Fashioning diaspora space
© Helen Scalway
Dress and personal decoration – hair, jewellery, make-up and body art – are important for self-expression. Dressing like others, according to tradition, or in a uniform can help people to conform and identify with a group; standing out and appearing different can also make a statement. The different styles of dress worn by people on public transport or on urban streets is an obvious sign of a place’s cultural diversity and the extent to which its citizens feel comfortable about what they can wear. Within communities, people can have very different views about what counts as modest or indecent, how to tie a turban or a sari, how tight or what length clothing should be, whether hair is better curled, straight or covered entirely, what label is cool, and when it is right to wear a tie.
Everyone is better at reading trends and variations in the culture they know best than in those they are less familiar with. Men’s suits can differ enormously in terms of colour, shape and length of trouser leg and jacket, side or back vents, number of buttons, single or double breasted, and width of collar, and variations in all these features may reveal things about the wearer’s profession, ethnic background, fashion-consciousness, age and life-style. Whether women cover their hair and how they do so is frequently used to express identity and to signify modesty, as well as for reasons of hygiene. Some Christian, Jewish and Muslim women choose to do so, but the fact that this may be a religious choice doesn’t mean that fashion and style are irrelevant. For example, there are regular fashion shows as well as hundreds of online stores selling modest clothing for Muslim women, some drawing deliberately on Western popular styles but others taking their inspiration from Islamic values or traditional cultures.
Britain’s dress, design and style have all been shaped by its minorities. Black Caribbean and Black American trends, for example, strongly influenced British popular culture, with hip-hop clothing and ‘bling’ – flashy, ostentatious jewellery – becoming normal street clothing for young people.
This process of ‘fashioning space’ was the focus of research by a team from Royal Holloway, University of London, and the V&A. They looked at the impact of South Asian textiles and patterns on British design and fashion in two periods, the 1880s and 2000s. With the establishment of the British East India Company at the beginning of the 17th century, trade in fabric as well as spices became important, with the British public becoming increasingly eager for Indian cotton, embroidery and floral chintzes. Paisley shawls from Kashmir and silk handkerchiefs became popular from the end of the 18th century. The Great Exhibition of 1851 exhibited a wide range of different fabrics, colours and designs that influenced British textiles and style, but without popularising Indian clothing.
19th and 21st century paisley patterns, with poster for a sari design competitionIn the 21st century Asian designers and textile producers continue to shape British fashion, through the traditional Asian sari shops, high street stores such as Monsoon and East, and the contemporary British Asian fashion emerging from British designers, like Liaqat Rasul and his Ghulam Sakina label. Global finance, communications and transportation have had an impact on sourcing, trading and manufacturing, and Britain’s relationship with India has changed since independence, but Indian patterns, fabrics, colours and styles have not lost their charm, nor the British their appetite for ‘Asian kool’.