Countless fashion mainstays are derived from the rich heritage of the Subcontinent but rarely does indigenous craftsmanship get international credit. Instep examines.
Given how gentrified fashion and style have become in our current society, sometimes it’s hard to recognise or recall the countless contributions to international fashion that the subcontinent has made, and continues to make, without ever receiving credit for it. From the time of the British Raj when the colonial rule usurped our produce and resources, claiming them as their own, the reclamation of our heritage and culture has been an uphill battle most colonised countries still struggle with.
While the fashion industry itself is hardly an innocent bystander of the capitalist system of governance, it has long been used to denigrate the black, indigenous and people of colour communities, while simultaneously appropriating their customs and styles for the oppressor’s benefit. The effects of these policies still reverberate throughout third world nations, visible in colourism, exaltation of Caucasian features, the obsession with light, straight hair and a preference for Western style ideals, irrespective of whether they’re suitable for the country climes or not.
For generations, these acts of violence carried out against indigenous population meant a corrosion of identity and cultural pride; it shaped the beauty narrative in likeness of the colonial masters and it is only now, through social media and collective conversations among countries previously colonized, that these reprehensible acts are being called out. Though their legacy is old, what helps dismantling these structures is an accurate understanding of history.
Soft, gauze-y cotton has a history, brutal and bloody, with the British in control of production on both ends of the globe (African-American slavery in the confederate south and cotton gins in Bengal). The ubiquitous material, that is perhaps as important to the fashion industry as wheat/rice are to agriculture, in all its prints, patterns and dyes, owes much to the subcontinent that has been long forgotten. If you look up the entomology of the word “chints” which describes a painted calico cloth, you’ll find that it is derived from the Hindi word chhint, which means splattering. Sindh’s famous ajrak print has found itself on bikinis sold by UK retailer Asos and our bridal teekas and jhumars have been rebranded as hair chandeliers by fast fashion companies like Forever 21.
While some may argue that the conversation regarding appropriation is moot because style cannot be claimed by any one community, it is important to remember that this isn’t just style shared among equals, it is an asymmetrical dynamic where people of colour are penalised or looked down up for having/using the same items. Take our humble Peshawari chappal for example. Till perhaps Paul Smith put them on the international style map, the local footwear didn’t necessarily have a fashionable following. Infact, some of its more exuberant iterations were shunned as being tacky (the gold/silver thread embroidered Charsadda chappal) until almost 2005. After global exposure though, the chappal has once again been included on sartorial wish lists and its heritage jealously, possessively guarded by subcontinent aficionados online. Case in point, the new Acne Studio iteration that is described as crossover leather sandals retailing for $330, now states online that it is inspired by the Peshawari chappal. A local manufacturer, Markhor, with a business model based on hand-made leather footwear that also features modern, androgynous updates to the traditional footwear, successfully campaigned for acknowledgement and recognition with the luxury label.
There are countless other examples dotted through fashion history that pay no homage to the original creators of the craft while continuing to benefit from it but the movement to reclaim indigenous identity has managed to make leaps and bounds in corrective measures. While it may not be much more than tokenism and performative reform, multinational conglomerates like Unilever have decided to remove colourism terms like “whitening”, “fairness” and “lightening” from various products. While the deeper politics of this move are fraught with calls of too little too late, it is important to acknowledge that dialogue has a powerful impact on what we consider fashionable or not. And the verdict on most colonial hang-over practices and legacies is that they must be dismantled.
These are indeed turbulent times with old power structures being questioned and asked for accountability, old wrongs acknowledged or corrected and for indigenous people, it is a long awaited moment of reckoning for the traumas inflicted and perpetuated by colonisation. We can only hope that the country emerges from this time with a stronger sense of culture, heritage and identity and pride in our own aesthetics, complexions and crafts.