The popular character of Barney Stinson in the TV show “How I met your mother” religiously wears only suits due to his personal belief (which is actually a widely prevalent belief in the modern world) that suits are symbolic of professionalism, power and class. That is why in countries such as the US, the term ‘suits’ is a commonly used metonym for lawyers or officers of the law.
In modern-day Pakistan, the black and white suit is the well-recognised uniform of the lawyer. The British Raj introduced this court dress in South Asia and this tradition has been upheld by the Pakistani legal fraternity, albeit with some minor variations (such as the doing away with the wig).
The origins of the modern-day suit can be traced to the 19th century Regency Britain, an era, characterised by inter alia distinctive trends in British fashion. One of the trends in fashion was the simplification of the elaborately embroidered and jewelled formal clothing of the nobility into a much more comfortable formal wear. This led to the conception of the modern day suit, which eventually became a strictly followed formality in the subsequent Victorian era. A lot of factors can be taken into account for this change in fashion such as the decreasing power of the nobility and the need for a new up and coming industrial elite to be accommodated in the corridors of power.
Coming back to Pakistan, we find ourselves dutifully following the British tradition left behind. Pakistan is a tropical country, which has a blazingly hot and prolonged summer and a brief and mild winter. Lawyers are forced to face the onslaught of soaring temperatures and suffocating humidity during the summer season at the courts, the conditions of which are exacerbated by the poor infrastructure and the constant loadshedding. On top of this, lawyers are forced to wear a black suit (black being the best absorber of heat). Needless to say, a person of average strength or perseverance does not last long in these courts.
This brings me to a question that has been rarely, if at all, asked amongst the legal community: why do we still wear this uniform? There are only two arguments that I have heard so far in support of this policy, which are: 1) it’s a universal symbol of the legal profession; and 2) it’s a long-standing tradition and the uniform has become recognisable in society as that of the lawyer’s. It will not be uncommon to come across aged, stalwart lawyers who will consider it absurd to even think of changing the uniform. They stringently believe that if they, along with several generations of lawyers, could make it through such conditions then why can’t the young lawyers of today make it through as well? They will be quick to point out the weak nature of today’s ‘kids’ and how spoilt they have become.
The problem with this argument is that if we extend this logic to other aspects of the legal field, then lawyers should not be making use of computers for drafting court documents, researching or storing data because our ancestors were able to practice law without such innovations. If we were to expand on this logic even further, then we should not be driving cars to court because our ancestors used to brave the sun’s heat and commute on bicycles. The argument is simple: if we can make things easier for ourselves, then why don’t we?
We need to overcome our misguided belief regarding the universality of the Western legal system (and in this particular case, the British one). Tradition, in most cases — not just with the lawyers’ uniform — is oppression masked under the grand narrative of necessity and inevitability — a facade that prevents the victim from recognising the ultimate ‘truth’ of his oppression. In simpler words: we do not NEED to follow the British or the ‘universal’ example when it comes to the dress code of the courts.
There is precedent for changing uniforms of a profession. Take the Indian police for example. The Indian home ministry is planning on overhauling the traditional khaki uniform, which dates back to pre-independence times. The rationale behind this change is that the current get-up, along with the khaki fabric, make the existing uniform uncomfortable for the police, especially during the summer. The government plans to introduce a new weather-friendly and comfortable uniform and is floating all sorts of designs to facilitate this process.
What I propose is not even that drastic a change that will shake up the country’s legal framework. The legal community needs to shed the current uniform and adopt a new weather-appropriate style of formal wear. As explained, the suit’s origins can be traced to the need for clothing to be more comfortable in a formal environment. We cannot simply wait for changes to occur in the outside world and then accept them. We need to start innovating ourselves. I am no designer and to be honest I have no sense of fashion; however, I do not believe that coming up with a new uniform will be a problem. We can come up with something that is tethered to our cultural heritage. For that, we will also need to overcome our deeply ingrained dichotomy of Western clothing representing progress and our traditional dress (such as the shalwar kameez) representing backwardness. We need to overcome this national inferiority complex that we suffer at a subconscious level, of not being capable of innovating or setting a new precedent.
In my opinion, if we are able to achieve that (at least with our lawyers’ uniform) then we can be at the threshold of reconstructing a new, more culturally connected and logically sound society. This change can lead to a domino effect that results in the recapturing of other areas of society and public discourse that are being dominated by the colonial mindset. But for now, the suit does not suit us.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2012.