The insidious racism in South Asian fashion appropriation.

Decades of observation suggest that the South Asian community is arguably very forgiving of cultural (including fashion) appropriation in a western context. When a white person reflects an interest in Indian, Pakistani, or Bengali culture in shape of food, attire, or cultural practices, this is often framed as a positive representation of multiculture, both received and supported by some members in the community.

I have noted such receptions often emerging from the subconsciously colonially compliant older generations who still hold colonial memory and associated attitudes towards whiteness. However, such attitudes can also be detected in younger generations. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I remember feeling great pride in sharing aspects of my cultural heritage with white friends. These feelings were amplified when white friends showed an interest in traditional clothing from the sub continent and opted to wear special prints or requested assistance in sourcing their first sari or shalwar kameez. On reflection, it was somewhat ironic that I was happy to share these facets to my cultural heritage while feeling secretly embarrassed to express these very facets in my own public practices and fashion.

Growing up, I remember avoiding wearing shalwar kameez in public through fear of being stared at or being called a ‘paki’. Thatcher’s Britain was racially unkind. However, interested white friends seemed to have an unspoken licence to dress how they wanted, including a sari or shalwar kameez and this would be received as ‘bohemian’ or ‘alternative’. I never thought too deeply about this paradox at the time, but I do now.

Elders from the community would encourage such interactions and see it as a positive sign of multicultural mixing. However, in retrospect, I wonder how much of this tied in with seeing white interest as an acceptance of the culture that these communities were holding on to so dearly, and perhaps to some degree a representation of colonisers from the time of ‘The Raj’ who adopted the hindi language and some of the customs and cultures of India to enable effective imperialism. Was contemporary interest really just a form of validation that these communities were still seeking from within whiteness structures?

As time went on, I noticed a visible thrust of subcontinental customs, cultures, and fashion in popular western culture. Be it through popular music, Iggy Azalea – Bounce music video is a good example of this. Or through the emergence of fashion chains such as Monsoon in England, where the majority of appropriated clothes merchandise was produced in India, and repackaged for a middle class white female audience. The embroideries and bead work of India was suddenly palpable to the white palette. Curry had officially become Britain’s national dish. However, I couldn’t help but reflect on the numerous times when the music has been mimicked in stereotypical indian accents, or the clothes have been mocked when worn by brown women, sometimes leading to racial slurs and hate speech – or the way curry had been framed as pungent and commented on if the scent of fried onions still lingered on a brown person’s clothes. Was it that sub continental culture and food needed a white lens and appropriation to be trendy and acceptable? That if it remained with the brown people it belonged to, it wouldn’t carry the same trendy vibes and acceptability?

Some years ago I noticed a rise in longer tunics and trousers in England. During this time there was a parallel fashion trend occurring in Pakistan which included similar. The shalwar was being supplemented with trousers for the trendier brown woman. A throw back to the old skool ‘pyjama’ (yes an English word adopted from Hindi, a legacy of Empire).

However, adopting the English version as a brown woman would still open you up to the same looks that our mothers would have endured in the 60s, 70s, and 80s when wearing the more traditional form of the dress. A paradox I experienced first hand one day in Surrey, England. Dressed in a long t-shirt tunic that I had bought from New Look, and a pair of skinny jeans from River Island, I went about my day. I received an unprecedented number of glares, and stares. All silently communicating that my very presence was unacceptable. That I had not ‘assimilated’ and I was not adhering to ‘British values’. I felt deeply uncomfortable and even considered buying a new outfit and changing in a changing room. I didn’t, but I came close. In that same trip, I encountered at least 5 white women of different ages wearing similar, they blended seamlessly, silently celebrated for their ‘bohemian’ nature.

The experience highlighted that my culture had not only been appropriated but been colonised and repackaged for exclusive use by white women only. The same outfit on a brown body was offensive but on a white body, acceptable and the norm. 

Cultural appropriation was no longer an appropriation, it was owned. Just like yoga by the leisure centre class schedule, curry sauces by Lloyd Grossman, and music by mainstream western artists. People from the culture were not the teachers anymore, they were the imposters – and any expression of such culture by the brown bodies whose ancestors had originated them was a slight to “British Values”. This example of appropriation and racism is perhaps an example of the very white privilege now discussed in the mainstream.

I remain apprehensive about expressing this cultural aspect to my identity in public spaces because of the sheer discomfort and fear of hate speech that accompanies it. I remain silently expressive, in the home, amidst family … in safe spaces where expression will be appreciated rather than bring harsh judgement. While I perpetrate this strange omission in my public persona, I watch from afar, with envy, the white woman who wears the uber comfortable linen long tunic and trouser suit on a hot summers day, cool and modest, perhaps blissfully subconscious of her appropriation of the very culture I am rooted in but can not visibly express.