September 22, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The garment district

By |2020-06-07T18:43:41+02:00June 4th, 2020|"Notebook"|
Just relax and enjoy the breeze....

s restrictions on lockdowns lift, those who have enjoyed the last few months in perpetual pajamas or sweatpants may be unhappy about returning to wearing their regular street or work clothes.

But those who are worried don’t need to be. They can stay in their jim-jams forever, just like millions of people around the world.

“Pajamas” is derived from the Hindi and Urdu “pai jama” (Persian in origin), a loose garment that covers the legs. British colonials in India, who learned to nap in the cool and comfy native leg coverings, added an “s,” as in “trousers” and “pants.” When they returned to stodgier Britain, nap-wear became nightwear.

Across south and central Asia, however, the pajama paired with a tunic or kurta is a universal form of dress. To simplify things, I will call this combination the shalwar kameez.

Ever since discovering the advantages of the shalwar kameez — which I did during visits to central Asia and India — I have been predicting (and hoping) that we westerners would eventually see its benefits. The coronavirus may be its moment.

There’s more to comfort than just being baggy. The easy-to-move-in shalwar kameez does not ride up or chafe in hot weather. You can bicycle, bend, or climb a ladder with impunity. The loose, but covered, shape is particularly suited to warm climates and sunny days. When colder weather comes, just change the fabric.

The shalwar kameez has a lot more going for it than mere comfort.

Across south and central Asia the shalwar kameez is a universal form of dress.

It is ageless. There is no young or old version of the shalwar kameez. Mom could wear her daughter’s clothes, if she fits (or vice versa) and not look ridiculous. The shalwar kameez accepts all body types. It doesn’t look bad or embarrassing on anyone.

Despite its universality, the shalwar kameez is not a conformist Mao suit. Whether you’re in Kabul or Karnataka, you’ll see endless potential for creativity and personal expression. You’ll notice tight and flowing sleeves — long in the winter — and short or sleeveless in summer. Tunic lengths range from mid-calf to mid-thigh. Trouser shapes range from billowy bell-bottoms to snug leggings. Fabric choices are almost limitless.

The simple construction and broad shape of the tunic provide a canvas for color and trim broader than anything seen in modern western wear since the hoop skirt. Shops in Pakistan and India bulge with pom-poms, fringe and sequins to trim tunics and trousers.

The extreme shapes and gender differences in western wear probably reflect class distinction or efforts to repress female sexuality. Men’s ties and tailored suits, women’s hoop skirts, the bras of the 1950s, and Victorian corsets all bragged that their wearers did not stoop to manual labor (and were very likely tended to by servants).

Of course there is terrible economic and sexual inequality in regions where the shalwar kameez is common. But it is not the shape or cut of the clothing that distinguishes the beggar from the businessman or the maid from the mistress.

While feminists may see the heavy hand of Islamic patriarchy as behind the modest shalwar kameez, I see liberation. The shape-concealing garment liberates the female body from objectification. It blurs gender differences. Simple to sew at home, the shalwar kameez also offers liberation from the fashion industry.

In the United States, I see glimmers of the shalwar kameez’s potential spread, usually disguised as something else. The fashion brand Roberta Roller Rabbit sells brightly-colored tunics to wear over tight or loose-fitting pants. Roller Rabbit’s shalwar kameez  (perfectly suited to the Hamptons) sells itself as beachwear for the city. L.L. Bean sells linen tunics for summer. And for decades, American designer Eileen Fisher has stealthily sold the shalwar kameez as somber tunics and trousers, which have become a uniform for artsy ladies over fifty.

It is not the shape or cut of the shalwar kameez that marks out the classes.

For men, Untuckit promotes “casual men’s shirts designed to be worn untucked,” hanging loose over trousers, like a kurta. To make a sartorial declaration about his metamorphosis from nerd to cool dude, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos chose the Nehru jacket. The hip-length jacket with a mandarin collar, forever associated with The Beatles and 1960s glamour, is simply the western adaptation of vests Indian and Pakistani men wear over their kurtas.

Americans ready to take the plunge into perennial pajamas can shop at trendy Pakistani fashion chain Khaadi, which has an online store in the U.S. (22 actual stores in Britain). Khaadi sells both ready-made and unstitched garments for customers to make at home. Khaadi takes pajamas to another level with its formal line of silk and velvet. For daily wear, jazzy tunics and numerous trouser styles, many embroidered and trimmed, combine the comfort of sweat pants or pajama bottoms with the style of a Palm Springs pool party (at Coney Island prices). Many kurtas come with a coordinated floaty shawl (dupatta), which is the perfect solution to getting around locked down hair salons or a botched home dye job.

I confess that I have not made a full conversion to the shalwar kameez myself. My Pakistani wear is a bit too oriental for rural New Hampshire. I’m also reluctant to surrender to Eileen Fisher and admit I really am an artsy over-fifty. Plus, her colors are dour. Now, if Fisher added some hot pink or pom-poms, I might reconsider.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."