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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58 Responses to “Turbans on the Runway: What does it mean for Sikhs?”

  1. jodha says:

    Great post brother!

    Always a topic here in The Langar Hall
    http://thelangarhall.com/general/raising-awarenes… (even when it was Sunny Cabarwal)
    http://thelangarhall.com/bhangra/circuit-bhangra-… (or on bhangra)

  2. nuanceishard says:

    pretty sure gaultier was going for the aesthetic, he seems like an artist and his clothes are definately aeathetically pleasing. seems like you take these things as zero sum….either the man wins or the marginalized and oppressed people win. team the man vs team marginalized oppressed peoples. but i do think it is a shame that turbans signify completely unintended things. sikhs should keep telling people what we are about….and turbans should be less about culture and more about religious practice imo. otherwise national dress is a common phenomenon in most countries and everywhere carries significance. some of those models might have had european ancestors who dressed similiarly. national dress should be a conversation on both sides but too often its a tug of war.

  3. Guri Singh says:

    Very well written. We are a short time away from Hollywood picking up a Sikh Actor or a Non-Sikh Actor playing a Sikh in mainstream media (prime time show). Gaultier with his models wearing a Turban is definitely going to bring +ive attention to us who wear Turbans.
    Will it make the life of a Taxi driver who wears a Turban, a bit better, not sure.
    However, it will make a Turban more acceptable to the eye. Instead of cloth on the head, people will know it is a Turban.
    If Gaultier's show taught ONE person the concept of Turban and they did some research then it is a win.

  4. alagarconniere says:

    amazing article. sharing it everywhere!

  5. Bhavinder says:

    Eye opener article……..

  6. [...] harmless through commodification. My fellow langa(w)r-iter, Brooklynwala, wrote an article not too long ago about this topic and even posted a video When the Coolie becomes Cool. I see [...]

  7. [...] Turbans on the Runway: What does it mean for Sikhs? by Sonny Singh Brooklynwala (July 10, 2012) [...]

  8. Leonicka.com says:

    [...] Turbans on the Runway: What does it mean for Sikhs? by Sonny Singh Brooklynwala (July 10th, [...]

  9. It is indeed a good article about Sikhs and the religious or cultural clothes they wear! Sometimes I have tried to see what would I look like if I were a Sikh and how the things around me would change? This idea influenced me to think that if someone is different in thought, manner and deed from a majority of people then either he/she is accepted as superior or ridiculed as inferior. Being an Indian I have seen both, it is common for people to make fun of Sikhs, like in jokes and fuel hatred against Muslims while consider Christians to be shameless and culture-less supporters of the west. Who is to be blamed for the image that had been made so long ago but now has vanished! I think it’s the narrow minded Indian cinema which painted the picture of a Sikh being a funny clown, a Muslim a terrorist and a Christian as a drunk, ethic-less, lawless element of society, who just indulges in smuggling and evil practices. All villains for 5 decades were PETER, MONA, and MICHEAL!!

  10. It is indeed a good article about Sikhs and the religious or cultural clothes they wear! Sometimes I have tried to see what would I look like if I were a Sikh and how the things around me would change? This idea influenced me to think that if someone is different in thought, manner and deed from a majority of people then either he/she is accepted as superior or ridiculed as inferior. Being an Indian I have seen both, it is common for people to make fun of Sikhs, like in jokes and fuel hatred against Muslims while consider Christians to be shameless and culture-less supporters of the west. Who is to be blamed for the image that had been made so long ago but now has vanished! I think it’s the narrow minded Indian cinema which painted the picture of a Sikh being a funny clown, a Muslim a terrorist and a Christian as a drunk, ethic-less, lawless element of society, who just indulges in smuggling and evil practices. All villains for 5 decades were PETER, MONA, and MICHEAL!!
    Then, there was religious hatred, fueled by many selfish people which led to insecurity among minorities in India for many years. I even remember as child (being a Christian), my family asking me not to wear a cross, so that we are not identified as Christians and thought to be different (though I never wore one as I am not religious but spiritual). I do not intend to drift away from the theme of the article but if there are so many non-Sikh guys who might like turbans, there are many Sikh boys who are rejecting it! So, what is going in their minds to rebel what has not been questioned for ages? People like things for a time, use them and then change for the next and better one; that is human nature (change is the law of nature). So, would this charm (of non-Sikhs with turban) live on for longer or not, that only time can tell, but for a true Sikh, a turban is not just a head gear or a fashion accessory, it’s an integral part of their spirituality which becomes a daily ritual (but how many of them, ever truly discover that?)!
    Wearing a turban should not be a superficial ritual for a Sikh but an emotional and personal decision, though, I am no one to explain or lecture anyone on this issue with my limited knowledge as a lay man.
    What I mean is that I have many Sikh friends and they are good looking gentlemen, many of those who think that cutting hair and not wearing turban could make them look cooler which I think is just an aesthetic myth! Sikh men look good with their turban, beard and cultural dresses. If we all were to look the same what difference lies in us and zebras? We should celebrate this non-uniformity and difference by embracing each other’s goods and eschewing our own evils. I am not a believer of organized religions and I think that instead of glamorizing the turban, a greater focus should be made on the spiritual value of it, “A Sikh wears a turban not because a Hollywood actor or French model wore it too, but because that is what distinguishes him from those who are not into Sikhi” and a bit contrary to the pervious line that I have written, real Sikh men should be in lead as Sikh actors, models etc. because that portrays the real beauty and talent and brings them on a equal platform to shaved men, like myself! LOL

  11. [...] Hall website, which describes itself as a “progressive Sikh blog”, American blogger Sonny Singh wrote: “I’m not saying that turbans cannot or should not be worn by non-Sikhs, but I am [...]

  12. [...] Hall website, which describes itself as a “progressive Sikh blog”, American blogger Sonny Singh wrote: “I’m not saying that turbans cannot or should not be worn by non-Sikhs, but I am [...]

  13. [...] Hall website, which describes itself as a “progressive Sikh blog”, American blogger Sonny Singh wrote: “I’m not saying that turbans cannot or should not be worn by non-Sikhs, but I am [...]

  14. [...] Hall website, that describes itself as a “progressive Sikh blog”, American blogger Sonny Singh wrote: “I’m not observant that turbans can't or should not be ragged by non-Sikhs, yet we am [...]

  15. Ami says:

    I think this is good for Sikhs (I am not Sikh) in that it will bring positive attention. The overall look is beautiful , not distasteful. I just hope people don't take it too far and try to profit off turbans or other garments.

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