Ten’s To See: ‘The Offbeat Sari’ At The Design Museum

Dubbed The Offbeat Sari, the latest exhibition from the Design Museum is dedicated to exploring the Indian sari as a form of textile innovation, an expression of identity and resistance, as well as looking to sarees in the context of contemporary design. Running until September 17, the show marks the UK’s first large-scale exhibition to focus on the contemporary sari, bringing together over 90 examples of pioneering sarees from the past decade.

“For me and for so many others, the sari is of personal and cultural significance, but it is also a rich, dynamic canvas for innovation, encapsulating the vitality and eclecticism of Indian culture, says Priya Khanchandani, head of curatorial at the Design Museum, who curated the exhibition.

On display, the sarees take many forms, showing the breadth of influence and innovation of sarees in the modern world. The gallery is bursting with vibrant colours and beautiful textures. Weaves, drapes, sequins and patterns provide visitors with a vibrant and enticing experience to explore India’s historic cultural and textile significance, as well as demonstrating a unique snapshot into the fashion revolution the sari is experiencing right now. The curation involves designers such as Abraham & Thakore, Akaaro, and NorBlack NorWhite, all of which have been at the forefront of the contemporary sari reformation. Also shown are designers who explore and innovate material and form, including Amit Aggarwal and Bodice. A highlight is the first ever sari worn to the Met Gala in 2022 by Indian businesswoman and socialite Natasha Poonawalla. The stunning garment, designed by Sabyasachi and styled with a gold Schiaparelli bodice, made the headlines for its dramatic and elegant collision of Eastern and Western culture, and will be shown in Britain for the very first time. Alongside prolific garments, a range of street styles demonstrate how young women of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and beyond are embracing the sari in the present day.

The exhibition unfolds in three main sections: Transformations, the exploration of the sari as a canvas for playful expression and conceptual design; Identity and Resistance, examining the sari as a vessel for individual identities, female empowerment and a tool for protest and activism; and New Materialities, drawing upon India’s rich and profound textile history, spotlighting the intricacy of sari textiles, from weaves, patterns and colours, to surface embellishment.

Conventionally, the sari is known to be a single piece of unstitched fabric – a concept of simplicity which has allowed fluidity and adaptability. The sari is an important reflection of India’s identity, social class and style, retaining strong cultural significance to this day. However, as is the case with many historic traditions, younger generations have transformed and reclaimed the sari as a ‘vessel for dynamism rather than pageantry’, as stated in the Design Museum’s press release. In cities, the sari is an expression of resistance to social norms, with many youths experimenting with hybrid forms, combining sarees and sneakers for everyday wear.

Visit The Offbeat Sari to uncover how designers, wearers and craftspeople are reshaping the ways in which the sari is understood, designed, and worn today.

Photography by Andy Stagg for the Design Museum. ‘The Offbeat Sari’ is open until September 17, 2023.


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