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It’s faith as well as fashion for Indian Australian blogger and turbanista Karan Kaur
The first thing you notice about Karan Preet Kaur is her turban.
Her unique fashion style makes itself obvious a few moments after your eyes linger on her head, and you become aware of her distinctive ways with the trench coat or the leather jacket, the trousers or the skirt, the aviators, the statement necklaces and the boots. Oh, and her innovative ways with pashminas and scarves.
But first, it is the turban that draws attention. It is almost as if she’s saying, hey, look at me, I’m wearing a turban, I’m loving every minute of it, and I bet you are too.
“It’s my crown,” she says of her turban. “I wear it with pride!”
A 21-year-old fashion blogger, Australia-based Karan has made a name for herself in Sikh communities the world over. Her Instagram account Style with Kaur has garnered some 17,000 followers since it was launched in 2014, with one thousand in the very first month alone.
What attracts them, clearly, is her sense of style; her neat lines and her calm and collected demeanour cast her in an air of elegant high fashion, with just the tiniest hint of attitude.
But with regard to her headwear, her modern take on something so traditional – and her absolute comfort with it, to the point of actually flaunting it – is making her something of a role model to women her age.
To put it simply, Karan is ‘kaur-geous’, to borrow a frequently-used term in the comments section of her blog.
The Sikh turban is not only becoming increasingly visible in mainstream Australian society, it is becoming better understood as well.
The young Sikh man in New Zealand who took off his turban to help a bleeding accident victim earlier this year made world headlines for his selfless act, and also helped draw attention to the special significance of the traditional head wear in his religion. The turban-wearing taxi driver in Darwin who regularly supplies meals to the less fortunate similarly highlighted the special tenets of his religion Sikhism, in this case, the idea of seva (service to society).
This is in contrast to the post 9-11 backlash the community faced, as they were confused with Islamic terrorists due to their turbans and facial hair (which the religion bans from cutting).
By being strong in their faith, the Sikhs have begun to have their religion – the fifth largest in the world, larger even than Judaism which comes in at sixth – better understood.
Karan Kaur is doing this in her own way as a turbanista-fashionista.
She tells Indian Link, “For me, wearing a turban is more than just representing myself. I’m an ambassador for my religion. Being fashionable doesn’t necessarily mean you need to follow the trends, it also means you can be a trend setter. You want your personality to reflect in your style; it’s about making a statement without ever whispering a word.”
You can hardly blame the fans for hailing her ‘chardi kala’ (Punjabi for ‘positive attitude’). Why, she even modelled a statement hoodie with the words ‘Feeling the chardi kala vibes’. You go, girl!
Sydney-born and bred, Karan Kaur took to the turban only in her teens.
“I was 16 years old when I started wearing the dastaar (turban),” she reveals. “When I first put it on, I felt like a queen! It was my crown. Choosing the dastaar was honestly the best decision I have ever made. It was (the culmination of) a spiritual journey. My dastaar is very sacred to me. It not only defines who I am, but what I stand for. Both my parents and my younger sister wear the dastaar, as well as some of my close friends.”
The act of wrapping the turban around the head is said to be spiritual in itself. It is prescribed that one should steady the mind and calm oneself before starting the process of tying the five metres of fabric.
To remove as well, it is recommended to unwrap carefully so that it doesn’t touch the floor, to shake out and then fold neatly until its next use.
Even non-Sikhs who have tried on the turban (such as in the Turbans and Trust*) have reported that wearing the turban evokes a sense of peace.
Karan says it takes her no longer than 5-10 minutes to put her turban on. “I use F74 and mulmul (muslin) fabric. I have many colours, but the main colours I tend to wear are black, white, navy blue, royal blue and orange.”
How do others treat her because of her turban? Do they think she is overly religious? Has she ever felt ostracised because of it – or that she has been treated differently?
“It all comes down to the way you behave and act towards others. People around me, including strangers, don’t treat me any differently. I believe this is because I myself act normal with them, without making things awkward,” Karan says.
“Australia is definitely changing; what once was a melting pot is now becoming a society with various distinct ethnicities. The mainstream community have become more accepting of our differences. It was quite easy for me to wear a dastaar at work and school. People were actually very welcoming and understanding of my appearance and supported me from day one. Perhaps this was because I took the initiative myself to educate them about what the dastaar means to a Sikh and the significance it holds. I’ve learnt that if you educate the people about your culture, they are respectful of it.”
Would she encourage her daughter to wear the dastaar, when she has one?
“I would never force my children to wear the dastaar,” Karan replies with conviction. “I will obviously guide them in the right direction, but I will give them the responsibility to decide if they want to wear it or not.”
Karan Kaur launched Style With Kaur as a Fashion Design and Technology student in March 2014.
It came about as the result of not having Sikh role models who embraced an edge to their fashion while still adhering to the basic tenets of their religion.
