Review of The Offbeat Sari Exhibition at the Design Museum

4 December 2023, by Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

In this week’s blog, The Costume Society’s News Editor Babette Radclyffe-Thomas reviews the Design Museum’s Offbeat Sari exhibition.

“The sari is experiencing what is conceivably its most rapid reinvention in its 5,000 year history. It makes the sari movement one of today’s most important global fashion stories, yet little is known of its true nature beyond South Asia. Women in cities who previously associated the sari with dressing up are transforming it into fresh, radical, everyday clothing that empowers them to express who they are, while designers are experimenting with its materiality by drawing on unbounded creativity.” Priya Khanchandani, Head of Curatorial at the Design Museum, London.

One of the UK’s first large-scale exhibitions exploring the contemporary Indian sari, the Offbeat Sari showcased over 60 saris. Curated by Priya Khanchandani, the exhibition demonstrates the current revolution of the sari and its embedded symbolism. Sourced from designers and studios from across India, exhibition highlights include the first sari worn to the Met Gala designed by Sabyasachi with a gold Schiaparelli bodice. The exhibition also marks the first time this sari has been displayed in the UK.

 “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. With last month’s news that it has become the world’s most populated country, India’s significance within contemporary culture is vast, and the sari foregrounds the country’s undeniable imagination and verve, while asserting the relevance of Indian design on a global stage,” Khanchandani said.

Mirroring the shifting symbolism of the sari from traditional and perhaps outdated notions to a site of fashion, activism and creativity, the exhibition is curated across three large rooms in three key themes: transformations; identity and resistance; and new materialities. Saris are on show by a range of designers such as Abraham & Thakore, Raw Mango, Akaaro, NorBlackNorWhite, Amit Aggarwal, HUEMN, Diksha Khanna and Bodice.

The Transformations section explores recent experimentations by Indian designers of the classic sari design. Visitors enter the exhibition through large billowing drapes of fabric printed with a stitch design which are juxtaposed by hanging neon lights. In the centre of this room a large stage is adorned with various contemporary sari designs such as a sari adorned with sequins cut from disused X-ray images obtained from hospital waste by Abraham & Thakore and a distressed denim sari by Diksha Khanna. alongside the stitched sari dress. There is also a series of films showcasing the varied sari drapes of India by Border&Fall. Even the form itself is being used as a site of experimentation with sari gowns and pre-draped saris. Couture saris are also displayed such as a copy of Tarun Tahiliani’s foil jersey sari for Lady Gaga (2010). 

Gender is a central focus of the exhibition, but especially in the second key section, Identity and Resistance, which shows how a wide range of diverse voices and personas have adopted the sari. There are saris worn as a tool for protest, such as those worn by female demonstrators in rural India The Gulabi Gang and The Hargila Army.

The final section New Materialities explores the sari as a textile showing how differences in weave, texture, colour and surface decoration are achieved through specialist textile producers in India. A highlight includes Rimzim Dadu who employs hair-thin stainless steel wires to create a gold sculpted wave. Inks, indigo, threads are on show, as well as an original spinning wheel. Textile workers are showcased through video footage such as the ‘Unraveled’ short film created by design studio Unknown Fields.

“The Offbeat Sari exhibition shows how designers, wearers and craftspeople are reshaping the ways in which the sari is understood, designed, made and worn in contemporary urban India. It presents the sari as a site for design innovation, an expression of identity and resistance, and a crafted object carrying layers of new materialities,” the exhibition text states.

The subversion of traditional connotations of the sari even through the fabric itself is clear to see through this striking exhibition and the sari’s ability to express identity, activism and to innovate.

The Offbeat Sari opened on 19th May 2023 and ran until the 17th September 2023.

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