From 'No Dogs or Indians Allowed'...To 'No "Ethnic" Clothing Allowed'...The Evolution of Colonized Minds and Elitism

This isn't the first time I'm posting my qualms with the New York Times Travel section on the Roti. Maybe I'm slowly developing some animosity towards travel writing, but really this time my problem is more about the going-ons they mention in passing than with the travel-journalism which fails to comment on it...

FIVE years ago, a typical night out in New Delhi was a family trip to the latest Bollywood blockbuster. Then came the so-called children of the liberation. The young heirs to India's new market economy grew up on Indian MTV, made more money than their parents and now wanted to party.

Flushed with disposable income, they carved out a kinetic new night life in south Delhi, an upscale collection of neighborhoods stretching from Humayun's tomb in the north to Qutab Minar in the south. "Delhi is no longer a snake charmer city," said Sandeep Gandotra, a nightclub promoter who is planning to publish Delhi's first party listings magazine.

The south Delhi scene has even spread east and south into the neighboring suburbs of Noida and Gurgaon. The most popular club is Elevate (Centerstage Mall, Sector 18; 91-120-2513904; www.elevateindia.com), in Noida, a four-story, techno-playing joint that forbids traditional Indian attire like saris and is known for its pickup scene. The taps flow until 4 a.m.

This article has stirred some discussion on the South Asian Women's Creative Collective listserv, where some members have chronicled their own experiences trying to get into uber-chic Delhi hotspots and getting the boot by managers and bouncers due their donning of saris or shalwar kameez. Because THAT attire did not reflect the "scene" or "tone" the management was looking for. It also connects to a discussion ensuing on another blog about how even in the Desh, desi clothing is increasingly being referred to as "ethnic" in marketing & advertising [read: exotic, foreign, maybe backward or "other"?]

So I try to rationalize this: India is trying reinvent its image as chic and sleek with a blossoming nightlife. Even nightclubs and lounges in NYC can be selective about dress code. But I've been to NYC hotspots clad in a kurta, and it wasn't the least bit an issue...

Then, my fashion design-school drop-out intuition tells me to completely stop over-analyzing and look at in broader perspective: India has a fashion design market that is BOOMING, in part due to Indian designers' interest in reinventing very desi clothing detailing, styling, and sensibilities with Western(ized) customers in mind...they're catering to that new hipster crowd with disposable income in the newly developing glossy ready-to-wear boutiques like never before (say bye bye to tailors drinking chai in your drawing rooms ladies!). And these nightspots are just following suite, since after all, those people are their patrons.

But even if this is a trend why does it need to be a mandatory dress-code policy? Why can't individuals choose to dress desi when they are in fact in the sub-contintent? What does it signify? And how does this harken back to the colonized past when signs would read "no dogs or Indians allowed" or when going-Oriental was an elite fashion trend amongst the British in South Asia and back in the English mother land?

Personally, this isn't the first time I'm battling with these questions. Let's consider how "ethnic chic" plays out in Western nations. With Madonna's mispronouncing her way through Sanskrit verses, Gwen Stefani's donning of the bindi and saris (sarong-style mind you), the late-90's mendhi henna tattoo trend, and most recently the kussa slippers that can be found in every store in NYC from Chinatown to Bloomingdale's--let's just say I feel constantly bombarded. "Ethnic chic" clothing has been plastering itself all over Elle, Vogue, and the like.

 

 

 

 

This all makes for a very complicated conversation when you consider that around the same time the bindi was new and cute on Gwen Stefani’s pale skin, it sparked the 1997 “Dot-Busters” movement when seen against the brown skin of South Asian Hindu women in many parts of New Jersey and NYC. Some Americans responded to this “body jewelry” negatively to the point where it sparked violence and hatred, simultaneously others looked to it as the newest trend. It seems that this Western embrace was not of India or South Asians in or out of the Diaspora, but rather, aspects of Indian fashion, only in the form of "Western packaging" (read: Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Princess Di, etc)

So it seems aesthetic elements from the Indian subcontinent have frequently been finding themselves incorporated into a globally eclectic approach to dressing—bright colors, mehndi designs, bindis, chandelier earrings, intricate embroidery, and creatively draped fabrics have carved their own space in the fashion world. This is ironic considering it is these very elements of their native culture that emphasize their inherent “Otherness” and have typically made South Asians in the Diaspora feel alienated. What was once weird and ridiculed by the kids on the playground is now interesting and alluring because of the way it is packaged and marketed specifically for consumers in the Western marketplace; creative advertising has made these elements accessible in ways that South Asians themselves just cannot parallel.

