In fashion: Flying colours

Published March 29, 2015
Nomi Ansari
Nomi Ansari

Much has been said about the PIA’s endeavor to revamp its crew’s uniform in an effort to fulfill that erstwhile promise of being ‘great people to fly with’. Sixteen designers worked pro bono, putting forth sample uniform designs for the cabin crew and ground staff in a slick, well-organised show — quite in contrast to the lumbering, doddering white elephant the airline has sadly become.

Orchestrated by the inimitable Bunto Kazmi, overseen by an illustrious panel of judges, with PR mastermind Frieha Altaf transforming the catwalk into an airport runway and creating an airplane cabin-tunnel at the entrance, the show culminated in the selection of a savvier wardrobe for the ambassadors that represent Pakistan to the world — provided that the airline they work for manages to get enough planes to take passengers around the world, provided that those planes function properly and so on forth and so forth.

The PIA’s launch into a fashionable flight of fancy is laudable but the effort has invoked plenty of caustic comments.

We’ve all suffered through enough delays, cancelled flights, rickety planes and even the odd on-board rat to feel skeptical about the airline’s effort to wrap their tired old aircrafts in shiny designer candy-foil. In an effort to allay the negativity, PIA Chairman Nasser Jafar claims that the new uniform is just the beginning of a much wider makeover, with the airline procuring 15 new airplanes and paying greater attention to cleanliness and timeliness of flights.

Moving past the hackneyed discussion of whether PIA will manage to rise from the ashes, the uniform designs selected for the crew are worth some scrutiny. Nomi Ansari has been selected to dress the airhostesses in solid-toned business-like shalwar kameez with matching blazers accessorized by gold buttons. Sania Maskatiya’s jaunty cap and colourful printed scarf are going to be used as female headgear, coats are going to be created along the lines designed by Yasmin Shaikh while the male crew-members are going to be suited up a la Republic’s Omer Farooq.


PIA uniforms have changed along with Pakistani society. Will the new designs stand the test of time?


These selected designs are definitely austere choices, especially given the more colourful, avant-garde options that were shown on the runway. According to Bunto Kazmi, consideration was especially given to selecting designs that were resilient enough to go through umpteen washes and comfortable enough to be worn through long flights (and delays). But the judges have also evidently toed safe lines, making sure that PIA’s globetrotters manage to appease the mindset of a country that constantly yo-yos from complete fundamentalism to a slightly more relaxed demeanor and before you can bat an eyelid, back to a fatwa-slamming women-hating, ever-aggressive milieu.

Nomi’s winning uniform design has demure three-quarter sleeves, a full-sleeved blazer and the dupatta is a stitched scarf that can easily be draped over the head as well as cover the bosom. Embellishments have been minimised with the focus being on sophisticated cuts. The colour palette is restricted to dark hues that are more resistant to food stains and the Pakistani green has been ostensibly replaced by a mushroom hue. “The plane’s already green and white and so is the flag. I wanted the uniform to be slightly different,” says Nomi.

It’s a timeless design that brought on a fair share of critique on social media. Some compared it to the Qatar Airways uniform. Adding his two bits, comedian Danish Ali proposed that Nomi should perhaps also reinvent the stale PIA egg sandwich.

But moving beyond the inevitable criticism and quips, the selected design is a sensible option for a uniform that has to stay the same for the next 10 years. While one wants to stay optimistic, who knows how many shades Pakistan’s ever-changing socio-political climate may have undergone by then? Nomi’s uniform happily walks the balancing act between modern fashion and boring traditionalism.

Skimming the PIA uniform’s sartorial history, this isn’t the first time that the garment has emulated changes taking place within the country.

The History Girls of PIA
The History Girls of PIA

Back in the open-minded mid-50s, when the airline first came into the horizon, our airhostesses were clad in skirts with a matching cap and (god forbid!) no dupatta to speak of. The late ’50s marked the end of that very smart long skirt, which certainly must have been considered hedonistic by many — for even back then, when we our nation was yet to be tarnished by pessimism, we had a penchant for making declarations atop the religious high horse.

