How Traditional Is Traditional Pakistani Fashion?


In case you haven’t heard, the Lux Style Awards released their nominations some time ago. Now, I don’t want to say anything negative about team Lux Style, because they genuinely try. But when an award show is called the ‘Lux Style Awards’, and you’re awarding anything other than style…I mean. Enough said? But, these award shows give us an opportunity to talk about Pakistani fashion. You know, without you guys screeching, “when did you start caring about fashion?”

I’ve always cared.

But such is the mind of one who overthinks everything; I couldn’t just give you a rundown of HSY’s prettiest pret. Add to this the fact that I recently started a course about the anthropology of fashion. So, I thought we could dissect some things about Pakistani fashion that we don’t question.

Let’s talk about what, if anything, makes ‘traditional Pakistani fashion’ traditional.


Pakistani Fashion and the Unsaid Classification

If you look through the Lux Style Awards nominations, you’ll see that they have divided Pakistani fashion into categories. I will not be discussing any of them.

Instead, let’s focus on the unsaid norm amongst designers and the public that puts the clothes we wear into two broad groups. We have ‘traditional’ Pakistani fashion of course, and we have ‘western’. While the more sophisticated designers and publications don’t actually use these words, they do pop up sporadically. In the odd article, candid conversations and every time a cousin wants to do something different for her wedding. Jeans and a T-shirt at a dholki? I mean, stranger things have happened.

The term ‘western’ is pretty self explanatory (Eurocentric, or apparel that has seemingly European or American roots). But, what exactly does ‘traditional’ mean?

In a functional sense, it means clothing that is considered to be of local origin. (I say ‘considered’, because if we get into the history of local clothing itself, we will be here all day.)

But, the problem with using a word that wasn’t coined locally is that we don’t understand its exact implications.

And hey; I’m not going to be the pot that calls the kettle black. I can’t criticise Pakistanis for using English words. That is one of the onsets of a colonial hangover. But I do think that it is fun to know what you’re saying, before you say it.


What’s in A Word? Quite A Lot Actually

Studying the history of clothing and fashion, anthropologists have often criticised the Eurocentric bias that exists in international fashion. What’s more, they argue that this bias goes beyond favouring certain styles over others.

For example, Suzanne Baizerman, Joanne B. Eicher and Cathrine Cerny argue that ‘non-Western’ apparel is routinely dismissed. It is written off as something that is not at the same proverbial level as its Western counterpart. Among other things, this power relationship can be seen in the way such apparel is described.

In their own words,  

“Efforts to describe that which lies outside fashionable Western dress have generated a profusion of terms…The meanings that underlie these terms tell as much about the perceptions and attitudes of the Euro-american who applied them as about the dress described.”

One word that they single out is ‘traditional’. Essentially, they argue that it is used to imply that non-Western fashion is static; that it hasn’t changed. And this argument can be tied to the definition of the word itself. The Oxford dictionary defines traditional as, “being part of the beliefs, customs or way of life of a particular group of people, that have not changed for a long time.”

‘But why should this be a problem?’ I can hear you ask. ‘So, Pakistani fashion is seen to have remained the same. Why is that an issue?’

Well, for two reasons.


Reading Between the Lines

First, let’s talk about the implication of the word. As argued by Baizerman et al. (I know, fancy) non-Western fashion is often contrasted with Western fashion. And the implication behind this comparison is that one is better. Guess which one?

Basically, the underlying bias is that Western fashion has evolved. And non-Western fashion, having remained the same, hasn’t. That Western fashion is innovative, while non-Western fashion is archaic.

Essentially, when the word traditional is applied to Pakistani fashion on an international stage, the suggestion is that it is archaic. That it is pretty, sure, but also not as evolved as Western fashion.

In a way, biases can be linked to how information is presented to people. Baizerman et al. link the Eurocentric bias present in Western academia to Western education itself.

To this end, there were attempts in the 1990s to make New York school and university curriculums more globally aware. During these attempts, one specialist said something really profound. Arguing that American education gave, “…the West a history, while China, India and Africa are studied as ‘cultures’…”

And when you think about it in light of this, the bias is easier to explain. When you study the history of a people, you are privy to the changes and ‘evolutions’ that they have undergone. In contrast, viewing a people as a ‘culture’ gives them an unchanging image.


The Persistence of Bias

What is troubling is that despite these efforts, this kind of bias persists.

And, what’s that I hear? I’m making a big deal out of nothing? You want proof? Okay.

I’m guessing you know who Tim Gunn is.

He’s the host of Project Runway and was the associate dean of Parson’s School of Design from 1989 till 2000. He also wrote a book in 2012. It was titled, “Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet”.

In his book, he writes,

“Why is it, you may ask, that the lion’s share of fashion history books examine fashion in the Western world? The answer is simple. For centuries clothing in the Western world has changed and evolved. While clothing in the East has remained unchanged. The Indian sari; the Chinese cheong-sam…have all stayed the same for thousands of years… There are many examples of beautiful clothes in these parts of the world. And their histories are also fascinating, but there isn’t the same level of evolution…”

Mr. Gunn’s sentiment do not take into account the changes, and advancements that have taken place in non-Western fashion. From a Pakistani perspective, we know that things have changed. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. But things have changed.

But of course, the persistence in the West is just part of the problem.


Where Pakistan Stands on The ‘Traditional’ Debate  

Like I said, I’m not going to be the pot that calls the kettle black. In lieu of this, let me admit; I’ve used that word before. I’ve said it, having a vague idea about its meaning, and without understanding the extent of its implications.

And let me also clarify; I’m not saying that you should stop using it.

All I’m saying is that the word is problematic. Particularly when it is used by the international scene to refer to Pakistani fashion.

At the same time, perhaps we can think about some of the biases that we’ve inherited courtesy our colonial hangover.

Do we look upon local artistry, designs and aesthetics in a condescending way? Have we complained one too many times about how Pakistani fashion doesn’t change? And if nothing else, is our appreciation of local fashion limited to aesthetics? Do we think of it as ‘pretty’ rather than innovative, artistic and even sophisticated?

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