Today, finding a woman dressed in a sari on the roads of Pakistan is as improbable as finding a burqa on a Brazilian beach. There was a time, some 50 years ago, when you would spot burqas and saris as well as shalwar kameezes and peddle-pushers in Pakistani cities. And you wouldn’t even blink in surprise at the sight. The current culture vulture — replete with laws and restrictions — overshadows climate, history or Pakistan’s original ideology, which are usually the few things that determine a nation’s sartorial identity.
Here are a few landmarks on the style map of Pakistan. We may not have 50 dresses that changed the history of the nation (not that dresses ever can) but these are strong trends in fashion, designed and worn with a gentle reflection of the way we were …
Ghararas: women in white, redefined Images of the ’40s and early ’50s in Pakistan can be identified by the purity of the Lucknowi belt, the ghararas, shararas, Dhaka and Aligarh pajamas that Fatima Jinnah and Begum Ra’ana Liaqat Ali Khan were frequently photographed in. They were easily the female role models of the ’40s, if not Pakistan’s entire existence, and they were also style icons of that era. Fashion back then paid homage to the Muslim craftsmen who gave us muslin kurtas, chikankari and the hundreds of techniques that could be documented in another version of White Mughals.
However, the sophistication of humble white muslin soon made way for the opulence of the shahana jora, the gharara designed for brides and one woman emerged as couturier per excellence: Sughra Kazmi.
“Sughra Kazmi was the first person to take ownership of the Mughal heritage,” remembers Maheen Khan, who is archiving her memories of Pakistani fashion through the ages these days. “She allowed the farshi gharara and the structure of Mughal clothes to survive. We wouldn’t have half the Mughal Empire if she hadn’t preserved it.”
Saris: unraveling the whole six yards Christian Dior created the New Look in 1947, severing all ties holding fashion hostage during World War II, and 10 years later, Pakistan’s ‘new looks’ shifted from the safe and sophisticated to the celebratory. Overpowering the late ’50s, the swinging ’60s rolled in as a time for joie de vivre, winning the war and yes, clubbing.
The sari was the new wardrobe ‘must-have’ for fashion-conscious ladies. Stilettos clicked as silk and chiffon pallus swayed seductively. Blouses were tightly knotted bustiers and red nails the accessory of every evening out. It was the era of the film star, with Shamim Ara, Zeba, Tarana and Noor Jehan its trendsetters. Fashion grew cheek with Pakistan’s first pool of models like Rehana Omar, who infamously posed in a bathtub full of soapsuds for Capri Soap.
“People were shocked!” she smiles at the memory as Images on Sunday caught her on the phone from Islamabad. “But yes, I did enjoy wearing hipster saris, simply because I had a very good figure. Even after two kids I had a 24-inch waist. The sari was the most glamorous option for eveningwear in those days.”
Saris skimmed the scene, even on political horizons. Nasim Aurangzeb, Ayub Khan’s daughter, wore some of the most beautiful saris when touring with her father (Ayub Khan’s wife reportedly observed purdah) and Begum Nusrat Bhutto was an icon of stately dignity.
The teddy: naughty by nature Men have memories of the teddy shirt being so tight that a stroke of a sharp blade would have the entire tunic fall apart! Art students of the ’60s remember bicycling down Mall Road in their teddies to get to the Punjab University. Streaming straight from Hollywood, the teddy was the modern woman’s weapon, and took inspiration from femme fatales such a Nina Lollobrigida.
“The teddy was a very tightly fitted shirt that was actually a variation of nightwear,” explains Rizwan Beyg. “That’s where the name ‘teddy’ comes from.”
That said, teddy bears were the last thing on their minds when women walked out in their second-skin tunics paired with shalwars having ankle cuffs so fitted that they could be pulled on only with the help of a titch button. In utilitarian terms, the tunics may have been tight but the trousers gave them mobility that ghararas and saris never could.
Women like Fauzia Khuhro and Fauzia Hai, Rakshanda Khattak and Maheen Khan herself were models of the teddy time. There was more to their style — peddle pushers, maxis, eventually bell-bottoms and flappers — but the teddy stole the show.
Awami: nationalism, patriotism, conservatism Pakistani fashion divorced the West in the ’70s. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became an emblem of the awami look and hot on the heels of nationalism strode in Teejays, Pakistan’s first organised fashion designer.
“Teejays is to the shalwar kameez what Levi’s is to denim,” was one of Tanvir Jamshed’s many slogans and he transported the awami look from Bhutto’s political dais to the high street. More memorably, the awami look made its way to state television with Kiran Kahani (1973) starring Roohi Bano. TV took over from where films had left. Style stayed.
The awami look for women was androgynous. Masculine collars, brass buttons and sturdy epaulettes featured as a staple in designs. The dupatta — which had already simmered down to rope-like proportions with the teddy — almost disappeared.
“My friend and I turned up at a railways station wearing one of these buttoned up shirts I had designed and men around us stopped in wide-eyed wonder,” remembers Maheen. “One of them stepped up and asked whether we were PIA hostesses!”
Unbelievably, PIA fashion was the ‘in’ thing. In stepped Naheed Azfer, or rather Zia-ul-Haq, who appointed Azfer the task of creating a uniform that would not look remotely feminine (it’s shocking that he didn’t ban air hostesses altogether). He asked her to design something similar to what she herself was wearing.
In continuation, the ’80s rolled in as the decade of the shalwar: something decent, desi and non-descript, which the average shalwar was. Men billowed into offices, much to the dismay of officers who considered it the ‘lazy man’s attire’. To make things worse, official uniforms were given waistcoats, unarguably the single most unstylish garment in the fashion history of Pakistan.
Shalwars soon made it to designers’ drawing boards and then ladies’ wardrobes, soon to be modified to the dhoti, cowl, Turkish and Patiala shalwar. Style was replaced by fashion.
Fashion labels: Rise of the Titans The last two decades can be devoted to the fashion industry, designers who stepped in to do damage control on the Zia era and its impact on all things fashionable. Maheen Khan, Rizwan Beyg, Nilofer Shahid, Shamaeel, Sana Safinaz, Amir Adnan and many more laid the foundation and they aimed at retrieving Pakistan’s art, reviving its culture and possibly innovating a new era for Pakistani fashion. Western trends started coming back; YSL’s power dressing could be seen in shoulder pads that Benazir Bhutto insisted on wearing in her kameezes. Shoulder pads gave her an air of additional power, she felt.
Style icons were replaced by super models Attiya Khan, Neshmia, Frieha Altaf, Bibi, Aliya Zaidi, Lulu and Zoella to begin with.
The turn of the century unleashed the fashion students, the trained marketeers — Maria B, Maheen Kardar, Kamiar Rokni, HSY and Nomi Ansari — who brought in branding, which formerly was never a priority. If the pioneers were the glorious past then this ‘brat pack’ was the future of fashion. If Nurjehan Bilgrami had brought handspun khaadi out of the woodwork then Shamoon Sultan took it to the retail circuit as Pakistan’s biggest fashion brand.
We are well aware of who we were but what we lost somewhere on the way is one coherent identity. And that’s the challenge for designers today: to innovate Pakistani fashion in the context of who we are today. Is it in the 32 yards of a farshi gharara/wedding ensemble or the gargantuan folds of a Baloch’s shalwar? Is Pakistaniat reflected in the Swarovski crystals that adorn ‘fusion’ or is this genre simply leading to more confusion? Are we to look at the motifs of truck art that find their way from W-11s to daywear or do we wave the burqa as the icon of the 21st Century Pakistani woman? Perhaps a little bit of all or none of the above, who’s going to design the way we’re going to be?