Of sartorial elegance | By Khalid Saleem


Of sartorial elegance

ONE of the minor joys of living in Islamabad is the welcome opportunity it affords one of en joying long and pleasant walks early in the morning. The winter in Islamabad lingers on longer than the southern areas. So, theoretically at least, one has longer occasion to enjoy this rather pleasurable interlude leading up to the summer season. Allow one to hasten to clarify that it is not at all one’s intention to dwell on the vagaries of the weather. What is of interest rather is what one gets to enjoy – free of cost – as a corollary of the changing weather. So here goes!

It so came to pass that in the course of one such pleasurable walk one came face to face with a phenomenon that had hitherto escaped one’s attention and one that one had hitherto given little thought to. It all began when one came across two rather smug and comfortable looking ladies engaged in the leisurely pursuit of sweeping the road – yes, Islamabad persists with the traditional practice of entrusting this important function to members of the fair sex. The first thing one noticed, then, was that the duo were operating at that indolent pace and rhythm that comes only after years of honest – though hardly intense – toil. The road was being swept as per regulations but not without the ladies leaving their distinct imprint on the whole exercise. But one is digressing once again.
On the occasion under reference, it was not the ladies’ work rhythm that attracted one’s particular attention, remarkable though it was in itself. What struck one straightaway was the manifest fact that the two ladies were wearing what in the Western world have come to be recognized as ‘designer sweaters’. There was no mistaking the texture, the design and the outlandish pattern that have all become the hallmark of the ‘Rich and Famous’ in the so-called developed world. And what is more, the brace of ladies in question were carrying it off as if it was just another day in their checkered lives.

Presently, the two ladies were joined by a middle-aged male colleague, who – going by his (you guessed it!) designer sweater – could easily have passed off as the indigenous version of an aging Hollywood actor. Had we in the Land of the Pure, unbeknown to the common man, been overtaken by an Industrial Revolution of sorts, wherein fashionable apparel was being mass-produced at affordable prices? Or, had our blessed working classes struck it rich, thanks to the intricate web of statistics – based on macro and micro policies of the financial wizards – as woven by our indefatigable planners? It was nothing that exciting, regrettably, though. A quick and short enquiry revealed the mundane truth that the designer apparel in question had been procured from the ‘weekly bazaar’ at what can only be described as throw-away prices.

Thanks to our second-hand clothing markets (in some cities known by the rather catchy nomenclature of ‘lunda bazaar’) our working classes have found fashion within their reach, at least during the harsh winter months. This weighty discovery had the effect of stimulating one’s thought process. The ‘Rich and Famous’ of the Western world spend virtually small fortunes on purchasing so-called designer clothing just so that these garments would set them apart from the common herd. And thanks to their ‘wear and quickly discard’ habits the unwashed of the developing world get to steal a few moments of glory among their peers.

Let’s look back a bit in recent history. It so happened that the great revolution of the ready-to-wear garment industry in the developed world had resulted in the mass production of middling quality garments. This had the effect of bringing the prices down to within the reach of the working classes, thereby prompting the ‘Rich and Famous’ to look for alternate sources for their wherewithal. Their only – and modest – desire was basically to be (or at least to look) different from the herd. As a consequence, then, whereas the working classes managed the means to pick up their suits and sweaters from outlets such as Marks and Spenser, the upper classes started opting for bespoke tailoring and the designer stuff.

So much for the developed Western world! The situation in countries such as ours, one notices, is somewhat different – in fact, reversed. Whereas the ‘great unwashed’ wear the designer stuff (courtesy the good old lunda bazaar), our upper classes proudly flaunt their wealth by making a beeline for the ‘imported’ Marks and Spenser genre. The underlying idea, nevertheless, is the same: that is to look different from the multitude and to stand out in the crowd. One man’s meat is another man’s poison as they say; or is it the other way around?

Fashion, as it has come to be called, is ephemeral – fleeting. The desire to be different and to look different, though, is engrained in human nature. It has always formed part of what can be identified as the class struggle among the homo-sapiens. It has not been highly thought of by most intellectuals, though. The bard of Avon said (in Much Ado about Nothing): “I see that the fashion wears out more apparel than the man”. Oscar Wilde was even harsher when he wrote. “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”.

In the Land of the Pure, today, money reigns supreme. Money is no consideration for our nouveaux riches, though, and thus the cult of pseudo-fashion flourishes in this land of pseudo egos. Money, however, cannot buy everything – at least that is what conventional wisdom says. There exists another class of society that, though somewhat handicapped by a dearth of financial means, has managed to stay a step ahead of the moneyed class, at least in terms of sartorial elegance.
— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.