My grandmother wore her best sari to her first day at work at the AT&T call center. Her boss took her aside that morning and said if she did not show up the next day in professional clothing, he would fire her.
It was the 1960s. She had just immigrated to the U.S., and the only other South Asian in her town was my grandfather.
Still, North Americans often label South Asian attire as “ethnic” clothing and lump it together with traditional wear from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They see people who wear ethnic clothing as un-Western, or un-American.
Recently, South Asians and other immigrants of color have pushed against this and try to incorporate ethnic wear into everyday use. Inspired by South Asian American influencers such as Deepica Mutyala, I use color schemes and patterns from South Asian textiles in outfits I piece together.
South Asian New York Fashion Week (SANYFW), which ran from September 8th to 16th, put the spotlight on South Asian attire within the established fashion industry.
At the South Asian New York Fashion Week runway
Co-founders Shipra Sharma and Hetal Patel sought to create a space to celebrate South Asian fashion. Sharma says that South Asian fashion is often appropriated and unacknowledged. She points out a style of prom dresses that became popular a few years ago designed as a floor-length skirt and sequined top — a near copy of South Asian lehengas.
Situated in Chelsea Factory, SANYFW felt more like a wedding or a family reunion. The show twisted the common components of a typical New York Fashion Week show with Desi flair.
The attendees, press, and volunteers were majority South Asian. Boisterous conversations between strangers often filled the room, leaving a hum of Urdu, Hindi, and many other languages besides English. In the background, a DJ played Bollywood hits and Desi pop from across the diaspora.
Behind the curtains, designers and models frantically prepared for the runway. Last minute changes and nervous energy are to be expected from any fashion show. To the audience, the show went without error.
Margi Official’s designs, inspired by Netflix show Bridgerton, reminded us that British fashion stole from its colonial subjects. Her two-piece sequined ball gowns, many complete with gloves, drew influence from lehengas and South Asian embellishment practices. They demonstrated how much of Western formal attire holds much of its roots in the South Asian subcontinent.
The gesture to Bridgerton, known for casting people of color in historically white roles, symbolically advocates for more South Asian inclusion in the fashion industry. The clothing line plays within the frame of Western fashion, showing that South Asians can meet white, Western beauty standards. Designers like Rivesse chose to engage less with Western fashion and uplift South Asian beauty in its own right.
Almost any audience member could find themselves wearing the clothing on the runway, regardless of their body type, ethnicity, height, or age. The selection of the models placed people from marginalized communities across the diaspora, such as Indo Guyanese folks, into the clothing. There was even a range of several decades between the youngest and oldest model.
As I stood there, I felt so much pride in our culture. I wished I could share the experience with my grandmother, and with South Asians everywhere.
Fashion, but not for everyone
But there is a problem. For South Asian fashion to be regarded as “high fashion,” that experience cannot be shared with everyone.
Fashion codes who people are. What people wear tells us so much about them, because so much social information is woven into our clothes. Think “blue means baby boy” or even the phrase “white collar workers.”
High fashion marks the upper class. The elite class manufactures exclusivity to identify each other and suppress a rising middle class from joining them, according to scholars.
If we want to be able to wear saris to work or kurtas to dates, our clothes need to get the widespread stamp of approval as fashion, not ethnic wear. With its entrance into New York Fashion Week, South Asian attire has earned that label. But by doing so, it has adopted a certain level of exclusivity. Invite-only VIP events, exorbitant ticket prices, and pressure for attendees to dress expensively at SANYFW serve as a few examples of how that exclusivity manifested.
But if the show were more accessible, would the clothing on the runway still be high fashion?
Even if South Asian styles become high fashion, elites could use it as a marker of class. Then, our own clothing could become a wedge to divide South Asian against each other along class lines.
The problem is one of timing: South Asian designers and South Asian fashion will not be viewed as valuable outside of the subcontinent until they receive elite cultural recognition. But the process of getting this recognition inherently excludes a large part of our community.
SANYFW has chosen to be exclusive, and that decision has allowed them to break barriers. After becoming established, hopefully they will turn their heads outwards to uplift the rest of the community and share the experience of having pride in fashion with folks like my grandmother.
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