All Those Fashionable Distractions

Post image for All Those Fashionable Distractions

by Casey_Michel on 6/28/2012 · 3 comments

I tried to get to my taxi
A man in a tracksuit attacks me
He said that he saw it before me
And wants to get things a bit gory
-Kaiser Chiefs

I have a jacket in my closet. It’s got powder blue sleeves, with yellow and navy piping wrapped around both the wrists and the waist. Scrawls of yellow thread, like the Arabic bas-relief on the walls of a mosque, limn the front breast pockets. The collar’s small, taut, and the arms are tight around the shoulders and loose in the sleeves – they billow out at the elbows, making you feel like a Megaman-tinted pirate. The fabric’s scratchy, like new-spun wool, but manageable. Good for cooler evenings. Good for a few New York drops.

The jacket came with pants, but they had to be left back in Portland. Too long, unfortunately. They were a midnight blue, almost eggplant, and luminesced under the right light. A thin yellow stripe ran down either side and back through the extra foot of fabric I’d always force myself to roll up. They mostly sit in my drawer, purchased because the two pieces, the jacket and pants, came in a bundle, and I wore them occasionally just to prove to others that my jacket couldn’t be bought as a one-off in some flyblown flea stall.

So while the pants gather dust, I toss on the jacket as often as I can — worming through Times Square, traipsing through Chelsea, gathering  a few arched stares among the people whom I pass. Wearing it, I feel like Ryan Gosling, thinking my patchy facial hair the only thing separating me and his autoist-cum-hitman. And then I look at what I’m wearing, and realize I’m a hundred times cooler than The Driver, or Marty McFly, or any of those present-day retro-firsters looking for any connection to the mid-’80s. Because when I look down, back over my shoulder, I see that there’s a bit of gold stitching crossing the scapulae, gold-block lettering with the name of the manufacturer, the point of origin. There’s a name, read wide in eight-inch type:


*        *        *

Anyway, enough of the overwrought language about my clothes. Time to force a transition into a topical, tangible discussion on how and why tracksuits have become something of a flashpoint in Central Asian politics.

See, something’s going on in Kyrgyzstan. Something … funny, I guess. One of those oddities that you find in covering Central Asia, something that makes you realize that there’s a cultural breach that still remains, despite the attendant and increasing similarities between “us” and “them.” It’s something that makes you feel a bit bad about laughing, makes you feel a bit of that Western down-your-nose condescension that occasionally creeps in. But you laugh anyway, because, I mean, hell — this is funny.

Tursunbai Bakir uulu, erstwhile presidential candidate and staunch opponent of Islamo-fascism — but not in the way you’d think — recently unveiled a piece of legislation that would banish both short skirts and tracksuits in Bishkek’s Parliament building. Citing one of his constituents as inspiration for the proposed ban, Bakir uulu sought to alert the rest of the Zhogorku Kenesh as to the distracting evils of such sartorial selections:

During the break a moment ago, there was a girl walking in front of me in the hallway and wearing a mini-skirt. I would have looked the other way, but without looking ahead of me, I could have stumbled and fallen down.

This, alas, is not a plot for some new Kyrgyz comedic trope, though the imagery is still fodder for a pilot. But at least there’s a nugget of rationale: No skirts, no distractions. But Batik uluu, the republic’s former ombudsman and a parliamentary member of Ar-Namys, also wishes to ban tracksuits, that sporting staple dotting Central Asia and one of the few positive side-effects of the increasing post-Soviet nationalism. I’m sure there’s a reason in there somewhere, but, whatever it may be, Batik uluu won’t let on. Could it be, as EurasiaNet’s David Trilling theorizes, some undetected stab at the 2010 looters, the ones wracking the country in their nylon jackets?

Or could Batik uluu just want to rankle the Zhogorku Kenesh once more? As Global Voices points out, this isn’t the first questionable bit of public communique Bakir uulu’s put forth. The man’s built, and is building, quite a reputation for his conservative populism. Among his more notable endeavors, all coming within the last year:

[Batik uluu] has initiated a law banning the advertisement of international marriage agencies on television and in newspapers, called for ceasing the celebration of Valentine’s Day* (claiming that it causes mental disorders and suicide among young people), and wrote a bewildering letter to the newly elected president, Almas Atambayev, referencing knights, dragons, and allegedly rigged elections. In 2009, he also insisted on the installation of a lie detector in the parliament.**

*Not the first Central Asian opposition to Valentine’s Day. You’d think Rakhat would have more pull over there.

