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Celebrating Sikh Style

Despite an increase in violence against the Sikh community in the U.S., some fashion-conscious Sikhs are reclaiming the individuality of their headdress. Soraya Roberts reports.

“The Sikh turban is a crown,” says Jay Singh-Sohal, British journalist and author of Turbanology: Guide to Sikh Identity. “It is worn so a Sikh can stand out from others, can be approachable and can be identifiable in society.”

But in a cruel bit of irony, Americans these days are misidentifying Sikhs precisely because of their turbans. “Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, many in the Sikh community have seen an increase in hate crimes and bias-based bullying because of their religion,” the American Sikh Congressional Caucus announced in May. According to a study released last month by Stanford University, 70 percent of Americans mistake all turban-wearers for Muslims. But it was only after Wade Michael Page left six dead after opening fire on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that the FBI started tracking hate crimes on Sikhs. The most recent incident was the violent beating of Columbia Professor Prabhjot Singh in Harlem last month.

The Western view of the turban needs a makeover—and a growing number of fashion-savvy Sikhs have made it their cause célèbre to re-establish its identity in the West. A recent graduate of London’s prestigious fashion college Instituto Marangoni, Jeetinder Sandhu premiered his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection this summer at Graduate Fashion Week. His work paired brightly colored blazers splashed with Indian prints with matching jeweled turbans and caught the attention of a slew of British fashion blogs including leading site Menswear Style.

“Having introduced turbans on the runway and having had such good press so far, I believe I have brought a little more awareness to this religion,” he tells The Daily Beast. “I believe people need to be more aware of Sikhism, because it’s a religion that’s not very well known.”

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that was founded in Punjab, India, in the 15th century. Starting in 1699, its baptized followers were required to wear five symbols of faith, known colloquially as The Five K’s: Kangha (a comb), Kara (a steel bracelet), Kirpan (a ceremonial sword), Kaccha (long underwear) and Kesh (uncut hair), the latter “in accordance with the Will of God,” according to Singh-Sohal, which is protected by the Dastar, or turban.

“The turban was the cultural context of Punjab in India,” Pashaura Singh, Professor and Saini Chair in Sikh Studies at the University of California, Riverside, tells The Daily Beast. “The turban is the symbol for honor and dignity.” And though the Dastar is not one of The Five K’s, it is mandatory for Khalsas to wear it. “For the Sikhs it’s not simply a cultural symbol, it’s not simply a matter of faith,” explains Singh, “it’s the essential part of my being.”

Most Punjabi Sikhs (of the 20 million Sikhs worldwide, the majority live in India, while approximately 500,000 live in the States) wear turbans; it’s the early settlers in America, who arrived more than 100 years ago, who did not. “They were discriminated against when they applied for jobs so they had to assimilate, cut their hair and remove their turbans,” explains Singh. The discrimination comes as a surprise considering Sikhs “share American values.” According to Singh, “Sikhs believe in human equality. Sikhs believe in neighborly hospitality. Sikhs believe in hard work.”

After the 1970s, when there was an influx of professional Sikhs into the U.S., the community started to maintain its traditional garb. Then 9/11 happened. But even though Osama Bin Laden wore a turban, it looked nothing like the Sikh Dastar. “It is different because we wear it every day and we try to match the color with our clothes and there are specific styles to put another cloth under the turban to make it ornamental,” Singh says. “This is not part of the Middle Eastern tradition at all.”

Though Turbanology author Jay Singh-Sohal admits that his religion is not “a proselytizing one,” he believes Sikhism is largely missing from popular culture, which is why he created an online exhibition, Turbanology: Sikhs Unwrapped, to promote the art of the turban. “Sikhs do need to engage with the mainstream more —and create resources for those who want to know more to discover what the faith is about,” he tells The Daily Beast via email. “As a journalist I always felt this was a missing element in the Sikh story.”

