gilded Glamour, with an Indian gaze that revels in our multiculturalism and the authenticity of our design, aesthetic and craft legacies.”

Khanchandan, who is passionate about diversity in design and the amplication of under-represented voices, says now: “The role of women in India has been problematic, the country has been slower to change for women.

“But, when the MeToo movement took hold in India and had a significant impact, the sari became a kind of symbol of female empowerment.”

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“We have seen a female skateboarder wearing it, it’s being worn by mountain climbers, and its presence is showing different depictions of Indian women. They are being liberated from domestic Indian stereotypes. The sari was once worn by objectified women in Bollywood, but now this is being subverted.”

Today, she says, people are choosing “to drape them differently, embellish them, knot them in interesting places and make them more individual, helping women promote their individual creativity more. We have seen the rise of sari-wearing influencers and the hashtag #SariNotSorry.”

Some are even pairing theirs a T-shirt and trainers for their own urban version of the traditional dress.

The Offbeat Sari runs from May 19 to September 17, 2023. Adult tickets are £12.60, on sale now. To book and for more information designmuseum.org.