By fusing aspects of the familiar with the unfamiliar, these styles are reinvented and lose any “traditional” connotations that previously made them seem inaccessible to audiences in the West--and perhaps this has reprecussions back in South Asia as well. The phenomenon of fashion crossing multiple borders and being reinterpreted by intermediaries to reinvent itself as "fashion" is poignantly analyzed by Carla Jones, Ann Marie Leshkowich, and Sandra Niessen in Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress as follows,

The garment has to cross a border to become ‘fashion,’ in a way that it could never Princess Diana wearing Shalwar Kameez during her 1997 visit to South Asiahave been while South Asian women wore it, and the only person capable of taking it across that border was a privileged celebrity and outsider. Another affect of the garment’s journey was to make it seem newly chic to those women who had always worn it in their everyday lives. The irony for them, however, was that pride in their garment’s new fashionability could be interpreted through Orientalizing logic as a kind of enlightenment, a consciousness about the value of their garment that could only come from the Western fashion establishment telling them what was precious in their cultural heritage and what was not. The effect, then, was that these very women could appear to be imitating Western fashions even as they were said to be wearing their own traditional clothing (pg. 20). 

So I wonder how this may manifest itself amongst the Delhi nightlife crowd? Is it possible that another Western pop icon's obsession with desi chic could influence fashion trends in the circles of the Desh's elite hipset and change club dress code policies? Because after all, isn't this all about who they're trying to keep out and who they're trying to get in--elitism at its best. Ugh--Clothing can be used as such a signifier!

I wonder if they would refuse entry to a guy wearing a classicly Western Nehru collar jacket! All I know is, if I'm ever faced with some bouncer who won't let me through clad in shalwar kameez, I might need to ditch the shalwar and create a makeshift dress--That stint in fashion school was oh so useful! :)

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Comments

Great post! One minor thing

Great post! One minor thing though--the Dotbusters happened in the 80s na?

What was once weird and

What was once weird and ridiculed by the kids on the playground is now interesting and alluring because of the way it is packaged and marketed specifically for consumers in the Western marketplace;

Because you see, in Amreeka and Co [insert Western European country], there is the capitalization and commercialization of "ethnic" goods. This always lends the impression to most Americans and others, who are too lazy to really get to know other cultures and peoples, that by buying "ethnic" products, they are somehow being "international", tolerant of and well informed of others.

My personal experience with Gwen Stefani, bindis, and white people: when Gwen got famous with her first album, "Tragic Kingdom", she gave a concert at "home", which unfortunately for me was "home" too-- Orange Country, CA (home of Republicans, Reagan, Nixon, the defense industry, and Disneyland). I went to the concert with my friends wearing a bindi (was 18 yrs old at the time) and all the white girls there gave me very nasty and dirty looks. But it's ok that 95% of the surfer girls there were wearing bindis. Huh. I learned my lesson: being a Desi, I better confine my bindi showcasing only to the mandir, home, and Friday night Desi get togethers.

BTW, I like what I can partially see of the yellow salwaar kameez....I'd prefer it to be in a light red color. Or maybe saffron...that would be nice too.

Saurav, 80s & 90s, from the

Saurav,
80s & 90s, from the wiki:

Americans of Indian descent have, in the past, been targets of racism by members of all ethnic groups--though it has dissipated substantially. Some of it is overt, perhaps the worst example being the New Jersey dot busters - groups of thugs who sought ethnic Indians and mugged them or attacked their property in the late 80s and early 90s, the "dot" referring to the bindi worn traditionally by Hindu women on their forehead. These attacks were racially motivated, and alienated the Indian population from the American mainstream. This lack of assimilation has created many problems for both ethnic Indians as well as non Indians.

Italiana,
I'll keep the sexy shalwar kameez wearing women coming!

Hmmm ok I see the conflict

Hmmm ok I see the conflict you're referring to Saurav, the article I linked to says 1987 but I wrote 1997, which is from Vijay Prashad's The Karma of Brown Folk
Personally, I do remember a Dot-busters movement around that time and there's some info circulating online (Link), it's possible it was a revival of something earlier?
Anybody with more info?

