‘Desert Chic’ on the British High Street: The Commodification of Indian Hand Embroidery

by Eiluned Edwards


Indian embroidery has enjoyed something of a resurgence on the British high street in the past few years. It adorns soft furnishings, garments and accessories and is part of a notable decorative trend that eschews the “ethnic look” of the hippy era (1960s and 1970s) and espouses a post-modern eclecticism. Apart from companies such as Monsoon, East and Toast which have long-included blockprints, tie-dyes, embroideries and beadwork in their collections – the likes of H&M, Zara and Topshop and discount stores, T. K. Maxx, have all embraced the trend. (fig 1) A brief survey of the UK high street reveals a considerable range of products that are to a greater or lesser extent decorated with Indian embroidery…. To a casual observer these good might appear “much of a muchness;” vaguely “ethnic” and “crafty” and part of a broader, cosmopolitan style that has seen Indonesian ikats, Mexican tiles, Turkish kilims, tajines from Tunisia and Central Asian suzani become staples of British fashion and interiors. But closer examination of some of the embroidered goods for sale on the high street reveals the complexity of the trade, reflecting amongst other things, the effects of globalisation, cultural exchange, and economic and social development. While it is not within the scope of this paper to present a comprehensive survey of contemporary Indian embroidery, key aspects of its production and circulation are identified, and also of its abiding presence in cultural exchange notably between India and the UK.

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