How “Afghan” coats left Kabul for the fashion world and became a hippie staple
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 startled journalists and disc jockeys, John Lennon stole the show. He was wearing a frilly and floral green 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.
Their internationally transformed embrace where and how coats were made and what they looked like. Yet the craze for these coats could only have happened because Afghanistan’s relationship with the rest of the world was changing.
Short, medium or very long
Afghan coats traditionally came in three forms – sleeveless or short-sleeved vests up to the hips known as pustinchas; long-sleeved, knee-length coats known as pustakis; and ankle-length capes called poustine.
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. Their skins were sometimes of bear, fox or goat, but generally 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.
The poor could generally only afford the smallest pustinchas or pustakis. If they bought the bigger pustins, these coats were usually plain, which made them cheaper.
High officials, successful merchants and wealthy clergymen bought lavishly decorated pustines that demonstrated their status. 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, British archaeologist Sylvie Matheson found “one store after another offering nothing but pustin”.
Although fascinated by those with white fur, Matheson dismissed them as impractical for his fieldwork that winter. Instead, she opted for a brown furry pustincha that was still “enchanting, the yellow skin entirely covered in tightly stitched red flowers, with a patch of periwinkle blue here and there.”
Many more foreigners surrendered in the early 1960s as Afghanistan embarked on a modernization program which has seen a significant number of women in cities across the country unveil themselves and find new forms of paid work.
A small number of Westerners, usually older, arrived by air, with a lot to spend, prompting the Afghan government to build Kabul’s first five-star hotel.
In 1969, it opened, under a lease to the Intercontinental Group, with rooftop dining and dance facilities, a lounge bar, brasserie café, tennis courts and a swimming pool. Most Western visitors were hippies who, as an English poet JCE Bowen put, traveled by land “in every imaginable type of slammed motor vehicle […] through the bottleneck in Kabul en route to the imaginary Elysee Palace in Kathmandu ”.
Their first destination was Chicken Street in Shahr-e Naw, a garden suburb close to the city center, which was the most westernized part of Kabul. Once an area of poultry vendors, Chicken Street has grown into a tourist strip lined with antique shops, 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 Street as “Kabul’s freak center”.
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 himself a pustincha on an overland trip from Sydney to London in 1965, encouraged the trade.
In Playing power, his 1970 manifesto and handbook for hippies, Neville recognized the largest clothing exchange 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. Once you could make a profit of 500% bringing back Kabul Sheepskin Jackets, you could triple your money with antique 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 weirdest, most extreme, exotic and trendiest boutique – on King’s Road in Chelsea, which quickly eclipsed Carnaby Street as London’s fashion hub. 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. Chicago from the prohibition era.
Pustinchas were bought by both men and women, because Granny Takes a Trip was one of the first stores to not differentiate between male and female 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. Eric Burdon, of House of the Rising Sun, got married in his.
All four Beatles wore backwards pustinchas in their Magical Mystery Tour film and on the album cover. When The Beatles dabbled in retail, their Apple store had shelves of them. From across the Atlantic, it appeared to Life in 1968 that the pustinchas had been “launched last season in England by the Beatles and their followers”.
Abracadabra, Manhattan’s first psychedelic boutique, quickly followed. Its interior was lit by fluorescent tubes set on a sequence of blinking flashes, which had a particular impact as Abracadabra was filled with mirrors like a penny arcade. Its display case featured a motorized hanger that made clothes rock ‘n’ roll.
When a hippie traveler returned from Afghanistan with five pustinchas in early 1968, Ira Seret of Abracadabra put them in her window where they were spotted by designer Anne Klein, who had just put leather in fashion for New York outfitter Mallory’s. When Klein asked Seret to get more and his original supplier failed to deliver, Seret traveled to Afghanistan himself.
That summer and that fall, the pustinchas were at Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s and in all shiny. Vogue reported that “beautifully embroidered Afghan coats and weskits in dental floss colors” were “pulled out in spades” by Limbo, a boutique in New York’s East Village. Life magazine featured pustinchas sent by Ira Seret to Mallory’s, worn by five models “over shiny silk jumpsuits and slung over the shoulder with yards of Middle Eastern jewelry.” Harper’s Bazaar devoted two pages to Mallory’s embroidered and braided vests, again touted as women’s clothing.
The coats were inexpensive compared to most trendy Western clothing, even after Afghan manufacturers more than doubled their prices in response to international demand. The only complaint was that they smelled bad when wet, due to a skin hardening process more akin to stripping than tanning. This led the first dry cleaners in Kabul to offer “exclusive odorless treatments”.
By 1969, many more pustinchas were worn outside of Afghanistan than inside, as they maintained their appeal with the prettiest people and were part of the youth uniform.
The pustincha’s longtime audience was low-end, however – 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 shoulder bag, 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 pustincha production center.
In 1968, the largest sweatshop employed 30 workers. In 1970, as demand increased not only in the United States and Europe but also, for the first time, 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 made Afghanistan known, although not as much as a Kabuli merchant. boasted to the New York Times “Before anyone remembered Afghanistan,” he said. “Now everyone remembers. “
This essay is an excerpt from Two afternoons at the Kabul stadium: a history of Afghanistan through clothes, carpets and the camera, to be released August 3 by Text Publishing.
Tim Bonyhady, Professor Emeritus, Australian National University.