Dressing the other

August 25, 2019

The recurring trend of nostalgia marketing among Pakistani fashion brands for women raises questions on the processes by which style and fashion are curated

Dressing the other

Clad in a minimalist-design shalwar kameez, a model carries a charpai across the terrace of what is intentioned to look like a humble establishment. On her feet are white rubber flip-flops - standard, unnoticeable ones except for the contrast that they produce in the photo vis-à-vis the dress. In another frame, there are two: they sit together on the terrace, feet disappearing into medium-sized plastic tubs. They are dipping their toes in the water, to escape the summer heat and the alienating gadgetry-centred modern life.

As the storyboard moves along, they slather sweet-smelling clay masks onto their faces and perform various rituals that can be read as simple and quaint - markers of a wholesome ‘rustic’ living. This campaign by a popular high-end clothing brand in Pakistan aims to evoke nostalgia, incorporating symbols that speak of a particular lived reality: charpais, unremarkable rubber slippers, sweet-smelling facial clay masks (perhaps Multani mitti). It aspires to a ‘rural’ austerity in a bid for authenticity vis-a-vis cultural representation.

This is not the only brand that is taking on a nostalgic tone when vying for authenticity and tradition. There are others that incorporate props, such as parandas, ‘ethnic’ jewellery and the like to reproduce essentialist images of what Pakistani tradition looks like. There is one even instrumentalising oral history from close to the partition to sell clothes that bring back an old-world glamour - going far enough to pass value judgments on the freedom of the press in India of the late 1930s.

What is interesting about all nostalgic campaigns that are en vogue is the apparently mundane and unremarkable props that somehow stand out rather than the product itself. These props inform a viewer’s reading of the product - the design philosophy straddles two worlds: the traditional and the modern.

The quintessential customer is the modern, free woman who seeks to ground herself in our traditional values - an essentialised, homogenised bunch of arbitrary social mores that now feel lost because the "internet is raising us". It is important to note how this sense of abandonment is also reinforced ironically and made a part of everyday life through #ThrowbackThursdays, #FlashbackFridays, and daily doses of "your memories from last year on this day" for every individual - all entering our lives by way of social media.

In another campaign, a model wearing dangling earrings is photographed in the process of lifting her burqa, finally lifting it over her head and gazing back, and then hanging the burqa on the back of a chair as she sits in a white shalwar kameez with an intricate but subdued design. Here too, the thread that ties the marketing plan together is nostalgia - the burqa is positioned as a family heirloom which is more than a century old. The story that viewers are told is this: the tinkling of jewellery worn by the vibrant and fashionable women behind the burqa in its previous years was the only sound that made their luxurious lifestyles known. The imagery is heavy. It glosses over not just the complex questions of negotiation and agency for the woman wearing it but also the loaded symbolism of the burqa, especially in the wake of a more overtly violent global discourse around it today. The orientalist trope of the East, among other problematic caricatures, is a woman cloaked in a veil of mystery.

Edward Said in his groundbreaking book, Orientalism, shed light on the essentialist East-West binary that was created as a tool to oppress the non-European world. He argued that the West constructed the ‘rest of the world’ as a monolith frozen in time, culturally inferior, full of mystery, intrigue and sensuality. This is the thought that frames interventions into the East. The differences between the two cultures were drawn out - the East was feminised and exoticised while the West was male and sought out to domesticate, and rule over the East. And as a product of this very binary, the West could choose what is considered interesting and worthy of remembering about the East.

In this vein, Madonna’s use of mehndi in the late 1990s, for instance, as explained by theorists Leshkowich and Jones in What Happens when Asia Chic becomes Chic in Asia is problematic because of her ability to choose from and present South Asian culture to an audience that is predominantly not Asian. It is both the audience - to whom this package is presented and the person that chooses to represent something interesting or noteworthy about it that matters. Madonna’s "economic, social, cultural and political capital" enabled her to define what is meaningful about the South Asian other. The authors note that this also reinforces the "aura of authority" that white people have about Asia, which later translates not only into profit but also "forecloses possibilities" for the Asian other. The other in this case gets neither the equal opportunity to make a profit nor to be an authority on their own culture.

Questions of race should be seen as examples that show the complex ways in which power relations and privilege work. These have lessons for contexts even where race does not figure in the same ways. Hamid Dabashi’s simple and elegant question: "Who gets to represent whom and by what authority?" in his book Postcolonialism: Knowledge and Power in the Time of Terrorism is a useful inquiry. Put into the context of the Pakistani fashion industry’s current obsession with retelling the past and yearning for it and profiting off it especially in a globalised world, it helps make sense of occasions when contemporary imagery can turn into voyeurism and eroticisation of the other.

It is important to remember that many lower-middle-class women who watch their likely lived reality fashioned into an aesthetic remain invisible on a daily basis. They become keepers of tradition, the subjects and are gazed at -- from a distance. "Who has, and who does not have fashion is politically determined, a function of power relations," notes Victoria L. Rovine in Colonialism’s Clothing Africa, France, and the Deployment of Fashion.

How the audiences react to such imagery is also determined by their subjective realities. When reinterpreting, producing or consuming essentialised images of what Pakistani heritage is imagined to be, fashion brands appear to be remaking the Pakistani ‘self’ in ways that correspond to Western imagination of the Oriental other. Even opportunities to reclaim symbols and redefine meanings attached to them merit a nuanced approach. Self-orientalising or looking at the self with a Western gaze is also a marker of privilege.

There is a certain kind of knowledge and social capital required to know what to pick and choose from an array of symbols that are essentialised as Pakistani tradition; a specific kind of ‘eye’ to catch that detail that can be marketed. This also shows the designer’s cultivated sensibility and knowledge of global discourses on style and fashion. Self-orientalism, especially in the context of fast fashion adds weight to essentialist claims. It is hard to ‘reclaim’, to ‘turn the Western gaze onto itself’ by performing it given that fashion draws on discourses of exoticism and imperialism.

Then there is also the question of who is attempting this subversion, and if in their own society, it is their place to do it.

The fashion industry by its very nature is a problematic one not just in terms of how it exploits women’s image of the self but also in terms of how global systems of fashion work, how supply chains deepen and entrench stratification. It has been and still is a repeat offender.

In countries like Pakistan, where the discourse on questions that the fashion industry’s representation of tradition raises, is still a relatively new enterprise. It is important to at least begin looking at things critically. Like any other business, this too is motivated by profit maximisation, even if it appears to be largely creative and in cases such as these, to be ‘transcendent’ in nature.

Nostalgia is a slippery slope - it is making people buy audio cassettes, vinyl records and Polaroid cameras in the digital age for a ‘certain’ aesthetic, and as an escape in the age of noise.

Brands and businesses know this. They push this because they know it works. If there is an appropriation of a lived, humble reality as an aesthetic by using symbols that conflate austerity with minimalism, and the product is only one that the rich can afford, there is reason to be worried. There is reason to think that the charpai dragged through space and time, should definitely be put down.

Dressing the other