Artwork by Maham Fatima
by Sana Tahir
Whimsical ruffles of organza detailed around sprawling trains of embellished fabric, parallel lines of dotted mukesh running down the length of dupattas pinned at the crown, dainty flower motifs embroidered with resham thread, leafs of gotta seamlessly stitched onto luxurious silks, heirloom pieces with silver and gold threaded work soucha work, dupattas outlined with ethereal and glimmering kiran lace, and a glittering jaal weaved out of a variety of sparkling sequins and stones —these are just some of the images that come to mind, in the template of Instagram posts, when we think of Pakistani bridal couture.
Be it the Karachi-based big-wigs from the Pakistani fashion scene, or the emerging ateliers of Lahore, each have a distinct aesthetic that sets them apart from the rest of the players in the saturated market of festive, wedding, and bridal wear. Although their designs are unique and often bespoke, they are not immune to replication, either through imitation or inspiration. Those with newfound labels and makeshift workshops erected inside their houses, who are inspired to borrow the aesthetics of renowned fashion designers and decades-old maisons, opt for the same color palettes and swathes of raw silk, glimmering tissues, kumkhwab, banarsi, french lame, atlus, cotton net, and zari net cloths, but are still unable to produce a perfect replica of the infamous bridal jora that is valued in lakhs.
While the idea of those intricately-embellished and seamlessly-stitched pishwas, ghararas, lehngas, and shararahs can be captured through close examination and emulation of the embroidery and embellishing techniques —be it dabka, naqshi, gotta, mukesh, and thread-work in the form of french knots and tilla— the true essence of the design remains elusive because a different pair of hands touches the fabric and bedazzles it with intertwining paths of pearls, threads, sequins, and stones. Thus, the longer we observe the mesmerizing details that sparkle in unison to create the regal and class Baraat jora in varying hues of red or the alluring Walima jora in soft pastels, the more apparent becomes the fact that the real magic lies not in the designs themselves, but in the hands of the artisans who are tasked with breathing life into fabric that otherwise lies limp and unappealing. Those of us who closely monitor the social media posts of famous fashion designers and fashion houses, take mental notes of their latest bridal and wedding-wear collections, and scour through the makeup studio, photography, and fashion pages to see who wore what and where, know this deep down: Fashion is an art form, whose true artists remain uncelebrated, forever relegated to the unvisited shadows of the fashion industry.
Our minds play for us a slideshow of long, trailing farshi ghararas, hemmed with heavily-worked embellishments, perfectly-tailored kameezes in shimmering fabric that are accentuated by intricate needle-worked embellishments, and royal-looking cuts in the form of angrakhas and kalidaars, but what is never reflected in the impeccable mirror-work are the images of the artisans hard at work —hunched over their addas, with the fabric pulled taut as they poke through it with their needles, little protective caps pulled over their working fingers, as they painstakingly place every pearl, each sequin, every stone, and each stitch where it is directed to be placed. The mirrors reflect not their perpetually-squinting eyes, their permanently-knotted fingers, or the peeling and perforated skin of their hands, but only the grandeur and pomp that the wedding industrial complex has obligated upon us to display at every Milaad, Dholki, Sangeet, Qawaali Night, Mayoon, Mehndi, Baraat, and Walima.
This, of course, is not meant to discredit the thought and expertise of those who design these beautiful pieces of art from scratch, spending days upon days sketching them out, zeroing in on every detail, selecting the fabrics, pinpointing the right color swatches, and picking the perfectly-contrasting shades to work with. The efforts and vision of fashion designers is acknowledged and rewarded, but the work of the artisans is often overlooked or outright forgotten. They are artisans by virtue of the description of their work, but they are referred to as kaarigars. Even the word “kaarigar” is not appropriate for paying homage to the skill —usually passed down through generations— and the time that goes into crafting every minute detail of the beading and embellishment patterns that are first drawn out with tailor’s chalk or slivers of thread, traced, and then filled in with a plethora of decorative materials.
The fashion industry has, often, been accused of minting money from the uber-rich, but the grasp of capitalism and consumerism is ruthless to the extent that it has us all, the elite and non-elite, in its chokehold. The way that social media glamorizes an already-glamorous world of fashion and enamours us with the concept of a fairytale wedding also contributes to the continued exploitation of a class of skilled workers whose art form is unique not just in its creation, but also in the fact that its mastery comes from a long history of adherence to and passion for the family trade. The exploitation of artisans employed by the ever-expanding bridal couture industry occurs not only in the area of inhumane working conditions and never-ending work hours, but also in the monetary compensation they are given for the blood, sweat, and tears that they shed with each tanka. There is an insurmountable discrepancy between the money that fashion labels and designers demand from their consumers, upon the pretext of exclusively-handworked and heavily-embellished joras, and the salaries that they pay to their workers for their exquisite and dexterous handiwork. The work they do is indispensable to the maintenance of the name and aesthetic of the brand and, yet, they are not rewarded with even a tenth of the profit that fashion designers make on bridal dresses with six-digit price tags.
Fashion has, historically and traditionally, been seen as a frivolous indulgence, but the craftsmanship and time that goes into producing a single piece makes it nothing short of an art form in itself. Bridal couture is a subclass of fashion clothing that, like other types of couture, deserves the same status of an art piece that would be granted to a painting, a book, or a handicraft item. In the West, and increasingly now in the East, fashion clothing pieces are coming to be recognized for the artistic and timeless value they hold. Therefore, the true artists that are worthy of being championed as the artists of these beautiful bridal joras are the ones who remain unacknowledged, underpaid, overworked, and unrewarded for their art here in Pakistan and, perhaps, in other parts of South Asia as well. The deeper we dive into the romanticized notion of Pakistani bridal couture, the more we start to notice the fissures and ruptures in its glamorous facade —worker exploitation, unequal distribution of wealth among the social classes, the inaccessibility of luxe fashion, cultural appropriation in the form of the adoption of indigenous embroidery patterns and embellishing techniques without paying due credit to their origins, and half-hearted efforts at feminist messaging in the shape of elaborate campaigns on women empowerment are just some of the issues that one can easily identify within and manifesting as a result of the bridal couture industry in Pakistan.
As a woman I, too, wish to make my way down the aisle in the designer bridal jora of my dreams, but I know that it will come at a cost. Not only will it cost me my life’s savings thus far, but it may also come at an exorbitant cost to my politics as a feminist. Granted, the way we incorporate our political beliefs into our life will never be perfect, but the evasive nature of perfection should not and cannot be the force to deter us from making certain choices and changes to our lifestyle that are entirely possible if we choose to writhe and resist in the clutches of capitalism. Perhaps, there may come a day, when the artisans that have built up the bridal couture industry into the monumental entity that it is now will be recognized and paid their dues for the creatively-constructed and beautifully-crafted art pieces that they produce day in and day out. But until then, I will resort to admiring their exquisite and ethereal art from afar and pining for the chance to adorn myself with those cascading and glittering fabrics.