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Piecing together the sari’s modern story

A show in London showcases the many India-made modern versions of the timeless garment, highlighting its position in global fashion

Design Museum's head of curatorial Priya Khanchandani looks at the sari by Sabyasachi saree with a bustier by Schiaparelli, worn by Indian socialite Natasha Poonawalla at the 2022 Met Gala. It is part of the Design Museum's new ongoing show, 'The Offbeat Sari'.
Design Museum's head of curatorial Priya Khanchandani looks at the sari by Sabyasachi saree with a bustier by Schiaparelli, worn by Indian socialite Natasha Poonawalla at the 2022 Met Gala. It is part of the Design Museum's new ongoing show, 'The Offbeat Sari'. (AFP)

When you work in fashion, attending galas and red carpet events are con- sidered the perks of the job. While several people who attend these soirées have stylists and full-fledged glam teams, these services are not extended to journalists. Therefore, deciding what to wear can be an anxiety-ridden decision. For me, it is a chance to flaunt my favourite garment, the sari. Even the most bespoke of gowns made by the best Parisian couture houses cannot compete with the allure of the sari.

The saris I have turned to over the years are constructed garments, which can be worn with the ease of the dress yet have the grace of the sari. Often referred to by contemporary Indian fashion designers as a “concept sari”, fashion purists in India considered my choice “fashion blasphemy”. I am happy to admit I am not the best draper and enjoy wearing pieces that have that edgy feeling.

There are several designers in the country who are playing with the South Asian silhouette, believed to be at least 5,000 years old. Whether they are textile-first brands like Raw Mango and Abraham and Thakore, who have played with motifs on handloom saris; designers such as Tarun Tahiliani, Gaurav Gupta and Rahul Mishra, who have added a sartorial element to it; or creators like Gaurav Jai Gupta and Amit Aggarwal, who are experimenting with the materials; all of them have one goal: ensure the ancient drape appeals to the next generation of sari wearers.

It has also become the way a new generation of South Asians talk about their cultural roots. They style it as they want to and do not stick to any rules, because the sari is like a chameleon that does not allow itself to be constricted.

To celebrate the grandness and versatility of the sari, London’s Design Museum is hosting The Offbeat Sari show, from 19 May to 17 September. It’s the first time an international museum is celebrating the iconic drape. Accompanying the exhibition is a book, The Offbeat Sari: Indian Fashion Unravelled.

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Design Museum’s head of cultural Priya Khanchandani says, “There are many other stories that could be told about the sari—like the dress, it is one of the most recognisable objects in the world and could be explored through a thousand different exhibitions. The Offbeat Sari is not a universal story, but presents some of the most trailblazing contemporary saris that are pushing forward the way in which the sari is designed, worn and crafted.”

Over 90 innovative saris from India designers are part of the show, including the Sabyasachi gold tulle sari teamed with a Schiaparelli bodice worn at the Met Gala last year, which marked the debut of the silhoutte at the global fashion extravaganza.

The stylist behind the look, Anaita Adajania, recalls: “The theme that year, ‘In America: An Anthology Of Fashion’ refers to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, a time of excess and opulence, modernization, and progress. Therefore, the Schiaparelli bust was the starting point. We toyed with the idea of skirts, lehngas, but finally stuck to our instincts, and sari just felt right. This was an opportunity to turn an Indian eye towards the theme, to celebrate both our multiculturalism and our own design, aesthetic and craft legacies.”

The timing of The Offbeat Sari could not be better, as the sari seems to be getting a lot of global attention. Last month, actor Zendaya, wore Rahul Mishra’s hand-embroidered sari gown and a bralette for the opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Culture Centre in Mumbai. A few weeks ago, supermodel Naomi Campbell was seen at the Met Gala in the archival pink sari-inspired Chanel dress.

Back home, the sari is still the most sold garment. It has, however, lost its place as a daily-wear garment in urban India, while its allure as occasion wear remains intact.

London-based creative director and stylist Nikhil Mansata explains: “The sari is an elegant traditional dress in India, which will not lose its importance. This is evident in the many interpretations and the constant evolution of the garment. For the urban Indian elite, the sari is part of the black-tie dress code, while for others it is also everyday wear—for schoolteachers, nurses, government officials. In that lies the beauty and versatility of this timeless garment.”

Of course, it’s the versatility of the garment that has made it a darling of international designers as well. Over the years, designers like Christian Dior and Elie Saab have offered their interpretations of it. The Design Museum show decided to stay away from these global takes on the ancient Indian drape, though. Khanchandani says: “Indian design is often defined as timeless or viewed through an anthropological lens. In my opinion, denying it a just place within the contemporary canon, I am often asked if the sari will be adopted as part of global fashion and my response is: it may or may not but is that the barometer of its relevance? Is its existence in South Asia not enough?”

Perhaps, here is the most important takeaway take from the show. We need to stop looking to the West for appreciation. We need to be proud of our own textile as well as fashion heritage.

Also read: Is elegance finally making a comeback to the world of fashion?

Dress Sense is a monthly column on the clothes we wear every day. 

Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate.

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