East x West: Reflecting Identity in Fashion

// by Syeda Maah-Noor Ali //

Identity is unique. What one defines as their identity is even more unique. It’s different for everyone.

Some may choose to embrace one aspect of their identity and leave the other blank, but that’s the thing – it’s entirely up to the person. It’s individual. Similarly, fashion is distinctive. But one can be used to reflect the other, and that’s where it becomes interesting.

In the ’60s when a large number of south Asians first came to England, many of them tried to shrug off the physical signs of the country they had moved from. For most, the reason was racism. They couldn’t wear their beautiful bright shawls or their embroidered Khussay (traditional leather footwear), unless they covered them up, without the fear of being subjected to hate crimes.

Colonialism is now ‘rid of’, but the effects in countries like Pakistan are still present: an infatuation with fairness creams; the want to be like and dress like the West; the booming trades in British franchise stores. But when you’re here, in England, you try to grapple with anything you can in a bid to hold on to every thread that links you to your cultural heritage. There’s an element of fear, associated with losing it or becoming too detached from it. I find clothing – alongside visiting frequently and speaking the language with my dad and grandmother – is one of the things that keeps me connected.

Some may choose to embrace one aspect of their identity and leave the other blank, but that’s the thing – it’s entirely up to the person.

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On a daily, I’ll wear ‘western’ clothes, jeans and a jacket, but on top of my standard outfit I might wear gold bangles, or a hand crafted Multani Chaddar (traditional embroidered shawl from Multan – City of Saints), to ward off the cold. That’s a thing this generation is good at – projecting out intertwined culture in our fashion. It’s an identity thing, it’s how we feel out clothing represents us best as people.

When my Pathan grandfather came to England as a young man in the navy, he didn’t ‘look’ foreign enough and so wasn’t subjected to as much racist abuse, which is one of the saddest things I’ve heard as it just proves how ignorant racism actually is. Similarly, when my grandmother later came, with her naturally blond hair, green eyes, and very fair skin she was also not subjected to racism. However, my grandmother still wore the traditional shalwar kameez or sarees – it was her way of not forgetting her roots, but the cold British weather meant they were covered up with jackets and coats – again, alongside the colour of her skin, saving her.

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Writer’s grandfather, pictured in 1965

You see, expressing one’s identity through the medium of fashion is a right, a right many were deprived of. Thankfully it is easier to wear what you please in today’s environment. Yes, people do still have some issues with this (especially with Muslim women and their headscarves) but overall it is easier to walk out the door with a set of kolapuri (traditional Indian leather sandals) – without being asked why you’re wearing ‘ugly slippers’ outside. Instead they might now be called rather trendy?

The thing is, I want my clothing to represent me. A mother born and bred in England and a father born and bred in Pakistan, and myself, always between both places. I might wear Jhumkas (heavy embellished earrings) with a plain top and sweatpants. I want the way I dress to represent me as a person, which is inevitably me trying to make my clothes showcase what I believe to be my identity.

That’s a thing this generation is good at – projecting out intertwined culture in our fashion.

At parties or weddings here in England, it’s always nice to see the Pakistani community come out full force in traditional wear, not seeing it everyday on such a scale, it can be argued, makes it that more special. On a daily, its more so working with the surroundings and adding our own mix to it, unapologetically. Fashion is a great way to do this.

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Finding equilibrium between two places is hard. England and Pakistan. Birthplace and ethnic heritage. How do I strike the balance? I’ve realized something, as a diaspora child I don’t need to strike the balance, instead – the balance strikes me. I’m allowed to wear what is appropriate, when it’s appropriate. I don’t need to apologize for the henna on my hands or my gold anklet, because they’re a part of who I am – how I want you to see me and how I see myself.

(N.B.: These are all personal opinions and things I have heard and spoken to others about – if you disagree, that’s fine as this is not telling the story or thoughts of everyone in a similar situation to mine.)

Featured images:

https://www.jaypore.com/antique-silver-golden-naqqashi-granulated-jhumkas-925-sterling-p18251?eventId=502

Cover photo: Instagram @madah_j

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