British Asian Style: Fashion and Textiles/ Past and Present was first published in 2010 by the V and A. This book predates The Fabric of India exhibition and the publication of Muslin by Sonia Ashmore, though comes after the museum’s publication of Textiles and Dress of Gujarat by Eiluned Edwards.
Considering the V and A’s galleries heavily feature Asian art and textiles there is a relatively small amount published by them on this topic, however the publication of British Asian Style seeks to rectify this ‘This book is the first to consider the ways in which these intertwined (Asian and British) histories…have contributed to a vibrant and under-represented aspect of Britain’s cultural heritage and contemporary creative environment…we hope it inspires all those with an interest in a centuries old story of exchange, travel competition and creativity.’ (P.9)
The editors have chosen to examine these ‘intertwined histories’ with a diverse collection of essays, including photo-essays, focusing on the relationship of Asian (primarily Indian) and British fashions, textiles and culture, from the time of the British Raj to the modern day. The essays are written by a range of academics from fields of fashion, anthropology and cultural geography. The writers come from a mix of British and Asian backgrounds, and backing is provided by the Diasporas, Migration and Identity Programme as well as the Arts and Humanities council. An array of sources are used across the essays including interviews, entries into Bridging Arts’ British Sari Story project, photographs from the museum’s collection as well as fashion photography and paintings.
Aimed at the museum-going public, the book assumes the reader has knowledge of history, religion and social customs, as well as life in modern day, urban Britain and its subcultures. Since it was published by a British museum it’s aimed at people living in a post-colonial and increasingly multicultural society. Using fashion and textiles as a framing device it examines the relationship between Britain and Asia in a largely positive way, using examples of successful Asian fashion businesses as well as interviewing sources who treat cross-cultural borrowing or appropriation with humour or pleasure and have generally had positive responses to their Asian or mixed modes of dress.
The book is laid out in three sections: Textiles, Styles and Spaces. Textiles aims to ‘establish the material threads that have bound Britain to India and Pakistan’ (P.9). This is carried out rather neatly, with essays tracing the roots of the British trade with India in Chintz, through to Indian styles serving as an inspiration to the modern British high street and the British Sari Story Project.
In looking at the history of the two countries it glosses over the importance of dress in Gandhi’s protest movement. This was something The Fabric of India exhibition did examine. It also fails to mention as a result of the Industrial Revolution the British market was producing cloth and shawls in Indian styles on their own shores, thus damaging the Indian economy. What is focused on is the British bohemian enthusiasm with certain Indian crafts, demonstrating how these practises might have died out if not for this interest. This paints a rather rose tinted view of the history of British and Indian trade.
Styles is the largest section and contains seven essays, which examine fashion and how it has been adapted and appropriated by different groups, from western bohemians to modern day British Muslims. There are some essays which focus on men’s fashion, however the overall focus is women’s fashion as well as women’s religious dress. Apart from the photo essays the turban is overlooked, while veiling and modest dress is examined in detail, perhaps because it has become a hot topic in recent years.
Generally, the tone of the essays is positive, telling the reader how in the past Asian communities had to try and assimilate due to prejudice but now happily dress in styles reflective of their religion and cultures, many marrying elements of both British and Asian cultures as they feel they belong to both. No mention is made of the rise in Islamophobic attacks on women wearing hijabs or attempts to ban Islamic modes of dress, and the view that veiling is oppressive to women is not discussed.
The last section focuses on space; how Asian fashion and textiles has been curated and sold in the UK. Each essay uses a variety of sources from interviews to historical texts, the aim to ‘investigate the enduring presence of south Asian textiles in British shops and in the museum itself, reminding of the ubiquity of British culture.’ (P.9). By referencing high street stores and using modern photographs as well as charting the exhibition of Indian textiles in British museums the book demonstrates how closely intertwined the cultures are but also queries whether British culture has romanticised India.
The book’s wide range of essays means it skims the surface of a wide range of topics without delving too deep. It doesn’t draw many negative conclusions and overlooks modern racism, controversies surrounding Islamic dress, the negative effects of colonialism, and Gandhi’s movement, all of which could have formed interesting essays.
However, the introduction states that it wants to ‘inspire interest’ and by keeping a generally positive tone, and accompanying the text with plenty of colour pictures it certainly does this. Since it is published by a museum, part of its purpose is to encourage visitors to the museum, and considering it predates the hugely successful The Fabric of India exhibition, it can be assumed it was successful in doing this. This allowed further examination of Indian textiles and also looked at India’s relationship with Britain. With an upcoming exhibition next year focusing on another aspect of Britain and India’s cultural exchange (Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London) we can hopefully assume the V and A is keen to continue the discourse on Britain and Asia which it intended to ‘inspire’ six years ago with the publication of this book.
Breward, C., Crang, P. and Crill, R. eds., 2014, British Asian Style: Fashion and Textiles/ Past and Present, 5th Edition, London, V and A Publishing
Bryant, J., 2016, The William Morris of India, V&A Magazine, Autumn/Winter, p67-73
The Fabric of India, October 2015-January 2016, exhibition, The V and A Museum, London
Alam, F. 2005, We Must Move Beyond The Hijab, The Guardian, 29th November 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/nov/29/highereducation.uk, 16th October 2016
Alibhai-Brown, Y. 2014, Refusing the Veil, London, Biteback Publishing