NON-FICTION: STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

Published May 16, 2021
An early shop-front for Tee Jays, Pakistan’s first prêt brand
An early shop-front for Tee Jays, Pakistan’s first prêt brand

In today’s world, fashion has become ‘fast’ and extremely competitive. Brands fight for customers’ attention, shop-fronts open and close in a matter of days, the industry continues to grow and, thanks to Instagram, has even seeped into our phones. For many young people in Pakistan, it may seem like this was always how the fashion world worked; however, for the industry to reach the heights it has now, one definitely needs to read its history.

Until 2020, that history was inaccessible and gathering dust in old archives. But, thanks to the efforts of Mehr F. Husain and Saad Sarfraz Sheikh, we can finally have a look at how our fashion industry began. Pakistan: A Fashionable History, a glossy, well-produced coffee-table book, is the first-ever compilation and retelling of Pakistan’s fashion history.

I bought this book as a true lover of all things fashion, and I expected it to interact with fashion from the industry’s point of view. However, what I found was different and refreshing. Husain and Sheikh look at Pakistani fashion both holistically and critically. They don’t just talk about the comings and goings of trends and designers, they explain why these trends happened, who caused them and, in some cases, what caused them.

The writers merge Pakistan’s history with its fashion history because nothing can truly happen in isolation. Thus, the book is not just for fashion lovers, but for everyone. The narrative takes into consideration political turmoil, censorship and dictatorship, Western influences, postcolonial hangovers and how our fashion gave rise to the fashion industry of India.

Organised into sections ranging from Pakistani fashion’s formation to its uptick and eventual heights, what is most impressive about the book is how it also tells the story of a young nation. I may risk sounding jingoistic here, but this book follows how a young nation began to dress and identify itself.

Advertisements from the 1960s | Photos from the book
Advertisements from the 1960s | Photos from the book

It also shows us what parts of its artisanal history and craft it chose to work with, thereby forever setting the stage for future designs and trends. At the end of the day, the clothes we wear define us and create an impression in the minds of others, so the task for some of Pakistan’s first clothing designers was massive. They had a radical question to answer: how do we want to define ourselves?

A well-produced coffee-table book is the first-ever compilation and retelling of Pakistan’s fashion history

As you flip through the pages, you can see the freedom with which our early designers tackled this question. Pakistan, being a ‘new’ country, had the freedom to be ‘new’ in fashion, and set itself up to be a powerful force in South Asia’s fashion scene.

Walking us down the halls of history, the book shows that our industry in the past was heavily experimental and bold. The photo-shoots, designs and even the prints were far ahead of their time. Some images really show how fluid our fashion industry was, in the sense that it allowed for outward expressions of sexuality, desire and self to spring forth. From androgynous designs to ultra-masculine and ultra-feminine expression, our fashion industry did it all, and, let me tell you, did it well!

The interviews — and subsequent revelations — are an absolute treat to read. Often on television we see ‘fluff’ interviews or shows that interact with fashion on a very superficial level and, even if we do see ‘deep dives’, these are often considered ‘niche’ shows. Husain and Sheikh conduct interviews that are candid, and move past the facade of grandeur or glamour. These are real interviews, with real people, about their real struggles and triumphs.

The writers’ selection is well-rounded; they speak not only to fashion designers, but also to photographers, make-up artists and models. This reminds us that, while the designers’ work is pivotal, everyone else around them helps to create the aesthetic and those fashion moments or shoots that end up becoming unforgettable.

Atiya Khan models a vibrant Maheen Khan outfit on the cover of Herald magazine’s June 1987 issue
Atiya Khan models a vibrant Maheen Khan outfit on the cover of Herald magazine’s June 1987 issue

These interviews are what truly show how the industry has had to work, evolve and struggle in Pakistan, given the country’s own tumultuous history. Wherever and whenever cultural expressions were curtailed, fashion was hurt and the industry would regress. However, with each interview featured in the book, you see that the industry well and truly bounced back, often higher than where it initially was.

Reading Pakistan: A Fashionable History can leave one feeling a little melancholic. Not to sound clichéd, but one is left with a yearning for ‘those’ days when the shoots were bold and the trends even bolder. I say this because, while the book reflects on the past, it also shines a strong light on our present and future.

Social media has led to the emergence of troll armies that have, unfortunately, taken on the role of protectors of our national morality and bullied us all into quiet submission. We’ve been forced to follow their version of morality because very few of us are willing and brave enough to stand up against it. Give this book to a Gen-Zer, or even a Millennial, and they will wonder what Pakistan this was.

Of course, the book does not cover the entire fashion history of Pakistan, and neither did it set out to do so. It actually begins when a very noticeable change entered Pakistan’s fashion market. Pret lines boomed, setting off the beginning of our own version of ‘fast fashion’. Soon, the lawn craze took over and we formed entire seasons around it. Later, Instagram influencers sent fashion timelines into overdrive. All this is changing the way we see, buy and interact with fashion.

Having read Pakistan: A Fashionable History and thus knowing how our fashion industry evolved in the past, I’m excited to see where it goes in the future. The pace of evolution has accelerated; how will Pakistani fashion keep up, and what will it churn out as a result? If this book teaches us anything, it is that we need to document and preserve these changes, otherwise this very interesting time in fashion could very easily be lost.

In several online talks and panels, both Husain and Sheikh echoed a very important sentiment, that I feel is carried in the book. Pakistan is a country that has been defined by its recent and violent past. But there are other stories, wide-ranging and specific, that have yet to be uncovered and told and this, in itself, is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.

The authors of this book have taken that leap. They have inadvertently challenged their readers to carry on the timeline, not only of fashion, but of anything and everything else, because truly, this is all uncharted and undocumented territory.

The reviewer is a writer based out of Lahore and founder of an anthology for young desi writers called The Desi Collective.

He tweets @ArslanArsuArsi

Pakistan: A Fashionable History
By Mehr F. Husain and Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Zuka, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9692349109
147pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 16th, 2021

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