“After years of frustration with the fashion world and my inability to find someone, even a designer, who spoke to my needs, I felt it was time I took matters in my own hands,” Karan says. “I realised that a female turbaned model did not exist. For males, there are prominent turbaned figures in the film and fashion industry, but for women, there are none. That is sad, given that my religion is all about equality between the sexes. So I wanted to change that; I wanted to push the norms and create a runway for turbaned women. Also, I thought it would be really interesting to see the fashion industry’s response to turbaned Kaurs. This was my inspiration for Style With Kaur.”
The dastaar forms an essential aspect of her style. Well, it is the reason for Karan to be fashionable – it is what makes her more fashion-forward.
“I usually select my dastaar first – it is the first thing people notice! I believe it is what makes my outfits look good and ‘stylish’. I always match the colour of my dastaar to the outfit I’m going to be wearing. I’m fascinated with wearing different patterned dastaars. Some people might say it is not in the Sikh norm to wear such dastaars, but I believe being unique is what differentiates us from others.”
Karan claims she doesn’t have a particular role model that inspires her, even though her blog is replete with references to the usual personalities you’d expect such as Audrey Hepburn and Coco Chanel, and Sonam Kapoor from the Indian scene.
But she is a keen observer, and learns from other people.
“I always look at how people dress and think how I would style them differently! In my own fashion sense, I like to stand out and look different to everyone else. I use fashion to represent who I am. I make my personality shout through my clothing. I want people to know who I am without having to say anything.”
“The number one step in finding your fashion philosophy is to be honest to yourself. I cannot express how important it is to be yourself. You don’t want to portray yourself as someone you’re not. The worst thing you can do, and the biggest gap in defining your style, is wearing clothes to simply ‘fit in’ or to have a sense of belonging. Keeping it real and being true to yourself is the only way on discovering your style journey.”
Of her 16.8k Instagram followers, it is hard to define a typical admirer. They come from the Sikh diaspora in Australia, US, UK and of course India (check out Karan’s posts from her recent travels in Punjab to see how fans in Ludhiana, Jullundur and Chandigarh reacted to news of her visit to their towns). There are young women her own age; older women and males who encourage her Sikhism; Muslim women who are forging their own style within their own faith, and Caucasian members who simply like her style.
Of course, there are also those who are critical.
Some, for example, say Sikhi (Sikhism) is about simplicity and fashion has no place in the religion.
Karan’s response? We live in the 21st century and must adapt to changing times.
“I want to show Sikh women they can mix religion with fashion and show them it’s OK to be stylish and fashionable while still being religious.”
In the early days, there was much comment about her eyebrows – were they plucked? If they were, then it was claimed she was not an Amritdhari (baptised) Sikh, who are banned from cutting any form of hair on the body, and as such, she had no business in donning the turban.
As the discussion carried on, Karan made some attempts to explain, and then, perhaps wisely, gave up altogether. (Mitti pao, she once said prudently, colloquial Punjabi for ‘let’s close this debate and move on’). Luckily, most of her followers took her advice. When the issue crops up occasionally now, she chooses sagely to ignore it.
What she definitely does not ignore, are the requests for styling advice.
“I get messages all the time from young girls that are scared to wear certain clothing because of the dastaar. I help them out as much as I can. I tell them that developing your style is like painting a picture. Your body is the blank canvas and your clothing is the artwork. By using your imagination you are able to create an outfit according to the occasion, the weather or your mood, just like creating a painting.”
So, what’s in the future for Karan?
“Honestly, I don’t even know myself. There’s so much I want to do and achieve! I want to take as many opportunities as I can with styling Sikh women, because I know they are definitely not represented enough in the media and if Style With Kaur can change that, that would be terrific. Then, a fashion line maybe; my vision is to create something unique and different – modest and yet stylish and trendy. And of course with the incorporation of Indian couture.”
More about the Sikh turban
The turban is the most identifiable symbol of Sikhism – or Sikhi as its practitioners call it. It is an essential part of religious bana (attire).
At a time when Hindu and Muslim aristocrats alone wore turbans and carried swords, all adherents of the Sikh religion were instructed to do so too, as a means to signify that all human beings are equal.
The unshorn hair is tied up in a top knot over the solar centre. The pressure this creates on the solar centre is believed to help in the channelling of energy during meditation. The top knot is covered with five metres of cotton cloth. The pressure of the multiple wraps keeps the 26 bones of the skull in place. The pressure points on the forehead are said to help keep the wearer calm and relaxed.
As part of its non-sexist philosophy, the Sikh religion welcomes women who want to wear the turban.
The turban looks different for men and women because the solar centres are located differently: at the top of the head for males (at the anterior fontanel or the dashan dwaar, the tenth chakra), and further back for females (at the posterior fontanel). The women’s turban therefore becomes rounded, whereas the men’s version is pointed.
For both though, the turban is more than a mere piece of cloth: it is one and the same with the wearer’s head.