The Privilege of Fashion by Maria Saleem

 Artwork by Mashaal Sajid

Bio: A recent business grad, Maria is currently struggling between “practical” career choices and her passion for art. Her core causes include sustainability and tech solutions to bring positive societal change. She is (an infrequent) book blogger, (an occasional) writer, and (amateur) nature photographer.

For something seemingly as basic as fabric to cover your body with, fashion as a choice of self-expression is not so accessible to everyone.

The first thing you see on a person is their clothes. It can be their core identity being expressed openly and boldly – or it could be their very obvious class screaming at you. Fashion as a way of self-expression is a privilege

From the middle class woman lovingly gazing at bolder styles and colours at the market but choosing not to get them because of being judged by society, to the lower class labourer who has no choice but to wear the same three shirts every week, fashion by choice is a limit imposed upon those not of high class.


As we see more women joining the labour force, we see the same (if not more!) rules being imposed on them by a male-dominated corporate sector. One of them being dress code. Working women are expected to dress “professionally” often meaning: plain designs, solid colours. Fashion industry has not hesitated to reach that demand. Because of the label “working women,” the companies have got away with charging extra for low quality, mediocre outfits. Outfits that the customer herself can get tailored easily if they bother to do so. But is the 10x extra charge for saving your time worth it? Not for every woman. Because not all working women belong to the same class. But I suppose capitalism wins every time?

Confusing Culture with “Religion” 

Among the very many things we as a destination like to control about our women, one of them is, of course, clothing. Dress codes are not only explicitly imposed at school or homes or workplaces, but also implicitly imposed. Which is where it gets tricky. At certain workplaces, for example, it is expected but not implied, that women dress “formally.” Of course, that is a very loose term here. Especially for a country like Pakistan, which has not yet seen something even close to equal gender representation in the workforce. The employers probably haven’t yet come up with how to control the dress code, or, giving them the benefit of the doubt: maybe not wanting to control it. 

Of course, there are exceptions. Islamic banks? Hijabs for women and . . . what, for men? Oh, the same old suit and tie? A journalist asked the male employees if they knew the tie, introduced by White men (predominantly Christians) was a sign of crucifixion of Jesus (A.S.).They said they had had no idea. It would seem the “religious” dress codes only apply to the females.

Labour and Credit

Ever admired the prints we wear and that embroidery we get sewn on our formals? Do you love it so much it made you think of the designer who designed them? And what about the artisans who actually sew the embroidery? Who is the designer for the particular print you are wearing? Do you know their names? Do you ever see them? No, you just know the brand who owns them, and sold the piece to you. 


Coming back to the class conversation. In the rural areas, close to where I am from, women of “respected households” aren’t allowed to go fancy shopping on their own. Even for their own clothes. Men shop for them, showing it as a favour. The wives or daughters have to pretend to like the clothes and force themselves to feel flattered. This is how far they are from choosing what to put on their bodies, let alone feel expressed in it. “Fashion” for ladies is dictated by men who manufacture the clothes, and sell it to other men . . . to be worn by women, eventually. And these are the women of privileged class in those areas.

But all of these “grievances” are of yet another privileged girl sitting behind a computer typing away in her comfortable apartment. The hard labourers fighting outside in the sun or at other people’s homes don’t think about this. They sweat away in the same three shirts they own, not thinking about fashion choices, but about the next meal that day, the lightness of the weight in their pockets. The fact that we are having this conversation is a privilege. For some people, it never crosses their minds.

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