Sunday, April 1, 2012

“Fashion provides one of the most ready means through which individuals can make expressive visual statements about their identities.” Bennett, A. (2005). Culture and Everyday Life. London: Sage p. 96.

Fashion enables people from a variety of backgrounds to express their culture through the way they dress. When migrating to a new country, fashion acts as a way to protect and maintain one’s cultural identity. As many people travel from one country to another, they gain access to information about the world beyond their home communities, places that are often seen from the outside as ethnic communities (Appadurai 1991). This essay aims to discuss the extent of the influences of ethnic Indian womenswear on British Indian women, and also how far it has acted as a representation of their cultural identity. Ethnic dress is best understood as those items, ensembles and modifications of the body that capture the past of the members of a group, the items of tradition that are worn and displayed to signify cultural heritage (Shils 1981). Thus, ethnic Indian womenswear refers to iconic items worn by Indian women such as saris. This essay will use the term ‘British Indian’ to describe those women who immigrated to the United Kingdom that have an Indian heritage, as well as the generations that followed who remained within the country. The essay will begin with a focus on the Indian flow of migration from East Africa. This essay will highlight three key influences that have had peaks and troughs in recent history: the climate, the working woman and the wearing of ethnic Indian womenswear for religious and cultural rites of passage.

Nevertheless, before these influences came into practices, a number of historical experiences existed that must be analysed and understood. During the nineteenth century, a vast number of Indians from Gujarat and the Punjab regions of northern India settled in the British colonies of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in East Africa. They had prospered there, and came to form the administrative and entrepreneurial middle class between the local Africans and the British ruling class. The Indian settlers were forced out of East Africa in the 1960s because of post-colonial Africanisation policies, (Bachu 1985) particularly in Uganda where the regime of Idi Amin discriminated against and expropriated Indian assets. The Indian migration flow to the UK was greatly increased by the migration of East African Asians after Idi Amin’s expulsion of the community in 1972, (Twaddle 1990). These instances were much less prevalent in Kenya and Tanzania, where the Indian diaspora continues to be a prominent part of the economy.

World fashion is ordinary dress or cosmopolitan fashion. (J.B. Eicher 1995). This includes basic outerwear such as trench coats and duffle coats, both of which have been staple items in the average ‘Western’ woman’s wardrobe. A key influence in the change of dress was the climate difference. Women of East Africa did not generally own or wear outerwear garments. The colder climate in Britain however meant that it was necessary to reform this idea. Therefore, on arrival to Britain, women began to purchase world fashion, thus making minor adjustments to their wardrobes for a purely functional purpose. In the present day, the elder generations of British Asian women chose to wear saris under their outerwear layers as Fig. 1 below shows. This personal photograph was taken in March 2012 of Sulochana Patel on a visit to Brighton; a woman who migrated from Kenya to the United Kingdom in the 1970s.

Fig. 1. My grandmother wears a traditional sari underneath her black cardigan.

The wearing of Western dress was associated with a society moving from a state of “primitivism” to one of “civilisation” (Darwin 1872; Dunlap 1928). With the wearing of world fashion being affiliated with urban living and the City working culture, British Indian women entered the world of professional work. Women started purchasing ‘Western’ formalwear and tailoring for the strict dress codes in the office environment. Figure 1 shows Sangita Myska in her work environment as a news presenter. The photograph shows her in western formalwear. It is assumed that Myska has been through ‘styling and wardrobe’ in order to present herself in this manner for broadcast journalism. However, it is unclear just from the photograph whether she is content with her choice of clothing.

Fig. 2 Sangita Myska

The generations of British born and educated women had an aspirational desire to be as ‘Western’ as possible, in line with history dictating the success of the prospering Western World. As a result, British Indian women of this new generation desired to have a complete disassociation with their ethnic culture and background. Traditional ethnic Indian womenswear almost disappeared in this working generation, along with other cultural identities such as vegetarianism, religions of India, (Hinduism and Sikhism), and abstinence. Ultimately, this showed how British Indian women attempted to maintain their traditional identity, whilst trying to conform to and adopt newer ones.

At present, the younger generations of British Asian women wear traditional Indian womenswear solely for special occasions and religious festivals in temples and gurudwaras. Marriage is central to the values of these societies, and still broadly arranged rather than individually contracted (Peach 2006). As a result, many Indian designer brands have begun to prosper on the relatively wealthy British Asian customer. An example of a designer that has thrived on this market is Manish Malhotra.
Fig 3. Manish Malhotra at Indian Couture Week 2009

The designer originally had a background in costume design; however he has successfully launched and produced collections under his independent namesake label Manish Malhotra. The brand is one of the few from India that have showcased during London Fashion Week, thus generating much interest in the United Kingdom since then.

A vast majority of the Indian designers have developed their brands to include a separate of collection of fusionwear – clothing that the new generation of women can wear which still maintain their traditional roots. An example of a brand that has developed in this way is Ritu Kumar.

Fig. 4. Label by Ritu Kumar Advertising Campaign.

I've written about Ritu Kumar before, click here to find out more about the brand. In 2002, the design house took the step of introducing LABEL by Ritu Kumar, a fashion forward sub brand, whilst still being faithful to Ritu Kumar. The LABEL by Ritu Kumar collection uses traditional Indian prints and dying methods on ‘Western’, revealing cuts on dresses and separates.

Having analysed and evaluated various factors, we can see that the emphasis on the above influences of ethnic Indian womenswear were interchangeable through time. Depending on various factors, such as the weather, individuals are malleable in that their fashion is transformed to reflect the implications of these factors. Some changes have been merely due to functionality, others for shifting cultural identity.

It is possible that the future generations will return to embrace their traditions, although, as this essay has demonstrated, a number of factors, both predictable and unforeseeable may hinder this.

However, it is just as likely that these generations will view ethnic Indian womenswear as just another short cycle trend. A growing emergence of designers influenced by ethnic Indian womenswear, e.g. Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel Pre-Fall 2012, can be seen as fuelling the latter theory. The designer used traditional Indian menswear in his womenswear collection for inspiration as well as accessorising the models with religiously inspired jewellery.

Fig. 4. Chanel Pre-Fall 2012


1. Appadurai, A. (1991), “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for Transnational Anthropology,” in R. Fox (ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, Santa Fe.

2. Bachu, P. (1985) Twice Migrants: East African Sikh Settlers in Britain. London: Tavistock Publishers.

3. Darwin, G. (1872) Development in Dress Macmillan’s Magazine, Vol. 26, pp. 410-16.

4. Dunlap, K. (1928), “The Development and Function of Clothing,” Journal of General Psychology, Vol. 1, pp. 64-78.

5. J.B. Eicher, B.Sumberg (1995) “World Fashion, Ethnic and National Dress” in J.B. Eicher (ed). Dress and Ethnicity, Oxford, Berg pp 295-306.

6. Peach, C. 'South Asian migration and settlement in Great Britain, 1951 - 2001, Contemporary South Asia, (normal) Vol. 15, No. 2, 2006, p. 133 - 146

7. Shils, E. (1981), Tradition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

8. Twaddle, M. (1996) ‘East African Asians through a hundred years’, in Colin Clarke, Ceri Peach and Steven Vertovec (eds), South Asians Overseas: Migration and Ethnicity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,), p. 54.

9. Manish Malhotra, Indian Couture Week 2009 -

10. Ritu Kumar, Advertising Campaign –

11. Sangita Myska, Asians In Media Magazine -

12. Chanel Pre-Fall 2012, The Wall Street Journal -

1 comment:

  1. riveting read! perhaps a follow up examining a diff. culture? i.e African dress?


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