Book Review: British Asian Style

British Asian Style: Fashion & Textiles/Past & Present

by Christopher Breward (Editor), Philip Crang (Editor), Rosemary Crill (Editor)

V & A Publishing (November 1, 2010)

Review From Rachel Morris Tu

Rachel Morris Tu has written several papers on dress in relation to national identity and the immigrant experience. Her published works include, “Dressing the Nation: Indian Cinema Costume and the Making of a National Fashion, 1947-1957” in Fabric of Cultures (Routledge, 2009), “Stories Underfoot: Recreating a Filipino American Identity” in Proceedings from the Textile Society of America (2006) and “Enter the Royal Encampment: Reexamining the Brooklyn Museum’s Kalamkari Hanging” in Arts of Asia (Nov/Dec 2004). She is currently researching the work of American fashion designer Carolyn Schnurer.

From the establishment of the British East India Company in 1600, to now when significant waves of South Asian immigrants are settling in Britain, the histories and cultures of India and Britain have long been intertwined. As such, over the last four centuries, sartorial ideas of self and nation in both countries (and beyond) have been greatly informed by their dynamic relationship with each other.

British Asian Style: Fashion & Textiles/Past and Present, edited by Christopher Breward, Philip Crang and Rosemary Crill, examines the historic interplay between Britain and South Asia and is the latest in a short list of scholarly publications that investigate the impact of cultural exchange on local and global fashion.[1] British Asian Style is the result of a collaborative project, entitled “Fashioning Diaspora Spaces,” in which scholars from the V&A and the Geography Department at Royal Halloway, University of London, collaborated on research, and organize events and discussions around the topic of British Asian fashion and identity.[2] The essays are thus drawn from several disciplines, which highlight the strengths of these two institutions, including fashion and textile history, cultural geography and ethnography, visual arts and photography. Overall the essays are short, clear and full of pictorial references, making the book a delightful resource to scholars, designers and enthusiasts of fashion alike.

In the context of Britain, it should be stated that the term “Asian” generally refers to those of South Asian descent, or more precisely those from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While other Asian immigrants are certainly represented in the United Kingdom, South Asians making up 3.9 percent of the population or more than 2.3 million people. Representing more than half of the non-white population demographic in the United Kingdom, South Asians have had the greatest impact on British culture as a large minority group.[3]

Of the thirteen essays, three examine fashion and textiles from the past. Rosemary Crill and Felix Driver present well-written but rather neutral accounts Indian-British trade and exhibition. Christopher Breward, on the other hand, offers a compelling alternative argument for an earlier, more exotic predecessor to the Englishman’s suit.[4] These essays are not only essential in defining the meaning of British Asian style historically, but also in setting the stage for all the other studies in the book which look at the present and redefine British Asian style and identity on a more personal level.

Plate 97: William Fielding, 1st Earl of Denbigh, Anthony Van Dyck c. 1633-4, National Gallery London

Susan Roberts’ essay “The British Sari Story” documents an annual competition staged, “to generate brand new sari design[s] reflecting British Asian life today.”[5] Organized by Bridge Arts, the British Sari Story competition started in 2007 inviting designs that specifically reflecting British Asian design as distinct from the South Asian designs of traditional saris. I was struck by the brilliant concept of this competition. Not only does it provide an outlet for first-, second- and third-generation British Asians from all walks of life to express their personal experiences of being in the UK, but also allows them to actively set trends thus effecting the sartorial landscape all around them.

While Roberts looks at the issue of self-expression from a designer’s perspective, Shivani Derrington takes a more intimate case-study approach in “Wardrobe Stories.” Derrington interviewed several South Asian women, “to talk about their clothes, how they dress and what decisions went into the creation of their personal style.”[6] She says:

“Dress here is partly political… but…also deeply personal. In our everyday navigations of our wardrobe we both confront wider political landscapes and, at the same time, domesticate that wider world of style and fashion, reworking it into something personal and our own.”[7]

What is most striking about Derrington’s study is that in presenting very personal stories of individual British Asian women, she breaks down cultural distinctions and touches on the more universal every day experience of ‘what to wear.’

