Afghans were once synonymous with cutting edge fashion, writes Professor Tim Bonyhady.
The launch in London of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Group in May 1967 was a musical and fashion landmark. While the clothes worn by the Four Beatles surprised journalists and disc jockeys, John Lennon stole the show. He was wearing a frilly green floral shirt, brown corduroy pants, canary yellow socks, corduroy shoes – with two particularly unusual additions. One was a leather sporran, the other an Afghan sheepskin coat, worn with the fur on the inside and the skin on the outside, which was tanned yellow and embroidered with large red flowers on the front. and sleeves.
These coats have become a craze with extraordinary longevity. “Afghans,” as they were often called, were worn by many celebrities until the late 1960s. Then, for most of a decade, they became standard clothing for young people – hippie attire. archetypal and an emblem of the counter-culture.
They had a resurgence inspired by the character of Penny Lane in the 2000 film Almost known and remains the darling of bohemian fashion lovers on Instagram.
The craze for these coats transformed where and how they were made and what they looked like. Yet this could only have happened because Afghanistan’s relations with the rest of the world were changing.
SHORT, MEDIUM OR VERY LONG
Afghan coats traditionally came in three forms: sleeveless or short-sleeved vests up to the hips called pustinchas; long-sleeved, knee-length coats known as pustakis; and ankle-length cloaks called pustins.
In a gendered division of labor, men processed the hides, tanned them yellow with pomegranate rinds, cut them into pieces and sewed them together, while women and girls embroidered them with geometric and floral designs, usually in red. or in yellow. The skins were sometimes of bear, fox or goat, but usually of karakul (a breed of long-haired sheep).
Although often written as if only men wore them, so did women, and they were so ubiquitous winter clothing that they were considered Afghan national clothing.
In 1946, Maynard Owen Williams – the National Geographic Society’s first field correspondent – considered the pustin “the pinnacle of masculine chic.” The archetype of the Afghan, he writes, was “dressed in sheepskin embroidered in red”.
Their main source was Ghazni, south of Kabul. In 1955, the British archaeologist Sylvia Matheson found there “one shop after another offering only pustin”.
Matheson opted for a pustincha with brown fur that was “enchanting, the yellow skin entirely covered with tightly stitched flowers of red-box, with a patch of periwinkle blue here and there.”
Many more foreigners came in the early 1960s when Afghanistan embarked on a modernization program that saw significant numbers of women in cities unveil and find new forms of paid work.
Most of the Western visitors were hippies who traveled overland through Kabul to Kathmandu.
Their main destination was Chicken St in Shahr-e Naw, a green suburb close to the city center, which was the most westernized part of Kabul. Once an area of poultry vendors, Chicken St has grown into a tourist strip lined with antique stores, clothing, embroidery and jewelry stores, and carpet merchants. In Across Asia at low cost, the first Lonely Planet guide, published in 1973, Tony Wheeler described Chicken St as “the freak center of Kabul”.
Hippie capitalism has become commonplace. As some traveled, they looked for local produce to sell back to their homes in the West and, if they made a good profit, imported more.
Richard Neville, the Australian of Oz Magazine the celebrity, who bought a pustincha on an overland trip from Sydney to London in 1965, encouraged the trade. In Play Power, his 1970 manifesto and handbook for hippies, Neville acknowledged the biggest clothing swap in Afghanistan and other countries on the Hippie Trail. He advised: “Sell your western-style jeans in Nepal and your long leather boots in Morocco. In the old days, you could make 500% profit by bringing back sheepskin jackets from Kabul, and you could triple your money with old dresses.
ROCK N ROLL
Craig Sams, a young American who also traveled to Kabul in 1965 before moving to London, became a supplier.
Its main outlet was Granny Takes a Trip – London’s strangest, most extreme, exotic and trendy boutique – on King’s Rd in Chelsea. At first, Granny Takes a Trip sold Victorian clothing, often modified to create a slightly modern feel. In 1967, when she started stocking pustinchas, her line included 1920s Charleston dresses, 1880s Victorian bustles, Boer War helmets, African fez, Arab headdresses, and gangster costumes. from Chicago.
Granny Takes a Trip was one of the first stores that did not differentiate between men’s and women’s clothing. But it was the men, especially the rock and pop stars, who drew public attention to Afghan jackets and coats.
Jimi Hendrix wore his sleeveless orange-red brocade pustincha over an iridescent purple shirt with huge flare sleeves at one of England’s first all-star rock events at Kensington Olympia in London. Syd Barrett, of Pink Floyd, and Pete Townshend, of The Who, also wore them on stage.
All four Beatles wore backwards pustinchas in their Magical Mystery Tour film and on the album cover. Across the Atlantic, it appeared to Life in 1968 that the pustinchas were “launched last season in England by the Beatles and their followers”.
In 1969, many more pustinchas were worn outside of Afghanistan than inside.
Longtime audiences were low-end – their iconic status confirmed in 1971 by artist Ronald Searle in a cover design for The New Yorker of a long-haired, bearded, barefoot hippie with flared pants, a bag shoulder strap, a headband and a pustincha.
Their international embrace fueled a new enthusiasm for Afghan clothing among part of Kabul’s elite who accepted that women should come out but wanted Afghans to fight foreign influences and keep Afghan customs alive.
Kabul also replaced Ghazni as the Afghan center of pustincha production.
In 1970, as demand increased not only in the United States and Europe but also in Japan, a company employed 160 embroiderers who made 30 to 40 diapers per day. Another company built an inn for its 250-300 embroiderers, mostly widows and young women from provinces where there were many skilled workers.
As these coats spread around the world, they fueled awareness of Afghanistan, though not as much as a Kabuli merchant bragged to the New York Times “Before anyone can’t remember Afghanistan, ”he said. “Now everyone remembers that.”
– This essay is an edited excerpt from Two afternoons at the Kabul stadium: a history of Afghanistan through clothes, carpets and the camera, published by Text Publishing. Tim Bonyhady is Professor Emeritus at the Australian National University.