As a garment, the shalwar we wear today is more than 2000 years old. It traces its introduction into South Asia from the Turkish-Iranian Empire in which people preferred to wear drawstring pants as they were comfortable during horseback riding. Even the word shalwar traces its roots to the Arabic word 'Sarwal' (pants). Today, however, the shalwar kameez is more popular in the sub-continent than its countries of origin.
Through time, the shalwar has seen many changes and has evolved according to the region and the environment in which it is worn.
The Patiala shalwar was originally worn by the King of Patiala and is characterised by heavy frontal pleats and was traditionally worn with knee length shirts. The modern-day version of the Patiala shalwar, a trend that caught on as recently as three-four years ago, is a very heavily pleated shalwar worn with an extremely short shirt.
The Punjabi shalwar is a baggy shalwar with minimal pleating; very popular during the mid to late nineties, it was predominantly tailored in cotton fabric.
The churidar pyjama is a long, skinny version of the shalwar and falls in a bunch of tight pleats around the ankles and the calves. It is, even now, preferred by most women as a garment to be worn on formal occasions such as weddings as it not only slims but lends an air of grace and elegance. The churidar pyjama is most often paired with the Anarkali shirt as the flowing structure of the tunic also flatters the figure.
The Balochi shalwar is almost legend when it comes to the sheer amount of fabric needed to create it. Mostly worn by men — the trend is yet to find its way into women's wear — a traditional Balochi shalwar will employ as much as 40 to 80 yards of fabric! Heavily pleated and a task to iron, it is normally worn with large, heavily starched shirts. Even a small person can look large and intimidating in one.
A style originating from the northern part of Pakistan, the Pathani shalwar is also a trend that is fast becoming popular. It originated as a trend among men but is being accepted as a style for women as well. The Pathani shalwar is a version of an extremely baggy, drop-crotch pant, fully pleated, which comes together in a long oval at the ankles. At the Fashion Pakistan Week held last year in November, designer Kash Hussain, re-introduced this trend (along with heavily pleated Turkish pants) in his collection. At the more recently held Pakistan Fashion Design Council Fashion Week, Khaadi Khas also introduced this trend in their menswear collection. Designer Yahsir Waheed showed a similar version in his women's wear but chose the frontal pleating (as in a Patiala) in the shalwars he brought out.
Global fashion too seems to be taking its inspiration from the shalwar as designers such as Giorgio Armani, Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier have been showing their versions of this mainstay of Pakistani fashion in their collections in the past two years. Case in point Givenchy's Spring/Summer 2008 collection and a shorter version of the shalwar in Giorgio Armani's collection for the same season.
Where the baggy, culotte-styled, straight pants are still very much in vogue, the current trend in shalwars in Pakistan seems to be seeing a shift towards an invention known as the dhoti shalwar. This semi-circle, circular cut shalwar brings the pleats to the side of the body, enhances feminine curves (perhaps a little too much for those already endowed!) and was very popular in the 80s. The difference is that back then, it was worn with a long shirt while the current version is worn with a shorter, mid-thigh length shirt. Both Sonya Battla and Maheen Khan showed this trend on the runway in the last Fashion Pakistan Week, with Maheen also having shown a version in a group designer show in June 2009, and Yousuf Bashir Quraishi in the last PFDC Fashion Week.
To sum it up, though straight pants, capris and ijars seem to have taken over our wardrobe, be prepared to keep some space for the new incarnation of the humble shalwar.