I just remember the

I just remember the Dotbusters gang in Jersey City being in the '80s (perhaps early 90s, but I doubt it). As circumstantial evidence, I'd add that the name was likely inspired by Ghostbusters, which came out in the '80s.

But, as you're saying, it wouldn't be surprising at all if there were more than one incarnation of it. That's how the Klan worked.

I dunno, I sometimes wonder

I dunno,

I sometimes wonder whether our over-sensitivity leads us to see things out of perspective. I mean hearing about that stupid nightclub makes me cringe, but I know Indian guys who casually get traditional Polynesian tattoos or Asian kids who are obsessed (like many people seem to be) with black American culture.

I like being able to experience different cultures, but obviously due to my high Exoticism radar I do it in a less cheesy way.

I mean...yes...It's disgusting when it becomes all out white-worshipping as in those nightclubs.

But I think Di and Jemima-soon-to-be-Grant-once-Khan, Gwen, Madonna et al were just trying out a new look, not intentionally creating the perpetuated Orientalism that plagues us so.

It's a bit easier for us reformed Oreos to celebrate our culture, I know I'm one of the worst when it comes to being an Indophile...but I do know that kids in India still see western things as better because to them that's how the world still works.

But I think Di and

But I think Di and Jemima-soon-to-be-Grant-once-Khan, Gwen, Madonna et al were just trying out a new look, not intentionally creating the perpetuated Orientalism that plagues us so

.

I don't think it's necessarily a NEGATIVE thing if anyone non-desi tries something desi, I actually have gotten kind of excited when I've seen non-desi women walking down the streets in NYC wearing full-out shalwar kameez or when people really like desi food, that's awesome too...but what I was trying to point out is how since they're people in the limelight, when they do it, it has broader impact on other people's sensibilities and choices--which may or may not be well-informed or well-intended.

There's another twist to this: There have been a number of appropriations which people have found just plain offensive, most recently, Italian designer Roberto Cavalli put Rama Swaraswati on lingerie and swimsuits and it didn't float so well (Google Link) So that raises the question: who "owns" this culture and how are you allowed to use it in this time when there really is a ton of cultural-exchanging and intermixing, just like you said

but I know Indian guys who casually get traditional Polynesian tattoos or Asian kids who are obsessed (like many people seem to be) with black American culture.

I like being able to experience different cultures

I don’t think it’s

I don’t think it’s necessarily a NEGATIVE thing if anyone non-desi tries something desi, I actually have gotten kind of excited when I’ve seen non-desi women walking down the streets in NYC wearing full-out shalwar kameez or when people really like desi food, that’s awesome too…

I sometimes wonder whether our over-sensitivity leads us to see things out of perspective.

I agree with both of you, except when "cultural consumption" and "borrowing from cultures" is laden with hypocrisy. It's one thing to sharing and appropriating things from others, but it's another thing to do this AND simulaneously look down upon the people from whom they've coopted.

I just came across this

I just came across this article that hypes up Delhi\'s booming night scene and was hoping to see some reference to dress codes Though there\'s none of that, I wanted to share some quotes:

While the clubs experience a slightly laid-back audience during the week, the resto-bars are all abuzz with corporate and business class relaxing themselves till late night. Come weekend and almost all the bars are full by 9 pm and discotheques are in full swing by midnight. “After a tiring week, I like to relax at a lounge bar or a nightclub during weekends. Saturday night has to be at a discotheque or a pub”, says Gaurav an executive, who is a regular at discos and pubs.

After Delhi, even the NCR has caught up with the club fever. Apart from Djinns in Hyatt Regency, Dublin in Maurya Sheraton, My Kind of Place in Taj Palace and Athena in Park Royal, the new openings like Elevate in Noida and Last Chance and Crave in Gurgaon are the coolest hangouts for the hottest “dudes” and “dudettes” in the city. “Elevate is the best discotheque I have ever visited. Its décor is absolutely wonderful and out of the world. Though it’s a bit expensive but its worth spending”, says Akshay, a college student, who is an Elevate fan.

Speaking of the cuisine, almost all the nightclubs, pubs and lounges offer a variety of delicacies to set the mood. The cuisine ranges from Continental and Oriental to Mexican and Italian, to name a few. The cost of clubbing starts from Rs. 500 and goes as high as Rs. 2000 depending on the package one chooses. Places like Elevate, Dublin, Athena and Crave charge entry fee, and separately drinks and food. As for the entry, most of the clubs follow the concept of “couple entry” or single girls. “Stag” entry (meaning a man or men only) is not allowed. Many clubs offer theme nights like “Ladies’ night”, “Gays/Lesbians night” and “Only Couples” throughout the week.

