A woman’s armour

January 2, 2022

As fashion in Pakistan takes a rather neutral and streamlined turn in daily pret, we track this sartorial journey back to when kameezes kissed ankles, dupattas had to be three meters long, and what compelled us to rein it all in.

Khaadi is the go-to for RTW and unstitched fabric, replete with gorgeous, delicate colour and print, yet the label still offers the ‘basic’ kurta and coord option.
Khaadi is the go-to for RTW and unstitched fabric, replete with gorgeous, delicate colour and print, yet the label still offers the ‘basic’ kurta and coord option.

Pakistani women, in Pakistani wear, can look extremely well-dressed. In fact, if you raise your head and look around, you would definitely be able to ascertain that at least 80% of women sharing space with you are quite stylish. It’s as though they have finally found their look. Of those, 60% will likely be dressed in a boxy silhouette, with tailored pants and probably, neatly blow-dried hair.

You see, while they run around doing everything from holding down jobs, raising families, or simply being crushed by the demands and obstructions of a largely patriarchal society, they have had to make sure they’re looking as composed as possible.

It hasn’t always been this way. If you grew up any time between 1994 and 2005, you know this to be true. Women have had to hold their baby, and cook dinner, while they type out official presentations and emails or earn their undergrad and post-grad degrees, all the while having to ensure their dupatta doesn’t slide from their shoulders. It doesn’t really take a giant leap to assume that those very same women would now prefer to wear clothes they can control, or rather, clothes having such streamlined design, that nothing is left up to chance.

In the last few years, Pakistani retail pret has begun to offer sensible kurtas and coords; at first an experimental piece or two, then a rackful, and now, complete ‘Basic’ lines are dedicated to the solid-coloured, minimal-print tops and sets that women can just buy off the rack for a reasonable price.

What changed? How have we gone from the assumed feminine boundaries in life and style to being dressed the way we are, and live the way we do?

For Salman Parekh, CEO of Manto, a clothing brand that exclusively sells coords in solids or thoughtful text-print, tailored with sherwani or Lucknowi collars for men and women, the label simply was a response to demand.

“I had a prototype made,” he says, “in the kind of material I wanted, the colour I wanted, with the kind of tailoring I was looking for. And it was super comfortable and looked good. Pretty soon, my wife, Bismah, wanted to wear something similar, but when we went looking for her, we found nothing.”

Bismah Parekh’s conundrum is actually not a new one. Women who have wanted that cut, or that collar, or those pockets, have long had to shop off the men’s rack, which meant they often compromised on fit, or have the masculine kurta stitched, which is something not everyone has the time or patience for.

Even when they cater to the demand for more conservative tops, Generation makes the style its own with colour, fabric, and silhouette.
Even when they cater to the demand for more conservative tops, Generation makes the style its own with colour, fabric, and silhouette.

“The average person spends something like 16 minutes a day deciding what to wear. What I really wanted for myself was to have a wardrobe where I would have the choice already made for me, saving on an astonishingly large chunk of time,” says Parekh. “And when I replicated the design for my wife, it struck me that there were other women looking for similar styles; and that’s how Manto was born.”

Manto’s clientele remains largely niche, as of course, there are still women who prefer the traditionally feminine kameez, or at least a little embellishment so it can feel and look like they got their money’s worth. Where Manto does beat a lot of other labels is in the fabric it offers, which is premium quality, therefore hiking up the price of the clothes.

Parekh notes that Manto’s clothes are popular with 40 to 60 demographic, which when further scrutinized, includes those working in the medical, education, and journalism industries. “It’s really word-of-mouth,” Parekh says, “our designs tend to become favoured by certain communities, and we’re okay with that.”

While Salman Parekh is supplying for a growing demand, Khadija Rahman, Director Operations & Design at Generation, one of Pakistan’s oldest retail fashion houses, feels it was more of a widespread cultural change that brought about the demand for more modest clothing.

Back in 2005, when Khadija returned to Pakistan, she noticed an atmosphere different to one she was more accustomed to.

“Do you remember there was a time when there were reports of women wearing sleeveless shirts having their arms injected with the AIDS virus?” Khadija recalls one of Pakistan’s favourite urban legends. If you showed off your arms, someone was sure to slash them or inject them with a deadly virus.

“Society just became a lot more conservative, and because mindsets were changing, the environment wasn’t comfortable enough for everyone to dress as they pleased.

“At Generation we do have a higher demand for sleeved tops, sherwani collars,” she says. Generation has always been quite pioneering, and always a little off-beat, so even when the labels conform, it doesn’t, really.

