Aurora Magazine

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PIA’s High Fashion French Connection

Updated 11 Jan, 2021 05:01pm
How uniforms designed by Pierre Cardin influenced fashion in Pakistan.

It was the sixties, the youth-quake era. The post war generation was fascinated by outer space and all things futuristic. This brave new world was Pierre Cardin’s canvas - who died on December 29, 2020 at the age of 98. A visionary and futuristic designer, Cardin had revolutionary ideas about fashion. Although derided and rejected by his peers for taking couture out of the salon and into the department store, he remained unfazed and unruffled. His radical and bold designs brought a new vibe to haute couture, while his expertise in marketing took his brand name to the public at large

Cardin became a household name across several continents. It was rare not to see his black and white logo splashed across newspapers and magazines daily.

In 1966, when Air Marshal Asghar took over as Chairman of PIA, it was a dynamic, world class airline, flying to destinations no other airline had flown to, such as China. He decided that PIA needed a new and modern uniform. Cardin’s celebrity designer status had not gone unheard of in Pakistan, and he was invited to join the pitch.

Cardin’s uniform design reflected his signature style at the time. Clean cut lines, a pared down, futuristic A-line tunic that skimmed the thighs. Slim straight pants modelled on the classic “arra pajama”, which was promptly dubbed the PIA pajama. A beautiful cowl duppatta that was both easy to wear and to carry off. It was demure and graceful, yet with a contemporary and timeless aesthetic. Even today Cardin’s dupatta remains an integral part of the PIA uniform.

A socialite and model for a fashion magazine from that era recalls that the new PIA uniform played a major part in changing the silhouette of the national dress. “The ‘PIA pajama’ became all the rage for the younger lot and the shalwar was put away. Longer length kurtas gave way to the trendy mini tunic. To be influencing fashion in this way, it was quite the feather in Asghar Khans cap” recalls Mano Zaffar.

This writer approached Begum Amina Asghar Khan, herself a renowned beauty of her time to give her perspective.

“The Air Marshall wanted to change the uniform of the hostesses, but he did not really know much about designers, so he asked for suggestions. That was when Pierre Cardin’s name came up. Later, when my husband was going to Paris for work, he asked to meet him. There was a bit of a mix-up - Pierre Cardin thought the President of Pakistan was coming and he became quite excited and flustered. Anyway, once that was cleared up, he agreed to visit Pakistan and present his designs.

“Begum Kulsum Saifullah, Begum Abdul Qadir and some other ladies, were on the committee to approve the designs. My husband put me on the committee as well, not that I was very fashionable, I was just alright. Khawja Shahabuddin (Minister of Information &Broadcasting) was there as well. We viewed many designs by various designers and some were good but Cardin’s design was the smartest, and it was chosen. Cardin thought the pajama was better than the shalwar, he had different ideas why, he thought shoes also looked better on a pajama, rather than a shalwar.

“It was the first time that the shirts were shorter; previously the kameez had always been long and the shalwar’s painchas always large. This new uniform was more sensible.

“Of course there was criticism as well. Some liked it and others didn’t. When the uniforms were finally made and worn, Shahabuddin told my husband ‘I don’t like it at all’. My husband replied ‘Well, you don’t have to wear it!’ The PIA pajama became very popular, it was copied by everyone, young women liked the style and had them stitched for their wardrobe”

This is how Cardin who dressed a galaxy of stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, Eva Peron, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall and Jeanne Moreau, came to dress PIA’s progressive and stylish sixties PIA air hostesses. It exactly reflected Cardin’s vision of high fashion and mass appeal.

Semyne Khan is a creative and communications consultant.