'It’s very easy to sell your soul and be whatever people want you to be. Many people have done that, and you pay a very high price. It’s a very high price psychologically.’
This is one thing Parminder Bhachu, author of Dangerous Designs: Asian Women Fashion the Diaspora Economies, has to say on the topic of ‘ethnic assertion.’ She believes that one of the main reasons behind Asian fashion, food, music and other forms of culture gaining global popularity is the generations of immigrants who struggled and, more importantly, chose to stand up for their own unique culture and customs despite the consequences.
Throughout her book are examples of this, including how when Indians first started moving to the UK in the 1960s, Asian clothes were negatively perceived by the locals. ‘People said that they looked like pajamas and Indian food was also looked down upon,’ she told me. But in terms of the latter, ‘now it’s become the dominant meal of Britain; it has overturned roast beef. It’s about the mainstreaming of Asian cultural forms.’
Bhachu believes that for this phenomenon to occur—that is, for aspects of Asian culture to begin gaining widespread popularity or at least positive interest from locals—micro-markets need to be a key a facilitator. She cites the example of the rise in popularity of the traditional Punjabi suit worn by women, the salwar (or shalwar) kameez, which started off being worn in England and now influences even international high-fashion runways. This, Bhachu believes, was something that started to gain momentum through micromarketing by second generation Indian immigrants in Britain.
‘The turning point in Britain was the 1990s and it didn’t just happen suddenly. The Asian presence was old, but there wasn’t a critical mass until then,’ she explains. It was a process that also initially involved immigrants making sure their children kept certain traditions alive. Back then it was those children (daughters in this case) who found that traditional attire they’d grown up with, like the salwar kameez, was ‘very amenable to fashion trends…the “Laura Ashley style,” the punky style, they can all be incorporated very rapidly. It’s very flexible. The three pieces can be worn in a very fashion focused kind of way.’
She went on to describe how these women reinvented the traditional garb, adding elements of contemporary fashion to it to make it work within their setting and time before creating small markets in which they attracted the attention of locals, who were more drawn to these ‘relatable’ incarnations.
And behind it all were the parents, who refused to lay low when faced with criticism and ridicule and who therefore laid the foundations for their children.
Queen No, Princess Yes?
‘Can you imagine the queen wearing an Asian dress form in the 1960s? It’s impossible to imagine, isn’t it?’
Even today, it might not be that easy to imagine the Queen of England biting into a samosa. But Bhashu explained that in stark contrast to earlier generations, prominent British women such as the late Princess Diana or the Duchess of York both wore the salwar kameez, even to major public events. ‘It happened in the 1990s because it was a reflection of the changing climate,’ Baschu explains. ‘It’s when the British Asians were saying “We are British…but.” And that’s reflected in the food, the music the fashion, the market. And Diana was as much a product of that time and therefore wore it.’
As for the kind of trends she foresees for the future, Bhashu believes that with India and China in particular now being ‘very strong economies in the current millennium…that they’re going to make a difference in the sense that there’s an enormous interest that is different from even the 1990s.’
And, she says, while the interest currently may be in things like China’s economic prowess or India’s IT industry, ‘that interest will be reflected within this next decade beyond the commodities with a stronger cultural influence.’ She believes that these kinds of cultural influences are also going to be backed by powerful economies and powerful political entities with a force that wasn’t around before.
I’ll be touching on the exercise of soft power again in the near future, when I cover China and its Confucius Institutes.