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Picking a Pakistani wedding dress is a whole different ball game than what you would see on Say Yes to the Dress. The new “Bollywed” on CBC is more like it: multiple days’ worth of wardrobe changes, family involvement, emotions, and a stressed-out bride. After arriving in Karachi from Vancouver last year to prepare for my wedding, I had many ideas about the clothing I wanted. My mom was already overwhelmed, so my goal was to pick a middle ground where I could have my trousseau and dresses while reducing the amount of shopping and couture I had to do. Heirloom clothes and jewelry are a big part of Pakistani weddings, but I did not know I would receive heirlooms myself.
It turns out that the cupboard above my mom’s closet contained bundles of clothes and fabrics from her wedding, neatly folded away for decades. From these muslin cloth bundles emerged a bright-coloured luxe fabric with intricate embroidery, and it was better quality than what I had found browsing on South Asian wedding inspiration Pinterest. The design was classic, as it had flooded the markets again decades later but not in the same quality. Most importantly, it brought stories from many special family members to tell.
Reflecting on the experience later, I thought about how my clothing consumption in Canada has drastically changed over the past few years. I consumed much less clothing in Pakistan, opting for fewer quality pieces, and I got more wear out of them. But with tailoring and unstitched fabrics being a luxury in the West and fast fashion being the norm for affordable clothing, I will unlikely have much to pass down to my children.
Western consumer capitalism says you need a new garment for every season to achieve a specific look; yet, many other cultures globally take a more evergreen approach by valuing tailoring and custom clothing and keeping their clothes longer. With sustainable fashion as a part of the global effort towards a green planet, innovative practices should also consider the potential for long-standing traditions to lead fashion sustainability efforts.
Alternatives to Fast Fashion
It is no news in 2023 that fast fashion produces textile waste that is difficult to recycle. Occasionally, minimalist trends, like capsule wardrobes and no-buy months, have made rounds across social media, but the impact of these trends remains niche. As long as building a long-lasting collection of everyday clothes is expensive, many people—especially those with growing children and their changing needs—will not find it accessible. Small changes in consumer habits regularly, such as how we treat our clothes, what we do when they require repair or our attitude towards changing trends, play a role in determining an outcome as a society. That requires a larger cultural shift and letting go of what we perceive as evolved habits.
I realized the change in my consumption habits when I moved to Canada when I noticed I was going back to stores whose clothes were not lasting me long enough. I did not shop much back home and still fulfilled my fashion-forward desires! The irony was that many of the fast fashion pieces I bought were made in Pakistan and neighbouring countries using a cheap, insecure, and vulnerable labour force. Sadly, Pakistan’s culture and philosophy around heirloom clothing are not getting exported with the garments made there.
Textiles and garments have been a trademark feature of Pakistan. They arise from Pakistan’s rich culture spanning different provinces, their own Indigenous clothes, and their respective histories in the Indian subcontinent. Part of this culture is to save your clothes for future generations because the textile itself is valued and cherished, in addition to if there are any embroidered or printed motifs on it.
Preserving clothes is rooted in the history of the subcontinent wherein gifts of textiles were diplomatic moves as well, as explained by Fatma Shah. The festive clothes would have these embroideries in real gold or silver zari (metallic thread). A big part of this attachment was the workmanship that went into creating these textiles. The fact that they were handmade meant people cherished them as unique and unreplicable. Passing heirloom clothes to girls and boys at weddings, and other significant life events, became rituals in themselves. This culture of handmade embroidery and custom clothing has continued over the decades; even with changing trends in clothing, tailoring is a thriving profession and skill in Pakistan.
Tailoring is still a valued and respected skill in Pakistan. Ghani Choudhry, for instance, became a celebrated tailor on Savile Row in London, despite his humble beginnings in Lahore. The cultural importance of tailors makes sense when you consider that Pakistan’s textiles industry makes up 46% of its total manufacturing sector and employs 40% of its labour force. Hence, fabric markets in Pakistan are a common sight, and many people prefer to make their clothes using those fabrics rather than head to a ready-to-wear garments store.
For most of my life in Pakistan, I had custom clothing made by tailors and even my mother, aunts, and grandmothers. Tailoring may sound like a luxury, but the prevalence of this service has made it a norm and ready-to-wear clothing to be seen as a luxury instead. There has been a recent shift towards fast fashion; with ready-to-wear clothing available more readily, many still value the craftsmanship of tailors and handy workers. This is not to say that fashion trends do not exist, but the latest collections are of both stitched and unstitched clothing.
Fit to Wear for Long
But how does the copious production of fabric lead to sustainable choices for the consumer? The answer: a culture of engaging with garments at the core of its production. When shopping is not just for going to a store and buying ready-to-wear garments, its production and implications feel more legit to the consumer.
The inconsistencies of sizing and lack of accommodating various body types are common issues with fast fashion across the globe, as ready-to-wear clothing has to follow set sizing standards. As a result, consumers buy often to suit their needs and turn over their wardrobe relatively faster than tailored pieces. Custom tailoring, however, creates an attachment to clothing pieces that fit well and are unique creations for each individual. There is no seasonal fashion in a culture of custom tailoring. Even with changing styles, people stash away their creations for later years or perhaps pass them down to generations. Just like how I pulled off a formal dress for my wedding that my mother created and wore 25 years earlier.
The reality is that I do not have the same access to tailoring in Canada. It is more expensive, and there is a general lack of tailors compared to back home. However, I am paying more attention to small practices from the clothing philosophy of my culture that can help me reduce my consumption and extend wear time. I plan to learn sewing in hopes of altering and mending my clothes. If I love it and it is functional, I can do something to preserve it instead of reaching for the next quick thing.
Edited by Sun Woo Baik