by Anmol AhujaJul 21, 2023
The sari unravelled measures six yards (roughly five and a half metres). And in that mystical length of cloth there are infinite possibilities. It is for all body sizes, and all ages of an adult woman (some men too). Nightwear, maternity wear, formal and casual. It is worn on building sites and in business meetings. There are 80 ways it can be worn, possibly more. Wrapped, pleated and draped around the body over a blouse and a petticoat, it is an entire catalogue of fashion in one genius design.
The sari the western world usually gets to see is the glamorous version—heavily sequinned, stitched and beaded, or printed in bright colours and patterns designed to dazzle. An exhibition at the Design Museum London—The Offbeat Sari (until September 17, 2023)—offers a counter to that exoticised narrative with a broader look at ubiquitous South Asian garment. As I have always thought (never having seen my own grandmother out of one) it rightfully regards the versatility and ingenuity of this garment as design, rather than decoration. Excitingly, it’s a contemporary look at the sari, rather than an historical examination. An attempt to divorce it from its colonial gaze and celebrate its growing reclamation by a new generation.
"Today, the sari is in the throes of transformation," said curator Priya Khanchandani in her opening remarks. "Its millennia-old structure and style are being remade with imagination and creativity, reshaping the meaning of fashion and contemporary India. Its symbolism continues to shift with this revolution, giving voice at its most avant-garde to marginalised perspectives and subverting conventions of femininity." She and her team have gathered an impressive range of examples, all of which come from India rather than fashion houses or collections in the UK.
An array of unusual designs greet the visitor, including the first sari worn to the Met Gala (in 2022), a dramatic gold ensemble by Sabyasachi and Schiaparelli, and romantic and delicate compositions of floral motifs, frayed fabric and organza by Anamika Khanna, the first female Indian designer to show at Paris Fashion Week in 2020. That these ‘firsts’ are so recent, and that all the exhibits were made in the last decade reveals how little the wider world knows about the contemporary sari.
"The sari is recognised around the world, and ubiquitous in South Asia, yet is little understood internationally, particularly in its contemporary form," said Khanchandani. "Its renewed popularity is one of the most important global fashion stories, yet it's rarely been touched on in global conversation."
The expanded view of the sari continues: a black lycra-clad mannequin scales one wall of the space, with fabric wrapped around its legs and falling behind, displaying its peacock-feather print. A sari for playing cricket in, or skateboarding, like the one worn by Oorbee Roy in her viral Tik Tok videos. It’s a far cry from the notion I held of the sari as a teenager: restrictive, heavy, uncomfortable, and a metaphor for tying women to their place. This unhappy, othering and even shameful view of the garment by the British diaspora of a certain generation gets some airing in a clip of Gurinder Chadha's Bend it Like Beckham (2002). It would have been interesting to see more of that friction between viewpoints—the cultural appropriation conversation, for example, and why the garment gets regularly co-opted by the celebrity fashion world to signify a particular kind of feminine beauty.
A nod to circularity and the sari’s possible afterlives comes by way of Kumari’s Twice Loved Sari Dress. Studio Mutt’s practical and low-key exhibition design for the museum’s small subterranean space seems to pick up the sense of Indian resourcefulness on display in this section. The Hargila Army, an activist group dedicated to the conservations of the stork, demonstrates how the sari can be used as a political emblem—the group wears headgear and garments inspired by the threatened bird species. There's no way Khanchandani and team could have crammed this garment in all its guises to this thoughtful exhibition, but you get the feeling its stories have been selected to acknowledge every visitor, whether a novice to the sari or a native.
The design exhibition concludes with a section on craft and industry, and the huge choreography of labour, land and livelihoods that are bound up in making these incredible works. A 2017 film by Unknown Fields makes an effective parting shot with its look at the effect of fast fashion on the role of traditional craftsmanship in the textile industries. The sari as we know it, may already be endangered, but this exhibition allows little room for nostalgia. Its versatility, symbolism and scope for reinvention are why it endures; The Offbeat Sari offers just a glimpse of where it might go next.