The sari debuted in the Indus Valley around 2800 B.C.E. Here in the 21st century, it’s undergoing “conceivably its most rapid reinvention in its 5,000-year history,” according to the Design Museum in London. It’s been reimagined as the gown sari, which is still sparking debates. Other rebels are dressing theirs down with sneakers.
In London, lead curator Priya Khanchandani has spearheaded “The Offbeat Sari,” the first-ever museum show dedicated to the timeless garment, presenting 60 genre-defining specimens from recent history, some for the first time in the U.K. Standouts include a sari woven from steel and another from discarded x-ray film, and the first-ever sari to grace the Met Gala, an iridescent Sabyasachi design that Indian biotech executive Natasha Poonawalla wore last year.
“The Offbeat Sari” unfolds over three sections: “Transformation” explores the recent stylistic innovations filling in new chapters for the sari, “Identity and Resistance” incorporates cultural context and the wearers’ roles in such shifts, and “New Materialities” concludes with a deep dive into the sari as a textile.
“The evolution of the contemporary sari returns us to the founding principles of Indian design, devised post-independence and intertwined with post-colonial ideologies,” Khanchandani told Artnet News. “It also reflects a new generation in today’s India who, 76 years on from independence from colonial rule, are freed from the weight of postcolonial baggage, and are bolder in exploring their identity.” The open market, digital culture, and rising confidence in Indian craft has also had an impact, she added.
“The Offbeat Sari” balances the universal and unique. Though one donned by Lady Gaga does appear, Khanchandani questions the impulse to peg the sari’s import to potential global adoption. On a research trip to India, she visited numerous designers featured throughout this show. “It was wonderful to get to know their work,” she said, “but what I didn’t expect was to uncover so many smaller studios whose creativity and ideas are transforming the sari into fresh, radical clothing in ways that I never imagined.”
Surprises abound for viewers, too—including a sari and baton belonging to feminist Gulabi Gang leader Sampat Pal and saris worn by a skateboarder, a mountain climber, and more.
See more images from the show below.