Afghanistan’s Fashions Over Three Generations

A family coped with the country’s trials and tribulations through a passion for clothes and hairstyles

Afghanistan’s Fashions Over Three Generations
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

The early 1960s was a time of upheaval and transformation in Afghanistan’s second-largest city, Kandahar. After the king announced a sweeping modernization program that challenged Afghan society’s conservative norms, my grandfather and his friends, who were young men, poets and activists, and who belonged to a group called the Awakened Youth that advocated for social reform, seized the moment.

One evening, as the sun set and the rain-soaked streets grew dark, they did something radical: They shaved off their beards and wore Western clothes. A new class was created, an educated and modern one.

Some women joined too. The wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the revolutionaries, who had never shared their own thoughts or dreams, adopted the new styles. They cut their hair and wore skirts and blouses. Through their style, they supported the new, though it continued to exist in uneasy harmony with the old. They walked in the streets among the veiled and bearded.

Afghan women in Western-style dress outside Kabul airport in 1967. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

My mother would be born a few months after that night, so she grew up in an Afghanistan that had forged a different identity for itself. She attended the same school where my grandfather taught English and philosophy, a school that reflected the cosmopolitan and progressive spirit of the times. In a picture taken then, my grandfather stands in a suit among his colleagues, men and women who wear formal skirts and blazers, fashionable shoes and sandals and hairstyles of varying lengths. They look confident and hopeful.

The freedom that had been won was not without its enemies. There were those who clung to the old ways, mostly men, who feared the change and resisted it in any way they could.

For the girls who grew up in conservative homes, confined to the domestic sphere, the sight of their peers who attended school was both alluring and intimidating. The schoolgirls, with their varied hairstyles and fashionable clothes, seemed to enjoy a higher status in society. My mother told me that on the day of their weddings, the girls who stayed at home would defer to the schoolgirls for their makeup, believing that they had learned the art of beautification and, perhaps, intimacy along with their school education.

My mother was part of a generation of Afghan women who enjoyed unprecedented freedoms and opportunities from the 1960s through the 1980s. The influence of fashion was coming from everywhere: from Russia, America and India.

On the streets, heaps of secondhand clothes from the West were sold at cheap prices: midi-skirts and maxi-skirts, blouses and jackets. The affluent shopped at fancy boutiques, also filled with Western attire.

When my mother was a college girl, she admired the glamorous actresses of Bollywood, who wore colorful saris and danced on the screen. She and her friends imitated their style, wrapping themselves in bright fabrics and putting on makeup.

But their primary choice of fashion was Western dresses: skirts and blouses, coats and hats. They experimented with different hairstyles, but the most popular one was inspired by Princess Diana. They complemented their looks with bold lipstick colors and eyeliners.

Once, during the bitter cold of Kabul’s winter, my mother’s friend had a daring idea: to use a fan to dry her hair and give it some volume. She hoped to impress her classmates at the college with her new look. But her experiment backfired: She caught a cold and had to stay in bed for days, missing out on the lectures.

In universities and schools, the headscarf was a rare sight. It was reserved for occasions of mourning or for the holy month of Ramadan. My mother recalled how people would stop and offer their condolences if they saw a woman wearing a headscarf on a regular day.

The fashion trend transcended gender boundaries. Inspired by the Beatles, young men adopted their flared pants and hairstyles, flaunting their mutton chops as signs of modernity. They wore shirts and trousers, shunning traditional attire. They smoked cigarettes, listened to rock music and embraced the spirit of rebellion.

The groups that opposed this progress had coalesced by 1978 into a formidable force and emerged under the banner of holy warriors, or mujahedeen. They launched a campaign of violence that targeted the urban centers. By the mid-1980s, their attacks had become a regular threat to the government and its allies.

The menacing slogans of the mujahedeen were heard across the country. They denounced the women who wore heels, saying they were inviting men with their clacking footsteps. My aunt told me in the beginning that they didn’t take it seriously.

“We would laugh at them,” she said. “We would joke that we would throw our heels at them if they dared to come near our city.”