**What’s next, banning jazz?
The lie detector may not be terribly impertinent, and I’m sure many people would share Bakir uulu’s desire to see a few fewer eligible bachelor(ette)s eloping with foreigners. As for the rest — dragons aside — it’d seem that Batik uluu’s attempting to set himself up as a potential leader of some nascent Чаепитие, some rightward voice in a country that’s seen a relative liberalizing outgrowth over the last few years. A Kyrgyz Rick Santorum, if you will.

I don’t know nearly enough about Kyrgyzstani politics to see where a pattern becomes a trend, and I can’t tell if there’s an underlying, upward swell for this social conservatism – the kind seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Mississippi — but it’d seem that something’s afoot. As Trilling notes, just the other day, a month after Batik uluu’s initial complaints, parliament confirmed a ban on cleavage, clashing ties, and bare midriffs, among other Westernized bits of fashion. (The rules are non-applicable to members of Zhogorku Kenesh, though I’m not sure how many of us are pining to see Atambayev’s gut.)

The rulings, red-meat for the rural conservatives, come at an intriguing time. The country’s currently figuring out whether or not to grab one of the largest mines operating, which’d seem to fit with a rightward, nationalistic push that the bans indicate. (Booting out Centerra would be a step-up for the nation’s environmental policy, sure — but there’s little reason to think caring for waning glaciers and mineralized streams is suddenly the cause de rigueur.) It may all be one large coincidence — or the Zhogorku Kenesh may be in for a bit of a hardening. It may be that the pendulum’s swinging back after that (relatively) open election in 2011, after the potholes the nation’s found on the road to some semi-democracy. It may be that the Zhogorku Kenesh is gearing for a new tack.

Of course, just as I type all of this, I see that parliament has voted against actually nationalizing the mine. They’ll instead recommend increasing the nation’s stock, already at 33 percent. So perhaps that rightward putsch hasn’t yet arrived. But if there’s an increase in the nation’s stock, the pattern continued — and may yet be a trend.* And if the trend snowballs, banning tracksuits may not seem quite as funny as it once did.

*Just to clarify, yes: this thesis was initially precipitated on the banning of a those matching jackets/pants popularized by winter Olympians and Russian gangsters. And such an introduction came out of a promise I made to Joshua to someday share my affinity for tracksuits.** But, hey — you take a lede when you can. And indeed, I’ve posted this while clad in the jacket. Can’t emphasize how comfortable this thing is.

**This affinity stems out of a strange desire for every Peace Corps volunteers to own their own separate tracksuit, a matching memento of our time on the steppe. Now, I’ve had my issues with local fashion, but purchasing my tracksuit was one of the more anticipated moments I found over there. And while tracksuits are roundly critiqued in most circles, no other token surpassed it — not dombra, not bathrobe, not Baiterek-shaped bottle of vodka. Nothing.

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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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Kirstin June 29, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Speaking of Kazakhstan tracksuits, I’m proud to admit that I know the guy whose photo comes up as the first Google image result when searching “Kazakhstan tracksuit”. And in other fashion news, have you seen how some women in Bishkek are reacting to Bakir uluu’s comments? “What is Bakir uluu doing under my skirt?”

Nathan July 1, 2012 at 9:52 am

I get the point. Politics are rarely without some hidden agenda, especially in Central Asia… but do you think there’s any aspect to Bakir Uulu’s “legislation” that has to do with wanting to remove an obvious political link to the pressures of organized criminal groups? Don’t think we have anything to worry about with this actually becoming a law…but we may end up with a professional dress code around a government building. The track suits are more in danger in that case than the short skirts! But one of the toughest looking gangsters I ever saw there was in a three piece suit… it’s not like there’ll be any “true” reform… I doubt the other political elites missed Bakir-Uulu’s euphemistic petard…

Casey_Michel July 1, 2012 at 11:50 am

Nathan: It could very easily be a stick-in-the-eye to those gangsterish elements still peppering Bishkek. Of course, such obviousness could risk the ire of mafiosi, so he may have had to dovetail the tracksuit ban with the miniskirt problem … though that may just be delving a bit too much into conspiratorial clothing questions. As far as I can tell, Bakir uluu’s simply a stodgy, thin-skinned throwback, someone who’d rather distract and pander than actually deal with the flood of infrastructural problems besetting Bishkek.

Kirsten: That’s the same jacket I have! Great taste, your friend. And thanks for the link — the backlash is great. Yet more fodder for that upcoming sitcom, I suppose.

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