An exhibition has opened taking a look at a garment worn by hundreds of millions of people, but one whose heritage might be less familiar to most of us — the sari.

The sari is conventionally a single piece of unstitched cloth, but what turns it into a garment is the way that it’s draped around the body. What the exhibition shows though is how from such a simple form, multitudes of designs have emerged and the sari has become a rich canvas for experimentation by Indian designers.

The most popular style today is one that was encouraged during the time of the British Raj, although well over a hundred alternatives exist, and designers are trying to popularise a lot of these as well as looking at the design of the fabric itself.

The sari faded in popularity from the 1960s to the millennium, but with new designers and a resurgence in women’s rights, women started to take back the sari as a symbol of female empowerment.

This exhibition takes a fresh look at the sari, from a fabric of high fashion but also one with increasing political meaning. Therefore, a lot of the display looks a bit like a fashion show for the sari, but it’s often the smaller details that stand out. The richly decorated trainers are a world away from the classic brown sandals bringing a contemporary style, and of course, comfort to younger wearers.

One room gets a bit more technical, looking at how the sari fabric is created and some of the modern materials that are starting to creep into the fabrics. One stunning sari in here glows and is made from hair-thin strands of steel coated in gold to create a remarkable flowing fabric that looks almost as if it was sculpted rather than woven.

A row of old fashioned punch cards from early industrial weaving machines — is actually a modern pattern from 2020. Some saris embed their politics into the fabric itself, as New Delhi based Gaurav J Gupta has found a way of collecting New Delhi’s infamous pollution to create an ink that is used to dye the fabrics.

A striking pink sari is from the Gulabi Gang, which was set up in 2006 to fight domestic violence in rural northern India, while elsewhere there’s a look at how people of other genders, or none, are starting to claim the sari as an item they can wear as well.

That a single, if rather large, piece of cloth can carry such political power is exciting to learn.

Towards the end of the collection is the skateboarding sari, reminding us that even with its ancient heritage, this is still very much a modern dress, and something to look out for at the Southbank skateboarding park.

As a display, it’s part fashion show and part education about the history and recent politics of a garment that many of us might have not looked much beyond the stereotypical image that we’ve seen in the media.

It’s quite fascinating.

The exhibition, The Offbeat Sari is at the Design Museum until 17th September.

Adults: £12.60 | Children (11-15): £6.30 | Children (<11): Free | Concessions: £9.50

Tickets can be booked in advance from here, or bought on the day.

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