Retro-Reaction in Rawalpindi

There are those who have learnt to 'filter', and have emerged with a wardrobe which is Western in thought but desi at heart.

For quite some time now, peo-ple in Pakistan have started believing that fashion can be literally anything. The problem is that it ends up being just a few people's anything. Most women in Pakistan dress up not the way they want to, but the way others want them to. For a lazy day at home, the BMW Set will inevitably go for faded Levi's, the Toyota woman might decide on a sleeveless cotton salwar kameez, whilst the 800cc Suzuki owners have probably never experienced something even remotely resembling "a lazy day at home". Grandmothers and even some mothers have begun to blush at the mention of how their daughters are dressing up. What the elders cannot comprehend is why their kin has suddenly taken to baring themselves? Though excessive skin exposure is still far from the norm in Pakistan, plunging necklines and seductive designs are fast becoming the accepted dress code at upper crust parties. One fashion journalist refers to this craze for showing skin as "a retro-reaction"—to the opulence Pakistani culture has been praised and, in some cases, condemned for.

What is wrong with opulence, you may ask? Nothing really, but at times Pakistanis have been known to forget that opulence should have its limits; what else would you call a five-day wedding celebration (where the bride is a divorcee and the groom a widower), during which the bride's mother had a hard time limiting her dresses to five, each costing the equivalent of a honeymoon in Singapore?

Maybe it is the increased exposure to the West (Pakistan does have a large number of Internet and satellite television addicts, and the super-elite travels easily to the West) that has made youngsters develop this distaste for something as anti-West as our culture. Maybe we're just suffering from a bad case of neo-colonialism. Or maybe (and this is a distinct possibility) all the international bashing that our country's leaders have been receiving has forced us to downplay our own worth and so blindly follow the West.

But not all are blindly following the West. True there are those who troop to "5th Avenue", wave wads of cash, and end up with what the shopkeepers confidingly disclose to them (and every other comer) as "the look everyone is sporting this season". But then there are those who have learnt to filter; they observe Aishwariya's dress (Rai, not the queen of Nepal), carefully pore over Vogue, turn half an eye to local fashion shows, and end up with a wardrobe that, though Western in thought could easily fool many into thinking that the wearer is a desi at heart.

Amongst these gora mems are those who are truly able to sport this East meets West trend, simply because they themselves are the products of an upbringing that symbolises the union of the Orient and the Occident (in the case of one such family, mother America-born, dad a national capitalist, yearly foreign trips…). Since these people were bred in Urdu but speak English, they can wear this look with all the ease and chic that it deserves.

But this 'foreign-Pakistani' look is far too tempting to remain within a limited realm of class. The rebel daughter of the maulvi and the graduate of the madrassa are both drawn to it and end up donning it with no understanding of the philosophy behind this dress code. These are the women the world sees swapping their burkas for tank tops en route to the US. Many might dub them hypocrites. They shrug and say: "Hey, it's simpler this way—everyone stays happy including me." Happiness, of course, has always been the Pakistani's foremost priority.

Feminist dupattas
The explosive impact of Western culture via the electronic media has not merely brainwashed natives against their own culture but has also given an almost zealous angle to what has always been a gently murmuring movement—feminism. Feminists in Pakistan face one major hurdle—getting the men to listen to them. Every group of feminists has devised its own method to deal with this problem. There are those who would like to ignore the Pakistani men and what they are up to, and so they concentrate on international seminars and symposia. Their dress-code ranges from carefully faded salwar kameez in-country to tailored Gucci trousers (for meetings abroad).

Then there are the feminists who are interested in getting the native XY on their side as well as gaining the support of the international media. Consequently, their wardrobes host a wide spectrum of salwar kameez, some with chaddars, some with chiffon dupattas and some with neither—to be used according to demands of the time. A much smaller group of feminists believes that the only way to win is to make a statement that gets people (read men) traumatised and foaming at the mouth. They do this by puffing cigarettes, walking with a swagger, and donning spaghetti straps. So who exactly are the feminists of Pakistan? As a reputed local socialist once commented, "At this time, every educated Pakistani woman houses a feminist inside her." Which might explain why a walk down Lahore's Liberty Market provides all the above categories in abundance.

Real Armani, fake Paktel
A diverse culture will have its cultural extremists, and so we have ours, mostly among the male half. Some are known by the hold-all term 'fundamentalist'. Frustrated by joblessness, angered by the lack of opportunities, they start dressing up to suit their moods. Those who turn to god in this time of need are soon seen with turbans or topis on their heads and luxuriant beards, often left untamed for months.

There are also the cultural extremists who turn to women and wine, but manage to emerge with bodies toned at gyms (or kept supple by street cricket), and wardrobes shipped from England. Don't be surprised if you see a young boy in a silver button-down shirt two sizes too small whip out his own fake Paktel on seeing an Armani-clad man barking into his cellular as he speeds past. Which one is Pakistan? Your guess is as good as mine.

Pakistan too has its share of the middle-class, whose members tread the safe line in both dress and mannerism, but are nevertheless conspicuous by their numbers more than any other attribute. Some claim that it is this middle class that is "the true representative of Pakistan", but don't you be fooled. Those who really know this land of the pure will tell you that no one class or group can be representative, which is probably why democracy has it so difficult here.

Perhaps the only fulsome praise that can be lavished upon the men and women of the middle class is that they exhibit more shades of Pakistan than all other classes combined. It is also clear, that it is here that one gets to see why proponents of Hindu-Muslim unity still enjoy a faithful following. In every era of Pakistani fashion, typical Rajasthani attire has always featured in the middle class wardrobe, in part or in whole. In fact currently, there is a craze for anything Rajasthani—from bindis, to henna tattoos, from innovative saree-lehengas to fitted cholis. Indian sarees count amongst those few outfits in our wardrobes that remain evergreen. Weddings in Lahore now come sprinkled with a heavy dose of Bombay.

Maybe I'm being a little too hard on us Pakistanis. It is not as if the transfer of fashion has merely been a one-way traffic. The West has taken more than its share of ideas and inspiration from our side. Madonna and her mehendi tattoos is just one example (though the debate over whether she was inspired by India or Pakistan will probably never be resolved). One of our fashion gurus, designer Rizwan Beyg, once dressed Princess Diana, while Libas' collection has steadfastly maintained its cult following in London. Tit for tat is what it has become these last few years.

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