*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #34, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
As intricately embroidered blouses, vibrant floral kimonos, and brightly-colored tasseled earrings decorate department store racks this season, an Eastern flair is undeniably recognizable.
Summer trends saw runways and boutiques chock-full of delicate stitching and embroidery techniques, pom-pom embellishments, and bejeweled bangles — all of which are carrying over into fall. But these trends aren’t exclusive to the West.
Age-old designs, cuts, and prints of the Southeast Asian countries—including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh—have recently crossed over to the U.S., taking over well-loved summer and fall trends.
“A lot of block printing,” said Rupa Singh, owner of local mobile boutique, Love This RVA. “And a lot of hand-stitching on top of block-printed dresses.”
A staple of Southeast Asian wardrobes that exploded on the fashion scene this summer and hasn’t faded yet is the “kurti,” or tunic. These knee-length, loose, flowing lawn tops are everyday wear for the women of Pakistan, India, and other countries in the region. Typically featuring intricate embroidery on the chest and sleeves, “kurtis” dominate Southeast Asian women’s clothing.
“Handmade details,” said Singh when describing traditional Indian clothing. “Whether there’s pleating here or cuffing in the back, it’s only done when something is handmade.”
Wrapping and draping techniques characterize most Southeast Asian suits. The traditional Indian “sari” (also spelled “saree”) consists of a little less than 10 yards of fabric, skillfully wrapped around the body to create a draped skirt-and-top style. Similarly, the Pakistani “salwar,” or pant, and “kameez,” top, two-piece suit combination is commonly worn along with a “dupatta,” or long fabric piece, draped along the chest. These draping and stitching techniques are recalled in Western fashion by skirts, dresses, and tops.
Another Western favorite brought over from the East — paisley prints. Paisley find origins in Kashmir and Persia, over 2,000 years ago. Now, the print typically adorns silky, flowing blouses and will be a staple for fall accessories — especially scarves.
The West has simultaneously adopted accessories as well — dangling hoops and pom-pom details are only the beginning of a list of Eastern-style accessories adorning American models. Particularly appearing on earrings, shoes and occasionally on the trims of tops and pants, pom-pom and tassel details have ornamented Eastern clothing for centuries.
South Asia isn’t the only region Western fashion trend pull inspiration trends from, though. “The [American] streetwear craze is directly Japanese fashion,” said VCU student designer Shana Cave, who traces her roots back to China.
On a recent trip she took to Tokyo, she noticed overwhelming similarities between American streetwear and everyday clothing in Japan. The outrageous proportions and cuts, as well as monochrome looks, have become staples of U.S. streetwear brands such as Supreme and Yeezy Supply.
“Coming back to America and seeing the dad-shoe trend, all the colors in streetwear, the logos, the long lengths and the unfitting clothings,” Cave said. “That’s a very Japanese influence.”
The West has similarly adopted the cultural aspects of other East Asian countries, such as Japanese kimonos, Lao stitching and weaving techniques, and Thai two-piece outfits.
But the Eastern-influenced fashion dates back much further than recent years, according to VCU professor Jackie Mullins.
“It’s something that became much more mainstream in the 1970’s,” Mullins said of Eastern stitching and embroidering techniques. “You see a lot of those Eastern mending techniques taking over during the 70’s, and even earlier.”
Mullins, who teaches the history of contemporary fashion to aspiring student designers, said that while the blending of these cultures into mainstream fashion has become incredibly common, it can come very close to disrespect if executed poorly.
“There’s a very fine line,” Mullins said. “With every iteration [when adopting] clothing there is that fine line of having respect and going over it, and not understanding the meaning of why something might be worn culturally, simply making it into an accessory for beauty. And I think that’s where a lot of the trouble comes from.”
The adoption of Eastern clothing elements that typically have cultural and religious significance, is sometimes met with opposition when true appreciation for the culture and religion at hand is not given — deemed “cultural appropriation.”
“We see it happen on the quite often on the runway,” Mullins said. “Where people just sort of pick something up as a trend, not understanding the cultural meaning behind it.”
Sustainable fashion advocate and photographer Aditi Mayer defines cultural appropriation as “the continuation of misrepresentation, misuse, and theft of the stories, styles, and material heritage of people who have been historically dominated and remain socially marginalized.” The absorption of minority cultures by a dominant culture — typically by means of colonialism, oppression, or other power imbalance — creates a disconnect between the traditional item and how it is re-represented.
For Singh, the latest summer trends have confused her — especially those poorly executed to mimic South Asian and Latin American blouses with floral embroidery across the chest.
“Lately I’ve been seeing those white tunics with brightly embroidered flowers. To me, I feel like it doesn’t make sense,” Singh said. “It’s their actual cultural wardrobe. This is what the women wear [in Latin America] on a regular basis. But then just to pull that out of their culture and just make a shirt that’s maybe a different cut or maybe [minimal] embroidery, just for a trend.”
One of Singh’s favorite East-West fusion brands, Victoria Road, navigates the blending of cultures well.
“There is that voice of the person who made it, ” Singh said of Victoria Road. “There’s this idea that you can wear something that’s made for the Western world and this print is so beautiful and timeless that it [respects] where it came from.”
Cave agreed that the implementation of a lot of these fashion ‘trends’ in the West is not always the most respectful.
“Asia is like this landmine that a lot of people don’t know about,” Cave said. “So if you’re an influencer and you’re interested in it, it’s yours for the taking. It’s like this thing people can steal from without having to credit.”
As a child, Cave said she felt the need to suppress the half of her identity that was Chinese; making the trends that have crossed over from Asia all the more ironic.
“I started wanting to dress more American,” Cave said. “I would go to China and come back with clothing that was Chinese and kids would make fun of me. I was definitely judged for being Asian.”
The best way to navigate the “cultural appropriation” discussion, according to Singh, is simply asking and learning about the meaning behind certain clothing elements.
“Fashion is so far from asking questions of why, who, what,” Singh said. “Most people can identify something that is from another country, but I don’t know if they would care to [ask] — why do they embroider their clothes? Why are their shirts always white? Why are the [garments] all cotton? Why are they cut this way? Everything has a reason.”
Fashion with a bit of Eastern flair is far from leaving the industry. So as the West continues to infuse Eastern elements into everyday clothing, it’s imperative to ask that question — why? Exploring other cultures, and understanding where certain cultural and religious elements come from, is necessary in order to be respectful while also admiring their beauty.