In 1977 when I returned to live in Karachi after many years abroad, the city of my birth was very, very different from today’s metropolis.
Today’s Karachi is every shopaholic’s dream: a shrine to capitalistic spending and sartorial excess, a busy bazaar stocking high-end designer brands from the west and extravagant fabric and crafts from the east. Air conditioned shopping malls complete with food courts, cinemas and coffee shops have added to the whole spending-shopping experience; in fact it’s almost become standard now.
Well Karachi in 1977 didn’t look like this. At that time, the fashionable new place for shopping was Tariq Road, while the prestigious old businesses were mostly to be found along ‘Elfie’ (Elphinstone street, the old name of Zaibunnissa Street) and Victoria Road (now Abdullah Haroon Road). TV transmission was not round the clock and print was limited so one was not bombarded by relentless advertising images. But, mainly, the city hadn’t been infected by compulsive consumerism. Oh yes, there was serious shopping going on but the scale seems diminutive in comparison to today’s activity.
This was mostly because the economic and social climate was so different then. That was a time when we all still had ration cards and each member of the household had fixed sugar and ghee rations which had to be collected (after queuing) from the ration depot. This was a time when coffee (yes, the instant variety) was a luxury and when cream cakes (‘Black Forest’ was a pioneer) were still a novelty and a delightful indulgence. Supermarkets were just emerging on the scene, off-the-rack suits for men and women were catching on in popularity, and the hip wares and trendy t-shirts of Zainab Market were being discovered.
This was also the time when the Awami Suit was in fashion for both men and women. This desi version of the Mao suit of communist China was a key feature of the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto years and it was an egalitarian and liberating sartorial idea as both men and women wore clothes made along the same template: a shalwar topped with a (shortish) qameez with collar and pockets (a dupatta was not an essential part of the outfit) — simple, practical, androgynous.
It is interesting to see how women’s fashion then became more excessive, traditional and more ‘feminine’ under a religion-oriented military regime and it has never really gone back to the simplicity of unisex lines. Indeed it is difficult to imagine the less-is-more aesthetic coming back into fashion in the present climate of fabric snobbery and ‘designer’ creations that rely on so many varied elements — different fabrics, multiple borders etc.
The clothes we now wear reflect the society we have become and the values we espouse. On the one hand, the overall quality of the fabric and design has become world class and there is immense choice available to the consumer, but on the other buying clothes compulsively has become an addiction, a habit that must be fed no matter what one’s circumstances are. It’s not unusual for a bride to insist on a wedding outfit whose price tag might buy her a small car and it’s not unheard of for parents to be saddled with heavy loans because they just had to get all those pricey wedding clothes…
So, as in all good capitalist economies, spending is now a compulsion for us, and clothes the measure of our self worth.
As most people now believe: we are what we wear.
Like the emperor in that story…