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, but 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 workforce, 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 feeling of the day or the role 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 khadi 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 threadbare 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 often as needed. On the other hand, to have such an extensive wardrobe of any other kind of garment would cost at least 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 know 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.
These senior executives choose to drape the six yards every day
Deputy managing director, ICICI Bank
A sari is one outfit that looks glamorous and dignified at the same time. You’ll find me in jeans and churidars on the weekend but, professionally, it’s always been saris, not something western. My reasoning is that I may not always be able to keep up with international trends, but I know that in a sari, I’m dressed the best I can be.
I’ve been working for 23 years, and I’ve been exclusively wearing saris for 20. I can wear one as fast as I put on any other outfit. Till two years ago, I only wore silks and cottons. But I’ve made a conscious shift and added crepes and georgettes.
I visited the World Economic Forum at Davos for the first time in January this year, and was debating if I should stick to the sari or take along something practical, as temperatures were very low. Finally, as a safety measure, I did carry western outfits, but wore saris for every day of the forum. They were much appreciated, and it was almost like a brand for India.
Executive director, HDFC Ltd
I’ve always worn a sari, even when I was slimmer. I think I look graceful in them. Today, if I were slimmer, I may have worn trousers or salwars, but because of what I think I look like, saris are most flattering. They’re the best bet when I want to look formal and in a position of authority. My advice to working women is look at whatever is most functional for you. If you have no help at home, maintaining saris, especially cotton ones, is not easy. I think trousers and salwars are now easier on the pocket as well—good silk saris are very expensive these days. Still, a sari gives you a sense of national identity, especially if you’re interacting at an international level. In trousers, you look like anyone else. The first time I ever wore a sari was when I was in Class 11. It was for a friend’s sister’s wedding. I learnt by watching my mother. I needed help the first few times though. Today, my collection consists mainly of cottons and silks.
Group head, wholesale banking, Kotak Mahindra Bank
I started wearing a sari professionally when I started working. I wanted to look professional and be taken seriously when I went about meeting clients. I remember I spent more than half an hour wearing a sari in those days, because I wanted to wear it in my own style and get the pleats just right. It now takes me only three minutes, but I still wear my sari in that distinct way—it’s an art I’ve perfected over the past 18 years. Everyone tells me that the border and the pleats stand out this way. I really don’t know how many saris I have, but the majority of my collection consists of silks in different varieties and weaves. I love earthy colours like maroon, deep blue and black and have many saris in different hues of these colours. I learnt by watching my mother. The first time, my sister helped me hold the pallu while I put in the pins.
(Rama Bijapurkar is an independent management consultant. Write to email@example.com)