Two photographic essays, “Portfolio” by Gavin Fernandes and “Contemporary British Asian Fashion Designers” by Philip Crang, portray the bold imagery, confidence and maturity of today’s British Asian style-makers. I was especially drawn to the work of photographer and fashion stylist Gavin Fernandes. Fernandes, who is ethnically Indian, emigrated from Kenya to the United Kingdom as a child. Reflecting his background and personal experience, his photos explore notions of racial and sexual stereotyping and recall the work of Yinka Shonibare. Produced between 1996 and 2005, Fernandes’ photos are indicative of his generation, but continue to be confrontational, visually striking and relevant, not only in the UK, but all over the world.

Plate 76: From Empire Line, Silver gelatin prints, Lond, 2005. Styling by Victoria Cumming and Gavin Fernandes (Via eximition preview at

Philip Crang’s essay spotlights four established fashion designers: Liaqat Rasul, Little Shilpa, Sarah Mahaffy and Gaurav Gupta. In great contract to Asian-inspired styles adopted by the counter culture bohemians and hippies of the 20th century,[8] these modern designers appeal to the high fashion and luxury markets in the UK and India, as well globally. In selecting these designers in particular, Crang shows that while each designer draws inspiration from recognizably Eastern motifs and craftsmanship, their aesthetics are in stark contrast to each other and universally appealing.

Plate 69: Little Shilpa. Photo: Prasad Naik/Little Shilpa. Via Trendland

While a study of Britain and South Asia’s colonial history is imperative to a full understanding of their cultural relationship, British Asian Style takes a refreshingly positive looks at the merging of the two cultures beyond colonialism. Joining the ranks of pioneering media such as the television program Here and Now (Central TV, 1979 onwards) and magazine Asiana, British Asian Style, “insert[s] into the terrestrial media landscape a notion of the Asian as British and here to stay, helping to shape ideas of Britain as multicultural and dynamic in cultural and racial terms.”[9] Ultimately, British Asian Style is essential reading to scholars of global fashion, but it is only primer.  I anticipate that this collection of essays will strike a cord for many readers, and will inspire further in-depth research and design for a long time to come



[1] Eicher, Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time (Oxford: Berg, 1995); Margaret Maynard, Dress and Globalisation (Manchester U., 2004); Robert Ross, Clothing: A Global History (London: Polity, 2008); Eugenia Paulicelli and Hazel Clark (eds), The Fabric of Culture: Fashion, Identity and Globalization (London: Routledge, 2009).

[2] Breward, “Introduction” 9.

[3] United Kingdom Census 2001

[4] See also Christopher Breward, “Fashioning the Modern Self: Clothing, cavaliers and identity in Van Dyck’s London,” Van Dyck & Britain, edited by K. Hearn (London: Tate Publishing, 2009).

[5] Viewed 11/16/10.

[6] Derrington, “Wardrobe Stories” 71.

[7] Ibid, 73.

[8] See Sonia Ashomore, “Hippies, Bohemians & Chintz” 106-121.

[9] Rajinder Dudrah, “The Media and British Asian Fashion” 140.

Select Bibliography

Banerjee, Mukulika and Daniel Miller, The Sari (Oxford: Berg, 2003).

Codell, Julie F. and Dianne Sachko Macleod (eds),  Orientalism Transposed: Thae Impact of the Colonies on British Culture (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1998).

Crill, Rosemary, Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West (London: V&A: 2008).

De La Haye, Amy. The Cutting Edge: 50 Years of British Fashion, 1947-1997 (London: Overlook, 1996).

Eicher, Joanne, Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time (Berg Ethnic Identities Series) (Oxford: Berg, 1995).

Greenhalgh, Paul. Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, 1851-1939 (Studies in Imperialism) (Manchester: Manchester U., 1988).

Huggan, Graham, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (London: Routledge, 2001).

Irwin, John and Margaret Hall, Indian Embroideries: Volume II Historic Textiles of India (Ahmedabad: V&A, 1973).

Jackson, Peter, Philip Crang and Claire Dywer (eds), Transnational Spaces (Routledge Research in Transnationalism) (London: Routledge, 2004).

Kreigel, Lara, Grand Designs: Labor, Empire, and the Museum in Victorian Culture (Radical Perspectives) (Durham: Duke U., 2007).

Mathur, Saloni, India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display (Berkeley: UC Press, 2007).

McGowan, Abigail, Crafting the Nation in Colonial India (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2009).

Paulicelli, Eugenia and Hazel Clark (eds), The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization (London and New York: Routledge, 2009).

Tarlo, Emma, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (London: Hurst, 1996).

_____, Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith (Oxford: Berg, 2010).

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