The sari, in essence, is a six- to nine-yard cloth draped freely around the body.
But the garment, which is often worn with a blouse and a petticoat, comes in many forms, from mass-produced polyester versions to silk saris woven on hand looms. Many South Asian designers have put their stamp on the sari, and it has influenced the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, Gianni Versace and the French couturier Madame Grès.
In April, Zendaya wore a sparkling deep-blue sari by Rahul Mishra on a red carpet in Mumbai, India. At the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, the Indian actress Deepika Padukone wore a shimmering gold-and-black sari by Sabyasachi Mukherjee that Vogue France called “the star piece” of the festival. And at last year’s Met Gala, Natasha Poonawalla, the executive director of an Indian biotechnology company, wore a glittering gold sari by Mr. Mukherjee beneath a sculptural metal corset by Schiaparelli.
Ms. Poonawalla’s Met Gala sari is among the pieces featured in a new exhibition, “The Offbeat Sari,” opening on Friday at the Design Museum in London. The show, which runs through September, explores how the sari is being newly defined, said Priya Khanchandani, the head of curatorial at the museum.
The exhibition includes saris made with conventional materials, but many of its pieces are more unusual. Among them are a sari embellished with sequins made from hospitals’ discarded X-ray images by the label Abraham & Thakore, a sculptural sari made with fine steel threads by the brand Rimzim Dadu and a cocoon-shaped nylon sari with a quilted pallu (the end piece of a sari that can go over a shoulder) by the label Huemn.
A sari by Akaaro showcases the brand’s work with zari, a fabric made of silk or cotton threads around which thin layers of silver or gold are wrapped. A ruffled sari by Amit Aggarwal in the exhibition uses boning created from industrial waste. The bodice of his sari, Mr. Aggarwal said, looks like a coral reef underwater.
Certain garments show how the sari’s construction and styling have evolved. They include a half sari by Anamika Khanna, which is paired with tailored pants and a cape, and Tarun Tahiliani’s silvery jersey sari-gown with crystal-studded chains, which was worn by Lady Gaga. The sari-gown, a hybrid style Mr. Tahiliani is widely credited with creating, is known for having fixed draping and elements like zippers.
Sari-gowns started to appear in the 1990s, and some purists have argued that their fixed construction is at odds with how saris are traditionally wrapped by hand around the body. There are more than 100 regional styles of hand draping across India, some of which “The Offbeat Sari” features in videos that show various ways a sari can be worn.
The most common draping style, Nivi, emerged in India in the mid-19th century. It involves wrapping a sari around the waist and across the torso, with the pallu hanging over the left shoulder. Saris worn this way are often paired with a choli, or cropped blouse.
Sumathi Ramaswamy, a history professor at Duke University who specializes in South Asian culture, described the Nivi style as “a product of Victorian ideas of modesty and respectability when the country was under British rule.” She added that elements like blouses and petticoats were adopted to hide a woman’s form.
Though often worn for special occasions, saris are a daily wardrobe staple for many people across India — including members of Gulabi Gang, a women’s rights group known for dressing in bright pink saris. (“Gulabi” means pink in Hindi.) Ms. Khanchandani included a sari belonging to the group’s founder, Sampat Pal, in the exhibition to highlight the garment’s role “as a symbol of female activism and resistance,” she said.
Ms. Khanchandani said that as India has modernized, its culture has remained patriarchal. And no matter the occasion or style, she said in an email, the sari “seems to represent an emerging countermovement and an important vehicle for female expression.”