The 1st room
The Offbeat Sari Exhibition shows how a traditional garment evolves through time, and how designers and wearers reimagined it by playing with fabric and its shape. It is divided into 3 main parts: Transformation, Identity and Resistance, and Materials.
This part is also divided into different parts about its representation.
At first, the sari was a traditional garment for women which represented their social class. Obviously, the more decorated and colourful the sari was, the richer you were communicating you were.
The appearance of sari on red carpets and big events is quite recent. The sari has been a symbol of Indian beauty and femininity for many years – exported to a wider audience through to Bollywood films and TV shows. This sari is an ode to the Bollywood sari and is the more “traditional” in style that we have found in this exhibition.
Bollywood Nostalgia Today by Pero, 2019
In 2002, the iconic movie “Bend it Like Beckham”, produced by Gurinder Chadha and Deepak Nayare, worked hard to try to subvert some of the traditional readings of a sari, showing that it (and by extension the wearer) can be more than just feminine.
Furthermore, the sari offers a perfect canvas for experimentation. As these designers like to explore the mix of traditional and non traditional techniques gives birth to some very poetic outcomes.
The pink sari with tulle and organza with metallic pallu is a lovely example of this. Can you guess how the shape was created? No, well it comes from Amit Aggarwal’s upbringing in a family of engineers. He likes to play with fabric, he pleats the material and heats the polymer fabric in combination with hand embroidered through the bodice.
The Metalona Saree by Amit Aggarwal, 2021
Distressed denim also has its place in Indian traditional wardrobe. Diksha Khanna uses the “working class fabric”, denim, to create a pallu. She mixes some “rough” material with an upper class garment, and associates it with a long denim skirt and a white cotton blouse which presents a very modern aspect of Indian clothes.
Hand-distressed Denim sari by Dishka Khanna, 2018
Indian designers’ sari experimentations lead to sari on the red carpets inspired by the ambitious vision of Indian glamour and Bollywood extravagance. The most famous ones are: the white sari with mirror work and traditional embroidery technique named “chikankari” by Abu Jani and Sandeep Kosla worn for the 75th Cannes Film Festival in 2022, and an embroidered tulle sari with a dramatic train, described as a “showstopping ensemble”, designed by Sabyasachi and Schiaparelli, was worn for the “Gilded Glamour” of the 2022 Met Gala.
Observation drawing of Off white sari with pleated ruffles
Both saris are breath-taking due their shapes, and the pearl, stones, crystal and sequins embroidered. The white one embodies the beauty and boldness with the ruffles and the chikankari embroidery. The Sabyasachi and Schiaparelli sari represents power and has some “goddess energy” which is shown by the metal bustier and the embroidered train.
Off white sari with pleated ruffles by Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla, 2021
Sari and bustier by Sabyasachi and Schiaparelli, 2022
Looking more to the west, a sari worn by Lady Gaga is also shown in the exhibition. It is more accurately described as a concept sari which is a pre-stitched sari, it is not wrapped and becomes popular in Bollywood and beyond from around the 90s. Obviously, her outfit is glamorous and extravagant with chains by Tarun Tahiliani. The piece is shown next to the Sari which is thought to have inspired it showing a nice parallel between where Saris have been and how they are being reworked.
Concept sari and Lady Gaga sari inspired by the left one, by Tarun Tahiliani in 2013 & 2022
Another sari, by Sabyasachi, catches our eye. The design is inspired by the Bengal tiger, which is the designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s emblem. We can’t help but to admire the delicacy of the hand embroidered stripes.
Bengal Tiger Couture by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, 2022
If you are more into classical design with less extravagance, Anamika Khanna is your next obsession. She is the first Indian designer to show at Paris Fashion Week. She mixes Indian fabrics and techniques with Western inspired tailoring like gold zari work needlework with a 3 piece suit. Two of her awesome embroidery works were presented: an organza cape with flowers over a silk blouse and a satin petticoat, and a silk organza with patchwork embroidery.
Organza sari and cape by Anamika Khanna, 2014
Distressed pre stitched sari by Anamika Khanna, 2018
Moreover, sari shape has also been manipulated, mainly by Indian designers as Raw Mango and AKAARO. For example, the Saree Sneakers show how traditional wear can be worn everyday. Their shapes can look quite simple but if you look closer, you will see the zardozi embroidery inspired by Indian patterns. Shruti Kasat created them as she discovers that wearing heels with a sari and looking after her toddlers was a difficult task. The sneakers have replaced the sandals in Bollywood and in chic sari-wearers’ wardrobes.
Sari sneakers by The Saree Sneakers, 2019
Saree has become more sportswear inspired during the past years. Shimma and Tulip saree are perfect examples and use sneakers and sport crop op to reinforce modernity. The brand NorBlack Nor White uses hand-dyed cotton fabric to create a vivid fabric. The Tulip one uses hand-painted viscose chiffon and represents a reinterpretation of Bollywood glamour, particularly popular with influencers and GenZ.
Tulip Sari by NorBlack NorWhite, 2020
Shimma Sari, ari by NorBlack NorWhite, 2017
Raw Mango is another brand well-known for playing with aesthetics of the sari. They felt that sari was regarded as an “inferior” garment, and decided to redo it by creating fabrics to make them more colourful and embrace their heritage in textile. They weave fabric and print it, but imagine this pattern being embroidered… it would be perfect.
Folia sari by Raw Mango, 2021
Before leaving Transformation, we can see short videos of how a saree can be pleated and wrapped.
