The subtle art of desi winter clothing

January 5, 2020

A look at the diversity in fashion across Pakistan during the dark, unbearably dreary months of winter

I have been drawn to fashion for as long as I can remember. However understated my personal style may be, the fact remains that I can and will gaze at anything fashion, aimlessly and unabashedly. In fact, at the risk of sounding like an extreme snob, this is perhaps why I fell in love with New York City the moment I set foot there; the kind of crazy street fashion one comes across in that city – from oversized crimson faux fur coats to leopard print jackets to plain white suede jumpsuits – is just marvellous and insane and everything in between.

But this piece is not about that.

It is about the many fabrics and colours we come across in Pakistan during the dark, unbearably dreary months of winter, when just about everything is devoid of colour and warmth. It is about clothes Lahoris don on a daily basis in the winter season, about trends that have gradually evolved and warped, and about winter staples that didn’t even exist a couple of decades or so ago. Lahoris are perfectly aware of the need to bring the colour out in the clothing department and how.

This city holds an interesting mix of people. On one hand, we have those who refuse to wear anything woollen, unless procured on one of their overseas trips; on the other, there are those who swear by the seasonal sales offered by famous local highstreet brands for their winter attire. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, are local flea markets (better known as landa bazaars) selling everything from used sweaters to mufflers to caps and coats. The flea markets of Karachi are the most famous of all, but Lahore and Islamabad are not too far behind. These markets are mainly known for catering to the winter clothing needs of the less privileged classes. But one just needs to have a quick chat with someone scouring a flea market for second-hand bargains to see how inaccessible these markets have become due to their sky-rocketing prices. 

Let’s talk about Pakistan’s flea markets a bit. Hailed as a godsend for those who cannot afford the exorbitant prices of local brands, these markets are frequented – albeit in secret – by all and sundry. Admitting to visiting them, however, has traditionally been an act tantamount to sacrilege for the more “privileged” classes. However, second-hand goods and flea markets or thrift stores are huge almost everywhere else around the globe, mainly because they serve as the only way middle and upper-middle classes can get high fashion at affordable rates. The fact that thrift shopping in Pakistan has always been looked down upon as something only the “very poor” indulge in, reeks of the stringent classist attitudes prevalent and deeply inculcated in the country. In doing this, they essentially miss out on clothing goodness. Come to think of it, where else can you find a Dorothy Perkins sweater or an Eddie Bauer jacket for a mere Rs 400 but on a random stall somewhere in Lahore’s popular Karim Block market?

The fact that thrift shopping in Pakistan has always been looked down upon as something only the “very poor” indulge in, reeks of the stringent classist attitudes prevalent in the country.

Even with meagre means – and to some extent, with the help of flea markets – the varying ways in which Lahore’s denizens dress themselves up (knowingly or otherwise) to brave the winter season are incredibly fashionable and impressive in themselves. I have stumbled upon people in Lahore wearing all kinds of jackets and coats, be it chesterfield, duffel, pea, you name it. Boots of all lengths, shapes and sizes can be easily spotted as well, from riding to wedge to even snow boots (because Lahoris will enjoy their little share of winter as much as they possibly can before summer descends upon them). What is important here is that Lahoris are now opening up to experimenting with their winter wear.

During the current winter season, which has also been exceptionally cold by Lahori standards, I have spotted parkas and berets, even Aran sweaters straight out of the recent whodun’it film, Knives Out. The other day, I believe I even spotted a woman wearing an oversized velvet coat at a shaadi in Lahore, which almost made me jump with joy. Keeping my obvious love for oversized coats aside, it also gave me some hope that the Lahori shaadi season might actually be warming up to the concept of warmer outfits. To be honest, there can’t be any real style prizes for looking shivery in a thin chiffon sari with temperatures touching 5 degrees Celsius at night.

Decent warm clothing is ridiculously expensive in Lahore and the winter season, despite being short, is particularly tortuous. Keeping up with winter fashion in their own quirky manner is a skill Lahoris are getting better at with each passing day. The diverse ways in which Pakistanis take global fashion and just make it their own is a truly heartening feat. And, to me, it is also a sign that they are not afraid of looking ahead and welcoming what’s coming next with arms wide open.

The writer is a staff member

Pakistan and the subtle art of desi winter clothing