Kate’s pretty outfits

Updated 23 Oct 2019


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IT is the curse, perhaps, of every post-colonial condition. The rational rendition of the present tells us to drop the costumes of our subjugation and directs us toward a pre-colonial way of being that no one can recall.

Our instinctual tendency however seems to be servility, one which emerges especially when royal members of the white race alight on our doorstep. After all, if all the maharajas and nawabs of India were willing to bow before the crown at the Delhi durbar, held in honour of a Queen Victoria who cheekily did not attend, then why should those living now be any different?

Perhaps because of this legacy of bowing, everyone knows their role well: the elites and industrialists of our small struggling country flit about boasting of their knowledge of London shops and of meeting with royals of old, the religious ones bring out their prescriptions and jauntily — if predictably — condemn the West. The remainder, the large silent suffering, say nothing, continue to worry about their jobs and their lives and the pressure of family demands and the general torture of a country made for the few.

None of this is a problem, for as far as dissecting the royals is concerned, the British have done it themselves. In a lecture titled ‘Royal Bodies’ and published in The London Review of Books, Hilary Mantel, celebrated as Britain’s most eminent living author, sums it up: “Kate seems to have been selected for her role as princess because she was irreproachable, as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without risks of the emergence of character. She appears precision made, machine made” and “a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung”, “a shop-window mannequin”, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by the clothes.

Our instinctual tendency however seems to be servility, one which emerges especially when royal members of the white race alight on our doorstep.

In Mantel’s view (and she was criticised for her comments) Kate and everything she represents is a tragedy; the pitiably predictable duties, ribbon-cutting and cake-cutting, fashion and frippery. All of this was on display as Kate and William took rickshaw rides and danced with the Kalash (one wonders if the Kalash’s dutiful function as royal entertainment can become an argument for their preservation) and things back home in Britain remained submerged in a miasma of uncertainty.

The queen herself, ashen and leaden, was during the days of the visit enacting her own pantomime. On October 15, the monarch, all dressed up in her jewels and baubles and sporting the actual crown, read out a ‘Queen’s Speech’ detailing the plans and provisions of a government that is sure to end before the month is up. Her speech was pointless but it was its very pointlessness that highlighted the situation of the monarchy itself. Lacking any real relevance to what happens in the United Kingdom, the queen and prince and duchess are all sentenced to scripted roles, the forever props who may not step outside their polite smiles and nods.

All of this makes the clothes, especially the duchess’s clothes, terribly important. As Mantel would put it, it is she who was selected for the clothes rather than vice versa. In this regard, the designers who had a part in producing the clothes the princess wore can claim a bit role in the royal production of modelling: health, wealth and glamour.

It is all very well in Pakistan, however, for the “jointed doll on which certain rags are hung” also happens to be the model of the ideal Pakistani woman. The tittering Pakistani elites, decked out themselves and all set to gasp and gaze at the visiting royal couple, love such women. Young women and girls all over the land are regularly selected as wives and daughters-in-law based on their ability to be the best jointed dolls on which certain rags can be hung.

There are other more pernicious reasons that Pakistan adores royals of all sorts. Pakistani society continues to be tied to primordial identities, the accident of birth determining the station of life, inherited wealth passing generation after generation into the same hands. Who your father is and who your grandfather was are matters of crucial importance here and now; all of this is to say that while the world may have turned away from such limiting fictions, they are carefully preserved and proclaimed in the land of the pure. Naturally, in such a society, the adulation of royalty is not a thing of the past: a vestigial treat of tradition, it is alive and well and a value in the present.

Pakistani pretences tend to hide acts of puppetry. If the royals are facile and perfunctory in the United Kingdom, while prime ministers and parliaments make the real laws and legislation, it is not quite the case in Pakistan. Those enacting the rituals of democratic government are the frail puppets on whose skeletons offices and titles and the hopes of the harangued hapless masses are hung. The rituals and rules of governance are acted out for public consumption with some fervour, the services of a small army of talk-show hosts deployed as emissaries of their legitimacy. The matter of representative government hangs by a thread in Pakistan, a thread that can unspool an entire fabric at first tug.

Given all of this, Pakistanis need not object to the British royals, for their fashion choices or their frippery or the choreographed tedium of their tour. They should lament the contrast that the appearance of princes and princesses of a figurehead monarchy highlights at home. In what century will the purveyors of inherited wealth and privilege in Pakistan be figureheads, no one can say. What can be said is that while the British royals seem to have moved on from tragedies past, new faces and races adding to their numbers, the Pakistan they visit periodically to remind themselves that it’s not that fun to rule all the world, remains stubborn and stolid, still nursing a forever frail and feeble democracy.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2019