You will still find the kameez for a lush female form, a straight white kurta, something brightly-printed, finished with an assortment of lowers. “We have been trying to bring the shalwar back, but that never really takes,” says Khadija a bit ruefully. The demand for tailored pants though, remains. “They do look more pulled-together,” Khadija admits.

If we walk down from the top, there has been an increase in demand for – for lack of a better term – gender-neutral clothing in Pakistan, among women. While this could of course be the very logical response to a fast-changing, more conservative societal mindset, it perhaps could be a little bit more than that too.

Wear Manto if you want a solid piece of tailoring to fall back on for any occasion. The simple, stark cuts, and solid palette ensure one can dress up or down according to location and occasion.
Wear Manto if you want a solid piece of tailoring to fall back on for any occasion. The simple, stark cuts, and solid palette ensure one can dress up or down according to location and occasion.

Ali Naqi Bhojani, Concept Head, Ready-to-Wear (RTW) at Khaadi, has observed the shift over the past 15 years. Beginning his career at Cambridge, and moving on to textile giant, Gul Ahmed, he has worked across the industry enough to understand why, and exactly how, the trend evolved.

“Do you remember those catalogues Gul Ahmed used to print? They were thick, like a special edition of Vogue or Cosmopolitan, and dropped into every house at one point.”

The catalogues are well-remembered. A lot of us flipped through them and copied designs for our summer wardrobes till we had the option to simply buy off the rack.

“Till that point, ‘womenswear’ was simply unstitched fabric,” continues Ali, “women typically like to design their own outfits and get that custom fit, and the three-piece suit was the ultimate trend.”

Of course, Pakistan has always been a stylish country. Women – and most men – have always had a flair for fashionable dressing; and eastern wear is actually quite flexible in how one chooses to wear it. Every global trend and daily-life demand has managed to make its presence felt within the shalwar kameez structure, and that kind of adaptive ability is something we all look for in our daily companions. (Side note: should strong, successful women just compare their partners to the merits of shalwar kameez and dump them if they don’t match up?)

In the early ’90s, while you may not have been able to afford that lacy, pearl-white Rizwan Beyg, or daring Maheen Khan, you could study it deeply in Women’s Own, Instep, and Herald’s fashion spreads. When fashion and style became a thing, Pakistani women could understand enough to covet, they began workshopping the trends they liked into the designs they had it stitched by their tailors. For a long, long, long while, we wore at least one diaphanous separate and trailed long dupattas behind us, and we were good. But like style, our tastes evolve too, and those supplying to us do make note of that evolution.

Noting how popular their catalogue designs became each year, Gul Ahmed initially stocked a capsule collection for women at the Ideas store. And as more women entered the workforce – and it would be okay to assume that a generational difference is at play here too – ready-to-wear found its clientele.

“Women who work normally don’t have the time to design, and see a tailor, and pick up the clothes,” hypothesizes Ali, adding that exposure to global trends, access to information on how people across the world live and dress, all affected how fashion evolved in Pakistan.

“You also have to remember that in our part of the world, what people look for is comfort clothing. And the collared, cuffed, loose kurta for women is brought in by that instinct as well as to maintain modesty; you may not want to grapple with a dupatta anymore, but you still want to cover up to some degree,” concludes Ali.

The turn towards a streamlined, neutral, daily look for women is interesting in light of how Pakistani fashion has evolved, but it is also interesting to note the times that surround these changes. We have gone from the triumphant and democratic ’90s to a moderate mid-00s, to a decadent end of the first decade of this century.

The second decade saw more awareness of gender politics and women reclaiming their spaces. As the famous meme goes, women don’t dress for men, they dress for other women, time of month, waxing schedule, etc. What we witness now is an amalgamation of everything the designers have mentioned.

Society has taken a conservative turn, women do want to save time by buying off the rack, and when they step out, especially in a professional capacity, they don’t want to be physically scrutinized, and take the focus away from their intelligence and skill set. They may not cover all the way up, and a tailored but fluid silhouette gives them ease of movement and sense of security. And this is not part of a misguided notion of feminism; this is not women wanting to dress like men or be like men (that is not feminism at all), this is women responding to the stereotypical situations they are constantly thrust into, inevitably and almost invariably by men. Women are wearing their style as their dailywear, and they are wearing their dailywear as armour. And that, we think, is what is most beautiful about fashion and style: it is always a personal statement, intentional, and the one thing women know they can rely on every single day to center them for the day ahead.

A woman’s armour