The salwar-kameez, or the Punjabi suit (referred to here simply as "the suit"), has traditionally been worn by women of North India and Pakistan and their sisters who have immigrated overseas. It consists of three separate parts: kameez (shirt), salwar (trousers, nearly always with ponchay, or cuffs, at the ankles), and a chuni or dupatta (scarf or stole). These three components have remained constant over time, though women might not wear the chuni on certain occasions. The chuni is nearly always worn inside temples to cover the head. The styles, lengths, and widths of these separate parts vary to suit the fashions of the times.
There has always been, however, a "classic suit" that maintains all the components and changes little over long periods of time. These classic suits are interpreted according to personal idiosyncrasies and tastes. For example, the "Patiala suit" (from the princely state of Patialia in the Punjab, which has old and highly developed traditions of arts and crafts) is worn by women in that area regardless of caste, class, and religion and has remained the same for many years. It consists of a knee-length kameez, a baggy salwar (much more voluminous than the average salwar), and a long chuni. This classic style is distinctive and a widely recognized marker of this region of the Punjab.
Salwar-Kameez for Men
The salwar-kameez is also worn by men, especially by Muslim men, in both Pakistan and India, though the men's version is different from its female counterpart. It is possible that the suit's connotations of maleness have played a role in the adoption of the salwar-kameez by Indian women who might once have worn saris, as a result of women's entry into the waged-labor market. In the world of business and commerce, women are asserting their identities through this practical and comfortable outfit, which they consider to be the most suitable garment for the public realms of economic participation. But, of course, the suit has been worn in public domains for centuries by North Indian women, before this dramatic adoption of the suit in the recent past by wage-earning women throughout the subcontinent.
Another facet of the suit's popularity is a result of the professionalizing of its design, both on the subcontinent and in Europe, since the 1980s. Design professionals trained at fashion schools on the subcontinent or in Europe or America have created innovative new styles and silhouettes while relying upon, and helping to revive, old traditions of embroidery, dyeing, and other forms of embellishment. They have thus developed new techniques of making suits using existing craft skills. These new interpretations have led to a dramatic expansion of markets for the salwar-kameez, both on the subcontinent and in such cities as London, Durban (South Africa), Sydney, Los Angeles, New York, Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Nairobi (Kenya), and other centers of diaspora communities. In these markets, suits of all types and levels of quality are sold at a wide range of prices. Designer suits can cost upward of $9,000, and wedding suits as much as $20,000. Suits that bear "designer labels" might cost $300 to $500, while suits selling for as little as $30 can be found in street markets. The suit economy, in other words, has become quite elaborate.
Into the Mainstream
The suit in the 1990s and the early part of the twenty-first century emerged as a mainstream high-fashion garment, popular both on the catwalk (in Paris and London) and on the street. In Great Britain it was front-page news when the salwar-kameez was worn by such fashion lead-ers as Diana Princess Of Wales, and Cheri Booth, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The suit thus has been reimagined and recontextualized as a "global chic" garment. In London diaspora communities, fashion entrepreneurs have been key agents in moving the suit beyond Indian and "ethnic" markets and into the mainstream. As Asian women residing and raised in London, they are attuned to local design trends, which they incorporate in the suits they create for their customers in a global city. It is this improvisational sensibility-the modus vivendi of their diaspora-that gives them an edge over subcontinental fashion entrepreneurs. They have created new styles that encode their racial politics through their design sensibilities and retail skills. Along with older suit-wearing women, they have transformed what were formerly negatively coded "immigrant ethnic clothes," derided by the mainstream, into the most fashionable border-crossing clothes of our times. The suit is worn by women across ethnic and racial lines in many parts of the world. Black women in London were among the first to wear the suit, much before British women of the upper classes, fashion icons, and the white political elite.
Asianization of Western Culture
Of course, these suit trends are part of the wider dynamics of the ethnicization and Asianization of Western culture as well as of images created by Asians living in the West, as seen in film, music, literature, and other media. The British Asian diasporic film director Gurinder Chadha's film Bend It Like Beckham (2003) has been a phenomenal international success. She is also an innovative hybridizing suit wearer, a savvy image maker with an influential suit style. In Britain, curry has replaced roast beef as the favorite food of the nation. For a younger set of Asians, bhangra dance music-a reworking of Punjabi harvest music as interpreted through jazz, reggae, hip-hop, and many other musical genres-was a strong influence in favor of adopting the salwar-kameez and also in introducing this generation to the Punjabi language and cultural scene.
In this complex and multifaceted suit economy, the real heroines are the older women, who wore their "classic suits" despite the cultural and racial odds and regardless of the sartorial terrain in the displaced contexts of the diaspora. These powerful and culturally confident women are the agents of sartorial transmission, who socialized their second-generation daughters to wear the suits on their own terms and according to their design codes. The diaspora daughters of these astute and assertive women have been the pathbreaking fashion entrepreneurs who have created the commercial markets for the suit in cities across the globe and have ushered the salwar-kameez into fashion's mainstream.
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Freeman, Carla. High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy: Women, Work, and Pink-Collar Identities in the Caribbean. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2000.
Kondo, Dorinne. About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Tarlo, Emma. Clothing Matters: Questions of Dress and Identity in India. London: Hurst, 1996.