Turbans on the Runway: What does it mean for Sikhs?

By now, you have surely been inundated with Facebook posts and discussions expressing excitement, amazement, or maybe skepticism about French designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s recent showcase of (non-Sikh) models wearing colorful “Sikh-style” turbans.

Gaultier has a thing for India, it seems. According to a recent news article, “The designer is known to visit the country quite often and owns a vast library of intensely coloured textile swatches here since his first visit to Kolkata in West Bengal and Puri in Orissa, in the 1970s.” In a recent interview, Gaultier said, “In every collection I have done, there is always an Indian inspiration.”

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been fascinated by the buzz about the turbaned models in Sikh circles and have been trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it and if I have anything useful to contribute to the conversation. I can’t promise this will be useful, but here are some thoughts and questions that have been swirling around in my head lately.

First, there is obviously a lot of excitement about this in the Sikh community. And perhaps with good reason. So rarely are we Sikhs represented positively (if at all) in popular culture in the United States (or in India) that even non-Sikh models wearing paghs on the runway seems like a milestone. So often are our turbans the target of discrimination, profiling, and violence that seeing turbans portrayed as aesthetic objects of high fashion feels like redemption.

We Sikh men are not used to being seen as attractive or desirable through the lens of mass media. In Bollywood we are buffoons, in Hollywood we are nonexistent, save the English Patient and the occasional shoutout Waris Ahluwalia gets in the press. So yes, there is something amazing about seeing these models rocking turbans like they are the hottest accessories imaginable, when we, for so long, have received little to no positive reinforcement from the mainstream.

But is any of this actually good for Sikhs in any concrete way? Has the appropriation of an article of a marginalized culture or faith by the mainstream fashion industry ever been good for the community from whom it was taken? More specifically, do Gaultier’s turbaned models change or even begin to challenge the reality of racism our community faces?

Let’s look to a parallel example to help assess these questions. Remember when the keffiyeh became the hippest “new” fashion accessory several years back? The keffiyeh, traditionally an Arab scarf or headdress, became omnipresent on the streets of NYC as well as other fashion-forward cities like Paris, available to purchase as an “anti-war scarf” at your local Urban Outfitters. Zionist zealots eventually made a big fuss about the keffiyeh’s rise to the mainstream (keffiyeh = terrorism), pressuring Urban Outfitters to take them off the shelves and even getting Dunkin’ Donuts to pull an ad featuring celebrity chef Rachel Ray wearing a checkered scarf.

Despite the uproar from a vocal and powerful few about the keffiyeh, I think it is safe to say that the keffiyeh trend didn’t change the bleak reality of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism in America and beyond (not to mention the bleak reality of apartheid for Palestinians). In fact, there is much evidence that Islamophobia has only been on the rise in the last several years. Wearing a keffiyeh on the streets of Paris makes you cool, but wearing a niqab will get you arrested. A Brooklyn hipster wearing a keffiyeh looks edgy, but a Muslim wearing a skullcap looks suspicious (and thus his mosque will be spied on by the NYPD). A Muslim wearing a hijab might even be beaten to death.

Is wearing a keffiyeh still cool if you are an Arab or Muslim? Has this fashion trend improved your life, given you any relief from the daily humiliation of rampant Islamophobia?

Now that turbans are all the rage in the fashion world, will people think I’m cooler now in my turban, when it also comes with a long beard and brown skin? What about the immigrant Sikh taxi-driver who speaks English with a strong Punjabi accent? Will he get taunted less by his drunken passengers on the night shift? Will either of us get called “Osama” less when we walk down the street? Would Gaultier’s show have been as cutting edge and received as much positive attention in the fashion world if we were the ones walking down his runway?

If Gaultier had featured Sikh models wearing turbans, I think this would be a different discussion. I’m not saying that turbans cannot or should not be worn by non-Sikhs, but I am saying that it means something very different for a practicing Sikh to be in the spotlight of the fashion world (Sonny Caberwal’s Kenneth Cole ad comes to mind) than for a bunch of (mostly) white guys to put on turbans to provide exotic flair to their outfits.

The thing about cultural appropriation is that the appropriator does not have to face the same consequences that we do for practicing our culture or faith. For them, it is an accessory that can be taken on or off at will, while for us, it is a way of life. I’m not saying cultural or religious garb or practices should not be shared. Culture never exists in a vacuum and is never pure, nor should it be. It is ever-changing, evolving, growing. But in a society where immigrants and communities of color are marginalized at every level, we can’t pretend that power relations do not exist when we have this conversation about appropriation. Sharing and exchanging cultural and spiritual practices is great, but it gets more complicated when we’re not all on equal footing. It gets more complicated when meaningful things are taken, commodified, and exploited for a profit, with little respect shown to the community they were taken from. This is a much bigger conversation than Jean Paul Gaultier’s turbans on the runway, to be sure, but perhaps we can use his turbans as an opportunity to begin (or continue, as the case may be) the conversation in the Sikh community.

On that note, I thought it would be appropriate for us to join larger conversation happening amongst Asian Americans about cultural appropriation by sharing this short film made by a group of students at UC Berkeley years ago called Yellow Apparel: When the Coolie becomes Cool. We are far from the first community to face these questions and will certainly not be the last.


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