When Dior showed off its autumn 2023 collection in March with a catwalk event in Mumbai, it was lauded as a “watershed” fashion moment of recognition for India. European high-fashion houses had, after all, been working with manufacturers there for decades, but few had included the country in its collections.
Now, attracted by India’s growing affluent class and luxury customer base, here was a big Paris label sending models down the runway in garments clearly inspired by India: Nehru collars, silhouettes evoking the sari and sherwani, and intricate embroidery produced by its long-time collaborator, Indian atelier Chanakaya.
The Mumbai fashion moment also included the opening of a high-profile arts centre, and a retrospective exhibition from Chanakaya exploring its handcrafted work with Dior over the decades.
To judge from the star-studded audience, you’d be forgiven for thinking that style was no longer just going in one direction (that is, from the west to everywhere else). Indeed, the sari – which had already enjoyed a glamorous 2022 when it was worn respectively on red carpets in Cannes and the Met Gala by actor Deepika Padukone and socialite Natasha Poonwalla – was now being worn by famous faces that were not part of the Indian diaspora, such as the actor Zendaya and model Gigi Hadid.
At a time when cultural appropriation is viewed by many as an act of disrespect (by, for example, not giving credit to the culture, or enforcing stereotypes), this seemed different: appreciative, a shared celebration.
But when Suzy Menkes, the doyenne of fashion journalists, posted on Instagram from the Chanakaya exhibition, writing “who could have imagined that humble Indian handiwork could develop into Dior’s haute couture”, it was met with derision. “Humble” did not seem like the right word for the training over generations that such craftsmanship required, and users accused Menkes of a white, colonial gaze.
True appreciation of India’s design prestige, it seemed, still required some learning.
Fortunately, a groundbreaking new exhibition at the Design Museum in London has arrived to plug the knowledge gap. The Offbeat Sari is a first of its kind: an examination of the contemporary sari and its eclectic, cutting-edge reinvention.
The sari is conventionally understood to be a single piece of unstitched fabric draped on to the body. “Because it has a simple form, it’s become a canvas for expressing different ideas,” explains Priya Khanchandani, head of curatorial at the Design Museum.
Those ideas, displayed at the exhibition, include saris made from unconventional materials and worn in varied ways – one by couturier Guarav Gupta is woven from steel, while another by Indian label NorBlack NorWhite includes a hood, creating an almost streetwear-inspired look.
The exhibition also features a sari from the feminist group the Gulabi Gang, whose members wear a uniform of a hot pink sari, and the sari as red-carpet showstopper: two saris by Poonwalla shown at the Met Gala and another black and gold sari worn on Padukone at Cannes will also be displayed. Of the latter, no photo can do justice to the thousands of stitched sequins glistening on a material so delicate you might expect it to tear under the weight – yet somehow it does not.
The brainchild of Khanchandani, The Offbeat Sari began as an idea when she was working for the British Council in Delhi and noticed how differently the women in her design-led field wore the sari: “They were wearing pared-back saris, not the very heavy embellished ones I would see at weddings in the UK. And they were wearing it with T-shirts or shirts and trainers.”
Those less acquainted with the sari may have a specific idea of it in their minds, perhaps draped at full length over a blouse. But that iteration only developed “during colonialism, because it conformed to Victorian ideas of modesty”, says Khanchandani.
“There’s always been different ways of draping – regionally, according to function, according to environment, according to taste. In fishing villages, it’s draped cropped, which makes complete sense.”
The sari is worn across south Asia to various degrees, but in India itself it has become a symbol of “Mother India”, Khanchandani explains. “There are mixed opinions, but in my view the sari has become related to Indian nationalist ideologies,” she says, pointing to “the rise in cultural conservatism in India coming from above”. “Some of that comes from the fact that handloom cloth was intrinsic to the independence movement. Mahatma Ghandi told people to spin their own cloth at home.”
Gandhi encouraged people to boycott cloth that was manufactured in the UK and transported to India by the British, who monopolised textile production – which is why the spinning wheel adorns India’s flag.
I discovered how political the sari is these days when a stranger approached me at an awards dinner for British south Asians to ask about the inherited navy sari I was wearing.
“Why are you wearing that, aren’t you a Muslim?”. The implication was that the sari is not only Indian, but only Hindu too.
But that is not why the exhibition focuses only on Indian design over the past 10 years. Khanchandani explains: “I had to make a decision about which geography represents sari, and I chose India because it’s most commonly worn there.
Through the 90 trailblazing saris assembled on loan from Indian designers and studios – alongside photos, magazines, textiles and even sculpture (featuring a sari cast in resin) – The Offbeat Sari certainly delivers on its promise.
But in doing so it also tells the story of India’s changing urban woman, from hybrid saris that look at first glance like ballgowns, pre-draped saris for the busy working woman, and saris worn by rebels kicking against prescriptive gender roles.
It even goes as far as exploring new gender identities entirely, and telling of sari-wearers rolling through cities on their skateboards.
“The sari has always been a canvas, it’s always been malleable. But in the last 10 years or so, that change has really condensed into this incredible moment,” enthuses Khanchandani.
“It’s a sari revolution.”