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Who, what, wear?

April 05, 2013

Photo by Faisal Farooqui

“Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.” - Coco Chanel

Glancing through a photo album recently, I was struck by a picture showing a group of women. One was dressed in an elegant sari, another in a short top and smart trousers, the third in a neat shalwar kameez complete with chiffon duppatta and the fourth in jeans and an open button-down shirt over a baggy T-shirt. The photograph dated back to the early ’70s when a woman’s choice of dress expressed her taste, her personality and her individuality rather than just her choice of a designer brand. If it had been taken today they would, undoubtedly, all have been wearing ankle-skimming shirts and tights.

Before we entered the Age of the Clones, there was a time when a woman would flaunt bellbottoms one day and a chooridar the next. When a girl in a tight sleeveless shirt could travel in a bus along with a girl in an old-fashioned burqa (the one with the gauzy veil instead of the current Ninja look) and short tops were as acceptable as flowing maxis.

It was a time of diversity, experimentation and tolerance.

Well, tolerance went out the window one bleak day in July ’77 but women retained their sense of individualism; instead of buying a packet of fabric and replicating the given picture one would buy lawn print and design it according to one’s own tastes so even the same print could result in two completely different looks. Hairstyles varied from permed bobs, the popular but short-lived Diana cut (in honour of the late princess) to simple buns and braids and people expressed their religious convictions through their actions rather than their headgear.

So what happened to the women who defied a military dictator and found ways to avoid the mandatory chaddar; how and when did they give in to the dictates of a society that judges them by what they wear — or don’t? When did choice of clothes become a political/social/religious statement rather than just an expression of one’s tastes and personality?

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Cast your mind back to the immensely popular soap aired last year — the aptly titled ‘Hum-suffer.’ The good wife is always attired in flowing shirts, chooridar and duppatta — an epitome of Eastern femininity with all its inbuilt connotations of innocence, purity and, in this case, lack of any free will or gumption. The vamp favours Western wear and the evil mom-in-law flaunts sleeveless shirts with no duppatta. There you have it; a quick shorthand to tell the good woman from the bad.

And it’s not just the local plays; in soaps from across the border it’s the woman wearing the halter neck blouse you have to watch out for.

Judging people by their clothes is a natural impulse — after all, a person’s dress is the first thing you see about them — but only TV plays would assume that a woman’s wardrobe is an accurate predictor to whether she is a good wife or a home-breaker. And of course, it’s only a woman’s sartorial choices that are stereotyped; no one looks at a man and thinks, ‘hmm…his necktie’s too bright he must be a philanderer’; or, ‘such sober colours, he must be a wife beater…’ or even, ‘a safari suit, looks like a tight-fisted kanjoos.’ No, a man is a man, whatever he wears; a woman is either a ‘designer lawn aunty’, ‘a hijabi’ or (horror) a ‘mod-scod’ type.

That women are, and will be judged by their apparel, at least in our society, is a fact we have to live with, perhaps for another millennium or more. But we can change the playing field, mess with the rules and confuse the issue so that one will have a hard time pigeon-holing us on the basis of our dress alone. So why not bring back the shalwars and the short kameez; the sari and the maxi, the old-fashioned burqa and the bell-bottom? Let’s mix and match, defy the fashion police and, when we open the wardrobe every morning, let’s ask — who do I want to be today?


Shagufta Naaz is a Dawn staffer



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