In 1992, the communist government fell and civil war followed, unleashing terrible violence that shattered all the gains Afghan society had made. The elegant boutiques where my mother and her friends had indulged their tastes were reduced to rubble. The educated and refined elite who had shaped the new society were either killed, exiled or cowering in fear. The city’s vitality was replaced by terror and devastation. The rockets spared no one. Fashion, too, became a casualty of war.

In 1996, a new force fully seized power in Afghanistan. They called themselves the Taliban, and they imposed a harsh rule on the country. Men had to grow their beards long and wear simple clothes, while women had to cover themselves from head to toe in burqas.

During those dark years of the Taliban, when I was born, fashion was a forbidden word. My family, by that time, had moved to Kandahar. Women had to cover themselves in shapeless burqas, hiding their beauty and identity. Yet even then, they found joy in the colors of their embroidery, stitching patterns of flowers and birds on their clothes. My mother was one of them. Deprived of any other outlet, my mother had to unleash her creativity in a new way. Once a professor giving lectures on organic chemistry, she now had a new craft to learn. She used silk thread that shimmered in the light, and spent hours selecting the right colors and patterns.

Those who had access to Pakistan were lucky. They could see what was happening in the world of fashion and bring some of it back with them.

One female guest who arrived from Pakistan for a wedding was the envy of every woman in Kandahar. Her dresses would dazzle the eyes of the wedding attendees. They reached out to touch her garment, feeling the texture of the fabric and the material of the embroidery with their fingers. The next morning, her door would be knocked on by eager borrowers who wanted to copy her style. But finding the right material was not easy in Kandahar, where only one shop sold the basic fabric and embroidery. The Pakistani dresses had more sophisticated patterns and colors. So anyone who was traveling to Pakistan was entrusted with the mission of returning with the desired cloth and embroidery materials.

For the women of Kandahar, this was a matter of great importance and discussion. When they gathered, they would talk about their dressmaking dilemmas. This one had run out of paper embroidery. Did her friend have any extra to spare? Would she share? Even for double the price? Afghanistan was isolated from the world, a pariah state, and some of their dresses remained incomplete due to the scarcity of materials.

We had relatives in Pakistan. Whenever we visited, which was once a year, my older sister would watch TV shows and movies, buy clothes and accessories, and bring back postcards of Indian film actresses with different hairstyles. Admired by many, she became a trendsetter in our neighborhood. Other girls would come to her to get their hair done, borrow her clothes or see her postcards. She was like a window to another world.

As a child, I cherished the moments when my mother would make me new clothes. They were the highlights of my childhood, the memories that still warm my heart. One of them was a cream-colored Punjabi suit with a pink embroidered neckline and a graceful design of floral and vine motifs. The trousers and the scarf matched the embroidery, soft and silky on my skin.

The anticipation of new clothes was also shared by us children. Before Eid or a wedding, we would eagerly discuss what our mothers were making for us. Our mothers would instruct us to keep their designs secret, as they wanted to surprise everyone with their unique creations. But we could not always resist the temptation and would even show the unfinished dress to our friends. On one occasion, this led to a fashion disaster. On the first day of Eid, every girl in the alley came out wearing the same outfit: a skirt with red and blue stripes and a yellow blouse with acrylic craft mirror embroidery.

The year 2001 came. By the end of it, everything had changed. The Taliban were overthrown and a new republic emerged, with the help of the U.S. and its allies. As the aid money flowed into the economy, traders crossed the border to India, China and Pakistan in the following years to bring back the latest trends and fabrics. This unleashed a new era of fashion in Afghanistan.

The Western style that my mother embraced came back to her. She asked my aunt in Pakistan to buy me clothes that made me stand out, jeans and shirts with shiny sequins. In pictures, I have this snobbish smile wearing those stylish clothes. To this day, I remember how I felt wearing those jeans and sequined shirts. I felt modern and different from anyone else, as if I were from a different and better world. I also thought maybe some people would think I was visiting from Europe. My family already started calling me “khariji” (foreigner), so the jeans complemented the personality I was developing.

