The Mint Newspaper - June 2, 2007

Why every working woman should give pleated power dressing a shot

The other day, I was reading an article in the British press, where the author said she was very surprised that some young women in Britain said that they actually wanted to wear the hijab. It occurred to me that people must be equally surprised when young women in India say that they want to wear a sari. Who in their right mind would want to be bundled into 18ft of fabric(Yes, that is the standard sari length). Surely, it is one more form of cultural gender oppression?

I can understand women of my age, cohort and background wearing saris, because when I started working, there was no question of wearing anything else. It was just NOT DONE. But what about those who are now in a global India, free of such unwritten rules? Yes, I can see more and more of them giving up on the sari for day-to-day wear, but equally often, one sees young women who still choose to wear them regularly to work.

So, I thought that before I start off on why I opt to wear saris only, I ought to ask some of these very successful women in Gen Next why they have chosen to stay with the sari. A very happening investment banker with a global firm had this to say in a short, sharp SMS to me - "Proud of my tradition and culture, see no reason to ape the West, love the colours of a sari, and think that Indian women look much better in a sari than a business suit".

An equally successful partner in a global advisory firm, who goes to meetings all over the world wearing her sari, said, interestingly, "because I look different, I can (it gives me the leeway and licence) think differently too". Another CEO of a professional services firm said that she wears western clothes when she works abroad, bust she loves wearing saris in India because she is proud to be an Indian and, besides, it suits her very well. My 23-year-old niece, who has just joined the work-force, says that she will stick to her trousers on a day-to-day basis, but will wear saris for formal occasions, giving the salwar kameez a go by. So, obviously, it isn't yet time to write the obituary for the sari as a workwear garment for the corporate women of India.

So, why do I wear saris? I recently went to a conference in an exotic foreign locale, and as I peeked into the conference room and saw some of the power women there, I realized that they were amazingly well-toned, well-groomed and looked gorgeous in their regulation black business suits, high-heeled shoes and pearl strings. Uh oh, the only way I could even remotely hope to 'fit in' was to hide my middle-aged, un-gymmed spread in an elegant sari statement. That said, I dared to be different. In my business, we call it a different source of competitive advantage. And that's one reason why I love the sari so.

'Me too' conformity is not my strong suit. I rebel against being given a finite set of options to choose from. I need multiple avenues of self-expression and an enormous variety in all that I do, to match the many parts of schizophrenic me and the many roles that I play. That is what drives my choice of work and my choice of clothes. That is why saris work best for me. No business suit or denim range can provide me with the explosion of alternatives that I need to capture my feelings of the day or the roles of the day. That is why I need the many, many textures, colours and drapes of saris and the whole additional dimension of variety and choice that blouses add - they contrast or highlight, they startle or blend, they are demure or daring.

They are all-weather and all-mood. The mulmul or thin kahdi for summer, the pashmina silk or tussar for winter, the Dhakai for when I feel floaty, the handloom Orissa when I feel down to earth. And best of all, they are terrific value for money.

Here's how 'sarinomics' works. Saris never go out of fashion and rarely get thread-bare or look tacky, especially the more expensive ones. I have saris that are 20 years old and yet still in great shape, because the wear and tear on 18ft of material per wear is a lot less (stress divided by surface area)! So, the wardrobe just grows and grows and never goes out of style. Blouses are relatively inexpensive and can be replaced as ofen as needed. In the other hand, to have such an extensive wardrobe of any other kind of garment would cost atleast a hundred times more.

But is the sari really acceptable and appropriate in the mainstream of the working world in western countries? I think that is something to think about. Indian men never go to work abroad wearing dhotis, do they? Are we stacking the deck against ourselves by not wearing 'global' attire and dressing in a sari to a business meeting in, say, New York or London? As it is, there is the gender bias that we deal with all the time. So do we add the 'Third World', 'not yet world class', bias also, and then have to perform three times as well to prove that we are just as good?

Yes, these used to be my dilemmas before liberalization, and before India itself became hot. I used to wear saris when I went to conferences to present papers, because I hoped the exotica value would draw an audience which would come out of curiosity and then, hopefully, stay out of interest in the paper. But when I went to business meetings, it was painful. I went through various alternatives ranging from nondescript black or navy churidar kurtas in crepe, all the way to western clothes. And yet, I didn't feel as stylish and well-dressed as I would have in a sari, and the diffidence made me come across as not naturally confident or comfortable either.

And then, it happened. The world got to India, the 'Made in India' brand was acknowledged to have its virtues, women's clothing started to go bling and ethnic, and the chic shops in cities around the world were stocking Indian-ish garments in look/feel/weave/cut. Suddenly, it was just fine and even better to wear a sari, because it signalled that "the Indians are coming" and don't discount them, even though they don't yet make the cut.

I often joke that my metric of how global India is becoming is how many business events in the world I can wear my sari to and not destroy my value before I even open my mouth. The score is getting near perfect now. The last time I travelled, I was consulting with two MNCs on emerging market strategy, and the sari was very helpful to get home the message of difference and innovation, and so on. Then I went to see a company that was bought by an Indian company and, of course, the sari was fine there too. And I went to meet fellow Indians in the House of Lords and in the United Nations and, of course, my sari was totally okay there too. I came home very, very relieved. It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I could be me, dress with my own sense of style, have sartorial competitive advantage, and not stack the business deck against me! So, if a sari is your style and your idea of comfort, just do it.