The new uniform was created by Laila Shahzada and Chausie Fountainer and consisted of a white shalwar and dupatta, a green shirt with white cuffs and collar, a green cap and a black bag. It was an utterly Pakistani look that airhostesses probably felt more comfortable in. Neat and crisp, it complemented the hope and ambitions that then fostered the fledgling Pakistan.

Moving on to the swingin’ ’60s, the world let its hair down and Ayub Khan’s military regime took off in Pakistan and the PIA uniform responded by getting tweaked ever-so-slightly when Feroze Cowasjee slimmed down the airhostess’ dupatta. By the mid-60s, though, the dupatta had widened enough to entwine the shoulders and cover the head, in a design created by the famous Pierre Cardin. The designer created the uniform in two colours: fawn for the summer and green for the winter. The shirts were in short, A-line shapes and trousers were sleek and slim-fit. Cardin’s uniform symbolised changing global trends where it was being realised that airhostesses needed to look sensible and business-like as opposed to as eye candy for lascivious passengers. And while the repressive Zia regime was yet to be inflicted on Pakistani society, it made sense for airhostesses representing the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to cover their heads, albeit in a stylish way.

From the mid ’70s to the mid ’80s, as Bhutto’s regime ended and gave way to Ziaul Haq’s, the PIA uniform was diffident but pretty. Sir Henry Amies, royal dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II, created purple and magenta shirts with embroidered necklines, teaming them with printed dupattas inspired by indigenous embroideries covering the head and green shalwars. Black leather sandals and black bags completed the look, which actually makes one wonder why PIA hasn’t bothered to shortlist accessories to go with their current selection of uniforms. Logo-ed PIA bags, perhaps, or a pair of eye-catching shoes would have added verve to the recent sedate, mass-friendly selection.

Republic by Omer Farooq
Republic by Omer Farooq

From the mid-80s to the early 2000s, as the country ricocheted from military rule to truncated democracies and back again, the PIA uniform refused to change with the volatile political climate. The airline stuck to designs created by Nahid Azfar: mossy green and rose pink shalwar kameezes for the summer were teamed with striped chiffon dupattas; a dull PIA green and burgundy palette for the winter was accessorised by a matching dupatta and sleeveless printed floral waistcoat.

Thereon, Riffat Yasmin added colour to PIA’s crew with the shalwar kameez dabbling into mustard, sea-green and rust hues, complemented by a dupatta in floral print. The shalwar was narrow and shirt lengths wavered about the knee; mundane but sensible silhouettes representing an airline that, in the 2000s, was deteriorating beyond sensibility. As the country grew more and more instable, the PIA uniform trudged on in its run-of-the-mill avatar. More than the uniform, the airline itself now resembled the country: never reliable, constantly struggling and ever-turbulent.

Yet, despite all odds and plenty of detractors, the PIA’s just put out a show that indicates a change in outlook.

“The smart new uniform is indicative of a smarter new PIA,” says Naseem Jaffer, wife of PIA’s Chairman, who played a key role in the uniform fashion show. “The cap is there because it looks neat and the scarf may or may not be used to cover the head but it does cover the bosom. It’s a look that speaks of our Eastern aesthetics and yet, won’t make our staff look like oddballs in an international flight.”

Pessimists that we are, this may just be a case of pouring old wine in a new designer-made bottle. Certainly, new uniforms are hardly a solution to PIA’s many, many shortcomings. But this may be a start and a few years down the line, we may actually feel more comfortable travelling in a spanking new, clean PIA aircraft.

And while PIA’s still on its quest for self-improvement, may we suggest a Masterchef-like cook off to decide upon the food to be served in the airline? A bit less of that bland biryani, a complete elimination of the undercooked korma and a few more succulent delicacies would certainly have our vote.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 29th, 2015

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