Jagmeet Sethi agrees. Five years ago he launched his Connecticut-based apparel company TurbanInc.com, which boasts T-shirts and accessories with slogans like “I Love Turbans” and “Proud to Be a Sikh.” He came up with the idea for the former after noticing The Keep a Breast Foundation’s cancer awareness bands, I Love Boobies, and re-jigging them to promote “turban awareness.” At the time he felt like the only game in town.

“I used to think I’d never see Sikhs in the mainstream media, especially with fashion, then I saw Kenneth Cole’s campaign,” he tells The Daily Beast. What Sethi saw was Sonny Caberwal, a Sikh entrepreneur sporting a turban and a beard, who featured in the campaign “We All Walk in Different Shoes,” which aimed to mark the 25th anniversary of Kenneth Cole by celebrating diversity. “Cole was looking for a turbaned man for their 25th anniversary campaign, but could find no professional Sikh model,” Caberwal told The Telegraph in 2009. “My brother-in-law suggested that I email a photo to them, and the rest is history.”

After modeling for GQ a year later, Caberwal was branded “The World’s First Sikh Supermodel.” He paved the way for Tory Burch to use Sikh jewelry designer Waris Ahluwalia in her Fall 2012 lookbook and for Topman and Levi’s to promote their brands in the U.K. with Sikh artist-musician-model Jatinder Singh Durhailay.

Sandhu calls Durhailay “quite inspirational” for his collection. The latter was scouted walking the streets of London and hand-picked by stylist Julian Ganio for a GQ Style shoot. He has since modeled for Ralph Lauren and Ozwald Boateng and, of the dearth of Sikh models, he mentions Ahluwalia, telling The Daily Beast via email, “there are few with the charisma and the balls to wear anything.”

In a yellow coat, skinny jeans and black Docs, Durhailay was the first model to appear in Singh Street Style, a Sikh fashion blog that launched in March. In addition to other artists, London-based creator Pardeep Singh Bahra, a photographer and stylist, often features himself wearing colorful fitted outfits, a stark contrast to the more traditional Sikh dress of loose and monotone shirts and pants. Though he would not respond to questions from The Daily Beast, the blogger recently told The Guardian he founded the site to fill a sartorial space. “I quickly realized that none of the fashion sites I looked at ever featured a turbaned Sikh man,” he said. “I wanted to give the turbaned Sikh man a fair representation within the fashion world, and also show the blend of British and Sikh identities together. I wanted to show that Sikh turbaned men can be just as fashionable as anyone else.”

Despite Bahra and his ilk, Sandhu believes the “small community” of Sikh fashion is growing at a “very slow” pace. According to him, it remains “very hard to find Sikhs in the fashion industry.” Sagmeet thinks this has to do with the way the turban and the beard are represented in the media. “Right now when people see a turban on the news they see it in a very negative way,” he says. “Maybe the designers are afraid that if they put a turban in their fashion line then people will be like, ‘Isn’t this something bad’?” But Sandhu thinks it’s more to do with the Sikh upbringing, noting that Sikh designers in India are also few and far between. He says that his friends in the community are often pressured to continue the family business or are pushed towards more “orthodox” professions like law or medicine.

There is the concern that in fashion, Sikhism is reduced to mere aesthetic. Singh Street Style, according to Vogue India, states its models “must be wearing a Dastar in the photo” even if they don’t regularly. Meanwhile, Jean-Paul Gaultier has been criticized for dressing non-Sikh models in turbans in his Spring 2013 menswear collection. He said he thought it “seemed right” to put his “sailors” in the headdress after seeing images of Sikh turbans. He wasn’t the first haute couturier to do so—in 2011, Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel cruise collection dressed non-Sikh male models in bedazzled turbans as well.

This approach is somewhat misrepresentative of Sikhism, admits Singh-Sohal. In his opinion, “those that fashionize the cutting of beards or hair do not promote the core Sikh tenet of keeping uncut hair so trivialize the very issue they say they’re trying to promote.” Despite the concern that haute couture focuses too much on the aesthetics of Sikhism, however, Singh-Sohal thinks efforts to engage a diverse audience “should be welcomed especially if it brings learning to those who knew very little beforehand of the Sikh people or faith.”