Fashion Pitti by Maham Javaid

  Artwork by Mashaal Sajid

There was a distinct moment of my life when I graduated from skirts and shorts to shalwar kameez. I remember my mother was annoyed at the expenditure. “Zainab Market say 200 ki shorts aur shirts mil jati thi. Ab kapra alag, lace alag, silai alag, aur phir matching dupattay bhi chahiyay – buhat kharcha hai,” I heard her telling her friend. 

In theory, I cherished the idea that instead of manufactured clothes that almost never fit right, and designs that you have to learn to like, affording Pakistani women could be their own designers. It was one of the few creative outlets that our culture appeared to encourage.  

Choosing the kapra was an experience on its own – even if it was just cotton you were going for: Crushed, Malai, Chambray, Lawn, Mixed, the choices were endless. Every colour under the sun was available and if it wasn’t, you could have it dyed with a reasonable belief that even if the final outcome wasn’t what you asked for, you’d still like it. There were the delicate and the gaudy laces and embellishments. Of course most of the flourishes I fell in love with was above and beyond our budget, but I still managed to have fun once in a while: I remember finding lace with elephants on it, buttons shaped like mangoes, diamontes were always hot in the 1990s and the early 2000s – or so I believed. 

No detail was too small to ignore: Do you want the edges of the dupatta pecoed? Should the lace go all across the chak or should it end at the daman? Should the sleeves be half, full, three quarters? There were a myriad of necklines to choose from – I rarely wanted round or square. Why would I when there was the sweetheart, the cowl, the bow, and the boat neck at my disposal. The further along I got, the more complicated the narrative of my shalwar kameez became, and the climax was always at the tailor’s shop. 

The outfit I had designed in my head had to pass the test of my mother’s modesty, my tailor’s morality, both of their combined understanding of fashion. Additionally, their collective end goal, that they believed was achievable through clothes, was to make me appear as the thinnest version of myself. My own sense of style, my personal expression of identity, the story I wanted to tell was frequently ignored. They both had voices and opinions larger than mine and the force of our culture and society behind them, and the final decision about the flair on my pants, the length of my kameez, and the type and amount of lace that the fashion of the day allowed lay with them. 

And so with time, all my outfit choices lay at this trifecta of fashion, modesty, and a flattering waistline. My sense of style would try to join the trifecta, to put on a fight. Even when I had my design planned and the kapra bought, at Masterjee’s shop I never had control. Sometimes fashion would bow in front of modesty. Sometimes fashion would be sacrificed for the urgency of appearing thin. Sometimes the trifecta proved so distracting that the clothes were neither flattering, nor fashionable. They were always modest though.

With time, I tired of the constant battle to assert my personal sense of style. The early excitement of having the privilege to design my own clothes faded as the limitations increased. These weren’t only calls to increase modesty because my body was changing, but simultaneously also calls to fashion because my peer group was learning to value a certain type of aesthetic that was based on social class. And most of the time these pulled in opposing directions. Take the capri pants for example. You couldn’t go to the Moulvi sahib in your capri pants, nor could you pray in them, and yet every woman around me was wearing them. It made no sense. 

The same outfit could win me the meant-to-be-insulting title of fashion-pitti from the conservative side of my family who believed that I was too fashionable for my own good, and “It’s like her clothes are designed by villagers” from my classist peer group. The conflicted bullying confused whatever innate sense of style I had developed. 

And so, for a while, I gave up displaying a bold style, on trying to let my clothes represent me, on achieving balance between current fashion and personal style. I opted for white pants or shalwars, a solid kameez or kurta, and a white dupatta. It isn’t necessarily fashionable, but there is such little substance in it that no one can decidedly call it unfashionable. It’s modest, safe, comfortable – I suppose those traits in and of themselves can be defined as style? A lot of our female politicians do something similar: they are so uninterested in their clothes becoming a topic of conversation that year after year, they wear three-piece shalwar kameez in solid colours. 

Recently I have been trying to explore my sense of style again. I adore velvet. Any kind of animal printed onto clothes is a weakness. The more ghair a shalwar has, the more confident I feel. Buttons of absurd shapes and sizes make me smile. And my personal favourite style element: puffed sleeves – Anne Shirley or any kindred spirit will know why. 

This morning, I wore a dark green kameez littered with bold fluorescent pin flowers and a shalwar of the exact same print – a combination that would have been criminal just a few years ago, and perfectly normal a few years before that. The kameez had an upside down sweetheart neckline and puffed sleeves. The clothes were a hundred percent my style. The moment I logged onto my online dance class, my friend, whose day job is fashion designing said: “Oh, look at what Maham is wearing! So fashionable”. It felt good to fit in, while being completely myself.  

Bio: Maham Javaid is a writer and journalist. She tweets @jmaham

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