In Rangrizan Dana, a bustling bazaar in Kandahar, every lane was a kaleidoscope of colors — shops displaying rolls of fabrics from different countries, each with its own texture and pattern. One might be from Taiwan, the other Korean. The shopkeepers would point out the differences. The customers browsed and bargained, looking for the best deals and fashionable designs.

Around 2006, at 10 years of age, I was tall enough to wear Indian clothes that, at that time, were available only for adults. The tall buildings that housed the women’s fashion shops were like palaces of dreams, where we could find the latest styles. We learned to appreciate them by watching Indian TV series. The merchants knew their business well; they also followed the shows and brought back the most popular outfits, which they sold at high prices.

Men, too, had changed their fashion. The translators who worked with the foreign troops had developed a distinctive style of their own, wearing white cotton shirts that were shorter and tighter than the traditional kameez, and baggy trousers called partug. It was a look that set them apart from the rest of society. They also copied the hairstyles of popular Bollywood stars, such as the center parting of Salman Khan in the movie “Tere Naam.”

By 2007, the Taliban had reemerged as a formidable force that threatened the fragile stability of Afghanistan. The war entered a new phase of brutality, as suicide bombers unleashed carnage on civilians. Even though the country’s politics deteriorated day by day, fashion remained defiant. In a country where violence and oppression often stifle voices, clothes are a way to speak without words. I know this because I was one of those speaking.

In 2009, I turned 13. By then, I had taken fashion into my own hands. Fashion was my first creative outlet. I loved designing new clothes, imagining how I could stand out from the crowd. It became an obsession, the only thing on my mind. As the years passed, I had access not only to the TV but also the internet, which opened up the world of fashion more and more. I spent hours browsing through magazines, websites and TV shows, looking for inspiration and ideas.

I did not limit myself to traditional clothes but also experimented with Western and European trends. My sister, who had been a local trendsetter and fashion icon, and was by then living in England, made it easier to access that world, as I selected the dresses from the website of the House of Fraser, a department store, and she would send them to me.

I cared not only about what we wore to weddings and other festive occasions, which were so often elaborate and expensive, but also about our everyday home clothes. I mixed and matched different fabrics, colors and patterns, creating my own unique styles.

I also learned how to style my hair with a straightener, copying the glamorous actresses I saw on TV. I became known among my relatives as the best hairstylist, and they often asked me to do their hair for special occasions. I watched YouTube videos to learn new techniques and trends.

After arriving in the U.S. in 2016, I realized that fashion here was not a reflection of one’s identity, but a conformity to a bland uniformity. On the streets or in malls, you see people wearing the same clothes, year after year, with no sense of creativity or individuality. In Afghanistan, fashion was a way of expressing oneself, of creating an aura that influenced others. It was a form of art and culture.

I stayed connected to the latest trends in my homeland through photos and videos sent by my relatives. I saw how Afghan women were reclaiming their culture by wearing traditional clothes with modern twists, inspired by their favorite national TV talk-show hosts. My mother made me several Afghan dresses in different styles, following the examples of the women on the screen. It was a joy to witness this new transformation.

The year 2021 brought bad news for Afghanistan. The Taliban’s takeover of the country in August erased decades of hard-won gains in education, employment and political participation for women. Women who had once been news anchors, doctors, judges and activists were forced to stay at home, cover their faces and obey the strict rules of the new regime. Those who dared to protest or resist faced violence, intimidation and imprisonment.

As the Taliban returned to power, Afghanistan plunged back into a dark era that mirrors the one it suffered in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

Women are no longer allowed to host talk shows or show their faces as news presenters. We have to cover ourselves with masks, as though our identities were a mark of shame. Every day, another restriction is imposed on my sisters there; another freedom is taken away. The state decides how women should look, how they should dress and how to behave.

The beauty and grace of Afghanistan have once again been hijacked by extremist ideologies. One of the latest bans is on beauty salons, those places where women can express themselves and feel beautiful. I know that Afghan women are strong and defiant. They will not surrender their desire to be themselves, to have their own dreams, even if they are condemned to remaining under burqas or within the four walls of their homes. But they face a harsh reality and an uncertain future. The politics of the country have once again gotten in the way of how they express themselves. Men and women are forced to conform to one mold, a burqa for women and a beard for men.

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