Turban fashion or faux pas?

When I ask him if it’s limiting his swag, he objects: “Darling, a turban goes with everything. It’s an important part of me – yet it doesn’t restrict or limit me or even enhance. It’s a reminder of the values my family and religion taught me. It inherently doesn’t make me more religious or spiritual – it’s just fabric.”

— Natalie Joos, on the blog Tales of Endearment, writes a feature on New York’s Waris Ahluwalia, in which he comments on the role of his turban in his life.

It has been an interesting few days for turbanophilic fashion followers. Earlier this week in Paris, French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier presented his turban-inspired fashion line that has garnered a lot of attention in Sikh circles (see the full collection here). I’ve warily been trying to determine whether the use of the Sikh turban – an object on which Sikhs are often discriminated against – and the attention received have been a good thing.

It is ironic that a French designer would use the turban to promote his fashion line while the turban has been banned in France for official pictures and in state-run schools.  However, in his interview with the Daily Mail, Gaultier attributes his use of the turban to his “Indian inspiration” rather than to any protest against the French government’s ban on the Sikh head-covering.

The addition of turbans on bearded (and presumably, non-Sikh) models to exhibit this fashion line (which to me appears all-too-reminiscent of  the flashy, baggy pants fashion from the 1990s) seems somewhat random. In combination with the avante garde style of the clothes, the use of the turban may be more for garnering attention than a true expression fashion.

Further, the practice of having non-Sikhs dressed up as Sikhs with a turban and beard is  suggestive of “Sikh-face“, and it gives me pause when Sikhs are quick to celebrate a non-Sikh’s use of the Sikh turban for purposes other than what it is intended.

At the same time, I am also not disagreeable to the idea that presenting the turban in different capacities is also beneficial.

Gaultier’s presentation of the turban brings it into the public sphere using a context outside of the stereotype that associates the turban with terrorism. The use of the turban in this fashion line makes the viewer see it in a whole different way and demystifies this Sikh article of faith.  As Waris Ahluwalia would put it, “it’s just fabric”.

Of course, physically, the turban is just fabric. It is an article of clothing for many cultures, but for Sikhs, it is a mandated article of faith. The Sikh turban is so sacred as an article of the Sikh religion, Sikh boys go through a ceremony when their first turban is tied called the dastaar-bandhi ceremony that is a rite of passage.

In essence, for over 300 years, the Sikh turban has represented equality, dignity and discipline. Sikhs adopted the turban to cover their uncut hair in a time when only the higher classes and royalty would wear such a head-covering; for Sikhs, that everyone would wear the turban was an expression that all are equal and that there was no high or low. And today, as the evolution of the Sikh turban has yielded a variety of styles, Sikhs still hold dear the values and meaning behind the turban therein.

As such, I always struggle with the use of the Sikh turban in fashion and by those who do not hold Sikh values. Stripped of its religious meaning and used as a commodity in fashion and (Bollywood) movies, perhaps it does bring the turban to an audience that is not familiar, and it opens a door to our world.  But, is there an expense to opening that door in this manner?

I have lingering doubts.


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