Punk, hippie, khadhi – clothing is often used as an expression of identity and politics. But what about the three-piece suit as a form of resistance? We take a look at how South Asian pioneers used fashion as resistance in Vancouver during the early 1900s.
One of the most familiar photographs from the Komagata Maru features leader Gurdit Singh standing with his son and other travellers on the ship, ready for a group photo. He wears a sharp white suit, and flanking his sides are passengers in distinctive ties and turbans. Whether mismatched, tailored or ill-fitting, the majority of them wear three-piece suits to varying degrees of comfort. It’s a stunning image that highlights how the passengers subversively mix Eastern and Western dress. And perhaps even more powerful is how they stare into the camera, as if to say, “We are no different from the rest of you” in their outward appearances.
The arrival of the 376 British Indians was met with racism and hatred, especially in local newspapers like The Province, which ran headlines like, “Boat Loads of Hindus on Way to Vancouver,” and “Hindu Invasion of Canada.” The hopeful citizens on the boat were positioned as the “Other” who threatened the vision of a White Canada. Many of the political cartoons in The Vancouver Sun and Saturday Sunset depicted the passengers wearing dhotis, skirts, and heavy turbans to caricature them as foreign. It made the reality of their stylish dressing a direct contrast to how they were constructed in the press.
Most often, fashion from the early 1900s meant structured suits that fit the Indian men with varying degrees of finesse. Some men looked a bit ill at ease in their outfits, which did not quite fit or were mismatched.This aesthetic appealed to Ali Kazimi, the filmmaker of Komagata Maru documentary, “Continuous Journey,” and author of the book, Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru. His short film piece, “Fair Play,” is an immersive 3D installation at the Surrey Art Gallery that features vignettes of the lives of the early Sikh men.
“These pioneers were used to wearing military fatigues which were very Western, along with their turbans and military ceremonial uniforms which were very very Western,” says Kazimi. “There was a degree of comfort there, but having said that, many of them [the passengers] had not served in the British Indian Army and did not have that comfort. When you look at the images, you can see the levels of comfort or discomfort in terms of their body language in wearing the clothes. You can also see in many occasions the mismatch of clothes. The jacket is often ill-fitting or the waistcoat might not match the jacket, those were the details that I used with Fair Play.”
Maintaining a refined look was not just a fashion statement for the early pioneers, it was a way to avoid further scrutiny and being ostracized by White Canadians.
In 1907, the Sikh Temple on 2nd Avenue issued an edict that members were to wear a three-piece or Western suit with polished shoes and a timepiece. Often, a member would be at the doors of the temple to check whether others had followed the dress code. In some of the photographs from the early 1900s in Downtown Vancouver, we see Indian men wearing tailored blazers, waistcoats, tapered trousers, and pocket watches.
Using the white man’s dress code was subversive. If South Asians were being judged by the colour of their skin, they switched the narrative to the clothes they wore. By wearing the same clothes, at that outward level they were claiming equality. It may not have impacted discrimination laws, but it called into question the “difference” that the White Canadians used when claiming superiority. The fact that the discrimination was based entirely on skin colour created a sense of pride for the community – at least at one level, they were on an equal ground with the White man and could call out their hypocrisy.
South Asian men would have faced more racial backlash if they wore Indian clothing, but they managed to convey so much in their Western clothing. These outfits challenged the racist stereotypes portrayed in the media and discriminatory laws because it was a uniquely British and Indian take on colonial style.
I cannot help but adore many of the early photos of the Sikh men, looking like veritable dandies in their polished outfits, so striking and formal. An iconic photo (above) depicts two Sikh men crossing the road in their tailored three-piece suits. The older gentleman wears a white jacket with his dark waistcoat and trousers, and this mismatch of colours somehow looks exquisite here with the visible timepiece on display. The younger man went for an arresting waistcoat with white piping, which makes the outfit stand out from the other men on the street.
Fashion played a distinct role in the lives of the early pioneers who shaped these Western suits to their liking and looked quite dapper. Whether it was the hopeful passengers on the Komagata Maru or the Indian men working amongst White Canadians, the three-piece suit held more than just their pride and agency, it was their survival. It is almost revelatory to look back on the early photos of the first generation of the South Asian community and realize how impactful a pocket-watch or outfit may have been in asserting their identities as Canadians.
Interested in learning more about the Komagata Maru and early South Asian immigrants to Canada? Visit our special Komagata Maru: We Remember section for stories about history, racism, fashion and film.
Photographs: Vancouver Public Library, SFU Library Archive