Fashion is the new frontier, here in Pakistan. It used to be that art was the great equaliser, but now our understanding of art has shifted and fashion, puzzlingly, falls into its purview now. I’m puzzled because in Pakistan fashion is hardly art. You may be inspired by Ottoman Istanbul and the fretwork on a historical ceiling but at the end of the day our ‘fashion’ is cut into a short shirt and cigarette pants by Master Sahab and passed onto the house help next season. Finis, geometrical flowers and scalloped trouser-bottoms. It hardly feels cutting-edge or avant garde to wear the same thing everyone else is wearing, which is the very definition of ‘fashionable’: conformity to a trend. You’re surfing the wave of sameness and feeling like you belong. Now that’s important, belonging. That’s the actual great equalizer, because when the girl on the motorcycle is wearing the same kind of shalwar as the girl in the Prado, the former is feeling an affinity with the latter that is otherwise impossible to create. It’s inclusion into the romanticised Neverland of Rich People, and what else is fashion for than to weave a tale of mystery, promising you photoshopped glamour and sulky good looks if you just wear the right clothes?
But that gets boring after a while, because shalwar kameez prints are not particularly fun and there are only so many ways you can cut either before you hit a plateau. So then you decide to make your ‘art’ ‘edgy’ by pushing the boundaries of social discourse and being innovative. Only you forget you’re not Tracey Emin or Henri Cartier-Bresson, but plough ahead happily and plonk elaborately dressed models onto cute little rusty trains and admire your amazing statement about Reality, and how your amazing clothes are so revolutionary. Because wow! That the fantasy I want to buy, of wearing extremely expensive clothes to the railway station like I’m on the Orient Express only desi style, because I’m in a lehnga. And look, my traveling companion is being really nice and grabbing my wrist to haul me onto the train because my outfit weighs as much as he does. Or I’m wearing this really super one-shoulder kameez with bootcut pants to come pick up my daughter from ballet and because I’m a Diva all the little brown girls in their white tutus are gazing at me adoringly. This is the Empire Writing Back people, now the little panderers to the post-colonial are gazing at me! In my ethnic clothes! I am a Diva, and I buy my own sabzi from the mandi!
What is most irksome about all this thoughtless ‘art’ is the utter lack of introspection or depth. It’s perfectly fine to have your models wear their gorgeous clothes and be climbing out of vintage cars or posing against a black backdrop or trailing their dupattas down palace staircases and walking around barefoot in a garden frolicking with the nymphs. But you can’t square the fantasy that fashion represents with reality, particularly our very specific third-world one. You can pose with some laughing Rajastani lady wearing your printed kurta and enormous pom-pom earrings but you can’t pretend that means you’re the same because you’re both women. In Real Life you would never dress to stand out if you were, in fact, going to hang out with your good friend Rajastani Lady with the Clay Pot. You’d wear a three-piece jora from Liberty because it is not polite to rub your wealth in a poor person’s face like that. This is Real Life 101. There used to be a time when you didn’t wear your Sunday best to go shopping because it was the bazaar, not a dinner party. The underlying notion behind this was that as a member of a privileged, tiny elite, it was enough to be arriving in your chauffeur-driven car, carrying your leather purse to buy things worth some people’s monthly salaries. You didn’t have to rub it in everyone’s face by wearing clothes that screamed your privilege too. Thanks to the steady evaporation of a sense of social propriety, now if you don’t dress the part, even salespeople won’t take you seriously.
What is most disturbing is that many designers seem to think they’re actually doing something valuable by trying to imbue their advertising with ‘meaning’. You want to celebrate the beauty of dark skin? Get a fair model and photoshop her skin dark. You want to call out domestic violence? Get your male model to pin the woman’s wrist down whilst she desperately clutches at his hands, trying to free herself. Whilst she and he are looking like Mughal courtiers, on a train. You want to talk about domestic child labour? Get a little boy dressed like Aladdin to fan your boringly-dressed model with a big pankha. You want to dissect the scrutiny celebrities are subjected to? Call your model a diva, put her in front of some vegetables and have men in suits leer at her from a distance. Wrong, all wrong. How is this not glaringly obvious to the people who devised and approved these concepts? The fact that it evidently wasn’t, is terrifying to say the least.
Mainstream fashion is not about celebrating individuality or quirky personal style. It’s about sales, like any other business is. It’s the commodification of style, the offering of ready-made beauty to make the wearer feel good about themselves. It’s fun to play the game; humans are naturally inclined to appreciate beautiful things and there is a great deal of pleasure in dressing up (or down, or sideways). But let’s not pretend that fashion is anything more than that—a vehicle for being seen, a way to stand out. Fashion isn’t meant to be egalitarian, nor is it designed to provoke debate about Real Life because everything it represents is an escape from it. That’s why you shiver in silk at December weddings and swelter in trousers in July: you choose your clothes to represent a certain vision you have of yourself, and precious few visions include “I want to look like an average person”. So let’s lay off the ‘art’, shall we, and stick to just selling the clothes?