With so many nightclubs and bars multiplying in the capital, Delhi definitely is a hot-spot for the creatures of the darkness.

I love desi journalism ;)

I have to tell you, I went

I have to tell you, I went clubbing in Delhi, and it really was mad fun. Not to take away from the political anaylsis, but I had a really good time. And there was a Norah Jones/Anoushka Shankar spotting. I went to an lgbt joint on a Tuesday night as well, which I found impressive.

This was all part of my awakening to the idea that there are out lgbt men in India. Just from a list of organizations I got at the Social Forum, I was amazed that there are orgs in even some of the smaller cities (though by U.S. standards, I think they would rank as large cities by sheer numbers) like in Orissa and whatnot (can't remember which city).

Dude, it sounds like so much

Dude, it sounds like so much fun! I think I'm ready for another trip to Delhi! Now all I need is...cash, a visa, and a vacation! Political analysis has its time and place, you can't be doing that constantly!

clubs thinking they can

clubs thinking they can operate a dress code policy is in itself fucked..i mean where do they get that idea? it's such a conservative sort of thing to do..

Sonia, You are so right, I

Sonia,
You are so right, I mean how much more elitist and status-happy can you get? it's discrimination really. If i walk in the door dressed one way, I get treated great. And if I walk in dressed differently, I may get thrown out. yuck.

but the question remains: How do you go about changing these standards when the many of the individuals who patronize these establishments (the ones the club managers are aiming to please) either don't care or encourage this kind of elitism?

I'm thinking aloud here, so

I'm thinking aloud here, so forgive me if I ramble a bit and voice some inherently reactionary tendencies before getting to "the truth" :) I agree that it's taken to an absurd degree in some places, but I'm not sure if it's inherently "bad" that clubs have dress codes. We have dress codes for all kinds of things--weddings, funerals, workplaces, etc. It's a societal norm.

To me, it seems like the purpose for which they do it is important, which I guess is where you get to the classism and racism (which I care more about than cultural elitism).

Because you see, in Amreeka

Because you see, in Amreeka and Co [insert Western European country], there is the capitalization and commercialization of “ethnic” goods.

Excellent analysis. Deep and thought provoking. How did you get to meet most Americans and Western Europeans? That's alot of people!

This always lends the impression to most Americans and others, who are too lazy to really get to know other cultures and peoples, that by buying “ethnic” products, they are somehow being “international”, tolerant of and well informed of others.

And a mind reader too! Wow. You really think someone who wears a bindi or lehenga really thinks they are being international, tolerant of and well informed of others?

I went to the concert with my friends wearing a bindi (was 18 yrs old at the time) and all the white girls there gave me very nasty and dirty looks

Ahh, poor baby. That must've been devastating. You must've been the only teenage girl who got dirty looks from other teenage girls....... tragic.

This always lends the

This always lends the impression to most Americans and others, who are too lazy to really get to know other cultures and peoples

Excellent analysis. Deep and thought provoking. How did you get to meet most Americans and Western Europeans? That’s alot of people!

Correction of previous comment, the above comment was meant to go below the above qoute.

Anyway, it's all good and y'all get me.

Salam e Salami, you don't

Salam e Salami, you don't have to meet every single American to remark upon American pop culture.

Salam e Salami, you don’t

Salam e Salami, you don’t have to meet every single American to remark upon American pop culture.

i actually agree with you there, and that's why i feel confident in making remarks about indians. however, there needs to be some consistent experience behind the remark in order to make a confident and somewhat accurate analysis. and im not just talking 20 experiences over 3 or 4 years, but more like hundreds of experiences over say 10 years or more.

This always lends the impression to most Americans and others, who are too lazy to really get to know other cultures and peoples, that by buying “ethnic” products, they are somehow being “international”, tolerant of and well informed of others.

this comment could be said for any nationality, including indians. but anyway, we are NOT OBLIGED to really get to know other cultures. it is a choice for anyone. getting to know one's own culture is sometimes hard enough as it is.

I was searching for the

I was searching for the infamous board title "No entry for Indians and dogs" and landed here. After reading I found this article great!

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