There is a variation of the “hamaray zamaney main hum lamp post ki roshni se kitabein parhte they” story for every generation, a story of nostalgia that usually features unbelievable hardship and unimaginable prices. Every generation has one, the lamppost generation that can recall the price of a soft drink in annas, another that remembers the twenty-five rupee kebab roll, and another that doesn’t know what it was like to even have dial-up internet. Everyone remembers how things have changed, but the one thing that does seem to have stuck around as an immutable truth is the cost of clothes.

There is no shortage of scolds, in real life and online, who are perpetually aghast at how much clothes now cost, whether it is ready-to-wear, fabric, or custom bridal outfits, outfits sold under an actor’s brand or a made-in-Sialkot coat worn by an influencer. There’s somehow this idea that things shouldn’t cost this much because they’re made in Pakistan or are being sold to Pakistanis. Everyone is also just as confident that their tailor could make a much better and cheaper version. (Cue for a collective sigh from every tailor, and a cackling laugh from me — darling, please try. I’ll see you on the other side.)

As a consumer, I probably didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how much clothes should cost either, not until I learned how to knit, and certainly not until I bought a sewing machine during the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’d made enough sweaters and scarves to gain an appreciation for making garments, and I had visions of making my entire wardrobe once I’d mastered sewing.

It took me a few hours bent over a basic Singer sewing machine to realize that I was not born with the sewing gene. I failed at nearly everything I tried: I could not hold the gigantic tailor’s scissors properly or sew a straight seam. I jammed the sewing machine more times than I’d like to count, and mistakenly cut into some beautiful block print fabric. It was one of the more demoralising experiences I’ve ever had in my adult life, and I’ve studied Arabic grammar by choice.

Start small, every sewing website said. So I made a pouch (badly) and a tank top (worse). I made a cover for a printer and in the process nearly threw the sewing machine out of the window, but it actually worked. Finally, I decided to follow a YouTube sewing tutorial run by a Pakistani sewist, who had an iron just like mine, and offered instructions in an admonishing, encouraging way. I finally made my first proper finished garment: a shameez (or a chemise, for the more cultured). When it came out of the washing machine, seams intact, I could have nearly cried with joy. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. How had I ever dismissed a shameez as just an everyday item?

Next came a shalwar.

Close your eyes and think about how much a shalwar should cost. As I write this, the cost of shalwars available online ranges from Rs809 (classic fit shalwar, Generation) to Rs2093 (black lace shalwar, Image).

How much do I think a shalwar should cost? Take whatever number you have in your head and multiply that by five. Sewing is tough work. It leaves you with an aching back, tired eyes, and little room for error. You have to be careful, attentive, and to actually understand the mechanics of an item. (And unlike me, you should check the width of the fabric before cutting into it and realising you’re making a harem pant, not a shalwar).

Inspired by Twitter’s dieworkwear, the viral menswear writer, I did some back of the envelope math for how much a shalwar should cost: The average minimum wage is about Rs120 per hour. Let us assume a tailor takes two hours to cut and make a shalwar (that’s assuming the tailor is 1) not me 2) really, really, quick) 3) making a very basic shalwar, one without any frills and laces. That would make it Rs240 for the tailor’s wages. (I’d like to remind you that this is less than a dollar). Think about how much you get paid for one hour’s work, and what skills you deploy at your job.

Now assume the fabric is about 1000 rupees for 2.5 metres (again, ignoring any questions about whether the fabric was ethically sourced, where the cotton was grown, the impact on the environment, the wages paid to everyone from farmhands to textile mill employees.) The daily utility charges of the tailoring shop might be Rs500 a day, so let’s assume that’s how much it cost to make this shalwar. A spool of thread is Rs150, assume you use half that to make a shalwar. Add to that the daily transportation cost for the tailor, which might be another Rs200. This calculation doesn’t include the cost of the transportation from the textile mill to the shop, and of course, this isn’t an individual item being shipped, so it’s a bit more complicated to calculate. In total, the cost — to tailor a basic shalwar, with no embellishments, is about 2,000 rupees. Toss in the costs of the shop where its sold, which include utilities, rent, and employee salaries etc, all to serve it to you in a store where you — does best Miranda Priestly impression - dug it out of a bargain bin. Now think of all the costs attached to the retail side of this, and ask yourself, should a shalwar cost eight hundred rupees?

You might think this is pretty smug of me, with my shalwar-making skills and Singer machine. The truth is, I’m pretty bad at sewing, though I can do minor fixes. Last Eid, I was even able to answer the question of why do women get clothes tailored at the last minute - there I was, in my hair and makeup, threading the sewing machine on Eid morning because I’d forgotten to get a petticoat hemmed. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever make my own wardrobe from scratch.

There is some merit to the complaints though: I suspect the reason some clothes seem grossly overpriced is because of the quality. The boom of ready-to-wear has seen tailored outfits become throwaway items, and you can’t expect quality when tailors have to churn out hundreds of items. Our environment has degraded, and so has the quality of cotton, and yarn. Secondly, sure, brands charge a premium, but as consumers, we should expect that that includes fair working conditions, above average pay, and better quality of materials. But that’s not the case.

The onus, of course, shouldn’t be on individual customers, but on businesses to make changes. But we’re probably at a point where we need to reset our expectations of how much we should be paying for items, and how we value the time and effort put in by the people who make our clothes, especially if you have a tailor. If we eat a kebab roll that now costs five times as much as it did in the 2000s, shouldn’t a trouser cost five times as much? How can we continue to accept a 800 rupee shalwar as normal?

Nostalgia can be a dangerous and awful thing, as most diaspora influencers and every single fashion campaign that has featured some object of the not-so-glorious past has taught us. There’s a very thin line between using nostalgia for a funny anecdote, and turning into the bitter old uncle who is perpetually railing at the world: “hamare zamane main [insert object of nostalgia] itne main aate tha.” Before you know it, that’ll be you, lamenting the days when the price of a palazzo was paanch aanay.

Saba Imtiaz is a writer and researcher. She is the co-author of the upcoming non-fiction book Society Girl. Her first novel Karachi, Youre Killing Me! was adapted into the film Noor starring Sonakshi Sinha. Saba has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, and Marie Claire. She writes about culture, food, and urban life, and is the co-host and co-producer of the Notes on a Scandal podcast.

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