IDENTITY AND RESISTANCE
This part is less about sari being a part of fashion, it is more seen as a tool of communication. It teaches us how a sari can be worn in a different way, to explore gender fluidity and body positivity or celebrate a trait ourselves. It becomes a statement.
The 2nd room
The photos “How many sugars would you like?” represent how the saree can link people together. The bottom is our favourite, we can see 3 people with saris and a bit exaggerated face expression spilling some tea.
Photos: How many sugars would you like?
And close to them, you can see a block-printed silk sari worn by Himanshu Verma, who described himself as “OG Saree Man” (Original Gangster). He owns more than 300 saris which are his everyday clothes. Verma likes to play and transgress the boundaries of “gender clothes”.
Contemporary Block Print Sari by Eachaneri Designs, 2019
ALOK, an author, comedian and founder of the #DeGenderFashion movement wears a beautiful sari, embroidered with acrylic, sequins and crystals. By wearing it they prove that clothes are not made for specific genders, and make a political statement. For them, wearing a sari is a joyful act, but it is also an important picture as it represents South Asian queer culture. Why should saris only be worn by cis-women? And should embroidery and ornaments should only be for cis-women? Such powerful personal statements do often find adversity but we find it powerful and think ALOK carries it off in the way it was intended. The #DeGenderFashion movement is starting to see results such as the brand “Papa Don’t Preach” has removed the “womenswear” label since 2022.
CHRISSY by Papa Don’t Preach, 2022
Sobia Ameen sari does not have embroidery on it, but it was just too amazing to not talk about it. She is a Bangladeshi architect who has showcased her sari on her social media since 2017. This sari is not only the most colourful piece of the exhibition, the shirt is also made with biodegradable Lyocell-satin.
Sobia Ameen by Advait and Doh Tak Keh, 2021 & 2020
Priya Ragu pays a tribute to her identity and Tamil heritage. In her music video “Good Love 2.0”, she wears some western fashion items (Adidas sneakers, sunglasses, high neck rib-knit long-sleeve shirt) and red sari with some cutwork embroidery which forms the translated word of “Tamil”. It was created by Ekaya and Masaba in 2018.
Priya Ragu by Ekaya and Masaba, 2018
Continuing with the exhibition, we have seen a masterpiece: a long embroidered piece (maybe around 5m we think). This sari is a result of cross culture between China and India. This design is called Parsi Gara, which was adopted by the Parsi community who migrated to India from Persia. It was influenced by the embroidery the people brought back from China during the opium trade under colonial rule. The designer, Ashdeen Z Lilaowala, demonstrates the impact of globalization on sari’s history and embroidery. Plus, the designer adds some modernity by embroidering in on a deep aubergine colour silk fabric.
Cheena-Cheeni Parsi Gara Sari by ASHDEEN, 2017
It is interesting to see how big ‘Parsi Gara’ is, demonstrated by its length in relation to the next display the Raj Kilt. It is a mix kilt and sari, showing Shilpa Chavan experience – Indian designer who studied in the UK. The ensemble is rich and the notes describe in detail the nuances of the piece where you can see some lace, epaulettes, plexiglass, pleats and embroidery.
The Raj Kilt by Little Shilpa, 2014
Next up is one of the pinkest sari on show: Gubali Gang is embodied by a pink sari and pink bamboo adopted by a social group created in 2006 to oppose domestic violence in north India.
Gualbi Gang by unknown designer, 2006
Near the end of the room, they show some “reclaimed” garments. They have been woven from the remnants of with older saree. The third one is made of a Patola sari which is a rare type of sari. It is a complex process with tie-dyed yarns and goldwork embroidery as seen on the top.
Seamless sari by Armit Aggarwal, 2017
We finish this section with some “movement sari” – how sari fits into modern activity as sports.
Even if this garment is known for being fluid it is very long and can be seen as impractical. Designers play with aesthetics, promote them with sporty imagery and sport partnerships. They reshape the idea of what a sari is and when it can be worn.
The designer Masaba Gupta and fashion brand Ekaya defy sari stereotypes with their collaboration and how they promote it – women playing cricket. Even if it seems quite simple, their hashtag #PleatsOnThePitch helps to reshape popular preconceptions.
Masaba Gupta and Ekaya, 2018
Oorbee Roy, also called Aunty Skates, is known for learning how to skate in her 40s and wears a colourful purple sari with gold embroidery. She chooses it for its light fabric, and wears lululemon yoga leggings underneath. She proves that people can embrace their culture without feeling restricted. Her video, in 2021, has gone viral.
Unknown designer, 2015
Satya Paul created a campaign for International Women’s Day 2021 named “Break into the new” in which female athletes wear sari. The exhibition has selected an impressive role model – the mountain climber Prerna Dangi to embody the idea of where and how a sari can be worn.
Plumage sari by Satya Paul, 2021
In the last rooms the focus turns to materials, where we have been surprised to not see any embroidery techniques, It was more focused on textile and dying.
However there is some very beautiful lace which has been exhibited under light to show how thin and fragile it is.
To conclude, the exhibition is great, a real deep dive into the Sari from many angles. Even if the embroidery is not the centre of attention you can see that it still has an important role. The embroidery has been seen as an elite symbol which is still the case as it is mostly seen on red carpets and on celebrities. We keep hope that one day, more people will become more open minded about who can wear and enjoy Saree as fashion is a tool of communication.
To see for yourself, the exhibition is on at the Design Museum until the 17th Sept 2023.
Words, Images and Drawings by Mathilde Weihrich