Making a case for genuine national identity

Dhaka,  Sat,  03 December 2016
Published : 13 Oct 2016, 21:24:24

Making a case for genuine national identity

Shihab Sarkar
Exclusive fashion shows focused on dresses from Bangladesh do not fail to trigger interest of our expatriates, and also people from South Asia. This interest is normally sparked by women's wear from the country. Thus the first-ever exposure of Bangladeshi dresses in London drew large crowds to the show held recently at the city's East End neighbourhood. Titled Bangladesh Fashion Week, it was organised by Bangladesh Fashion Council UK. Dresses innovated by fashion designers from Bangladesh and the country's expatriates in the UK were presented at the show. The show centred round the internationally acclaimed fashion model Bibi Russell, who participated in the event as head designer. Twenty-one female models presented the new dresses in their catwalks.

Organisers were quite happy with the turnout of the viewers at the much-publicised fashion show. Dubbed by many as being representative of Bangladesh, a few present at the show, however, found it to be quite distanced from the typical trends characterising Bangladesh fashion world. As the organisers defined, the object of the show was to present Bangladeshi dresses compatible with international fashion trends and also bringing into focus the designs influenced by the country's traditional styles. The fashion pageant has thus brought into life a unique mélange of dresses from different cultures --- apparently aimed at South Asian young women now living in the UK. The models paraded at the show wearing uniquely designed varieties of Salwar-Kameez, with turbans loosely wrapped around their heads, Bengalee Gamchas (thinly woven traditional towels) flung across the shoulders, spectacles and headphones. Result:  kind of a brave new South Asian style of women's wear emerged before the audience. If a fashion show is intended to come up as a representation of one or another society, it ought to be truly centred on that country. Warped representations of countries abroad only give rise to confusions. The pastiched dresses that were kept under the spotlight in London do not speak of the general women in Bangladesh --- be they residents of urban or rural areas. True, these dresses can demand special attention as the ones that have resulted from experiments in day-to-day and ceremonial female wear in vogue in the Asian region. They hardly represent Bangladesh.   Sari, the oldest of the dresses for women in South Asia, had a place in the parade. But the individual style of wearing sari, worn by women of the region for over a thousand years, was conspicuous by its absence. Saris featured the show as part of other freshly designed dresses. Moreover, different additions and adornments obscured the original look of this typical South Asian dress.

When it comes to Bangladesh, the Bengalee women's individual and age-old style of being clad in this uniquely designed clothing has for long stood as one of the true symbols of Bengali heritage. Thanks to the globalisation of dresses worn by women in Bangladesh, saris are insidiously being overtaken by derivatives of other dresses from different parts of the world. The Banglasesh  Fashion Week, London could have kept a special place for sari, now being fast pushed into the margin of day-to-day women's wear in Bangladesh. A Bengalee woman clad in a hand-woven and florally designed sari has once stood as a true symbol the country. Bangladeshi fashion designers involved with the London show are fully aware of it. Due to their being mostly women, they would have rendered sari a great service by presenting it as a dress completely independent of other women's wear. In fact, presenting saris coupled with other accessories has greatly detracted from its beauty.        

  Although worn by women in the vast swathes of South Asia, sari has been synonymous with women in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam for over thousand years. Thanks to its unique style of wearing, saris in Bengal have always enjoyed a prestigious place among the common dresses worn by women. Since ancient times, a sari-like garment has been the only dress worn by women. The 'Sabar' women, wives of nomadic hunting males, are recorded to have been used to wrapping themselves with a long piece of unstitched cotton cloth. This primitive style of wearing saris is still found among the early indigenous peoples in the region. The rural women in India's southern states follow yet another style. In the later centuries in Bengal, the one-piece female wear developed into the earliest form of sari, its height ending just below the knees. Scantily covering the body, sari had yet to be worn along with petticoat, the lower undergarment. The upper undergarment, the Bengal blouse, became an integral part of sari in the 19th century.  The ancestral family of the poet Rabindranath Tagore is credited with bringing into vogue the wearing of sari with a long-sleeve blouse. The enlightened family pioneered dozens of elegant styles of saris around 150 years ago. 

The fashion show in London carries an important message in that it offers an opportunity for lots of Bengalees in the UK to pick some latest designer-dresses made of sari byproducts and its varieties of designs and styles. But the fully evolved sari in its modern look commands much more focus.  After all, it is one of the oldest female wears in modern Asian civilisations. In spite of their being expatriates in the British capital for long, lots of Bangladeshi women still love to see them clad in saris on special occasions. This preference for the traditional Bengali clothing points to a common human trait: few can remain oblivious to their own culture during special occasions linked to their ethnic heritage. Likewise, the Bangladeshi women's quest for saris gets whetted during the celebrations of the Bengalee New Year, the observance of Ekushey and the national days. The typical Bengalee wedding ceremonies remain incomplete without saris of varied designs and wearing styles. Moreover, the gorgeous and specially woven sari for the Bengalee bridegroom enjoys the value of a centrepiece at wedding functions. Saris worn by the female guests at a wedding reception are also expected to be effusive of the beauty, glamour and grandeur befitting the occasion. Given this importance traditionally attached to saris, a fashion show highlighting this special women's wear can claim a distinctive place in the typical Bangladeshi social environment in London. In Bangladesh, sari is passing through real bad times. Women clad in plain cotton saris are fast becoming a rare scene in the country. With its proverbial beauty and modest and tasteful nature in mind, one can only lament the slow phasing-out of saris from the country. Overseas and local fashion shows dedicated to sari can greatly help bring back its glory. The fashion world inherently follows a fanciful, if not whimsical, trajectory. Many suddenly popular trends take over an entire generation. But they too at some point of time fizzle out. Maybe, sari is waiting in the wings to stage a phenomenal comeback.

Coming to the national image relating to socio-cultural customs and clothes and many other habits, Bangladesh have for long enjoyed a distinctive character. Extricating itself from the hackneyed associations with floods, cyclones and poverty, the country has lately begun to rebrand itself. Achievements in different socio-economic sectors helped it dream of this change. Any cultural misrepresentation might jeopardise these attainments made in the face of many adversities.

shihabskr@ymail.com

 
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