Indira Basu, director, public relations and communications, The Park, a boutique business hotel in Kolkata, had a choice when she took up her position. “I had the option of a sari or business suit. I chose the sari as it is graceful, welcoming and exudes warmth. My job requires me to be approachable, not too formal.” A practical choice and a professional one, no different from her female front-office colleagues who wear a printed tunic and trousers.
This mix of Indian and Western attire for women is common in many an Indian workplace. “Times have moved ahead to a more global mindset,” says Ramendrajit Sen, HR adviser, Hewitt Associates, a Gurgaon-based HR consulting and outsourcing firm. “There are no rules for or against traditional attire. The underlying principle is one should look presentable, professional and feel comfortable.”
But if dress codes have moved on, mindsets don’t seem to have. In a survey published last week, 72% of respondents said that if a woman wears skirts and tops, the focus of co-workers shifts to necklines and hemlines. “They should be disciplined to Indian culture,” said one respondent. “They should wear sari or salwar as others may think something different if they wear jeans and T-shirts,” said another.
Sari to suit: Is this our best-bet dress?
The survey of 461 people (261 men, 200 women, aged 21-45) was carried out in February-March across the five metros, Hyderabad, Pune and Ahmedabad by global market research company Synovate; it was commissioned by TeamLease Services, a Bangalore-based staffing solutions company.
Buttonholed by gender
The survey findings do present a “disturbing picture”, says Bangalore-based journalist, author and media watcher Ammu Joseph, winner of the Donna Allen Award for Feminist Advocacy. “The question of what’s appropriate must not be based on outdated, stereotypical notions. It is particularly regrettable that even young adults assume that women are the repositories of culture and tradition, and must conform to certain ‘acceptable’ modes of dress. Or that women are responsible for sexual harassment on account of what they wear.”
Indeed, 69% of men and women felt women’s attire has a direct relation to sexual harassment.
Bina Berry, a consultant with DTA Consulting, a Delhi-based public affairs and corporate advisory firm, feels what is appropriate is based on both cultural and organizational norms. Any deviation stands out: “In Germany, I was asked if I wasn’t uncomfortable in a midriff-baring sari while a knee-high skirt drew no comment. In India, a skirt may stand out,” says Berry, adding that a sari or salwar-kameez is as much about comfort as societal expectation. “I’ve seen many women from abroad adopting a cotton salwar-kameez as it is cool in summer.”
On the subject of decency, Shailja Singh, HR leader, Hewitt Outsourcing, adds that at work “decent” is not enough: “Blue jeans and white linen shirt is ‘decent’, but it is not really business-like.”
All about mindsets
The TeamLease survey also threw up inter-city differences: 65% in Mumbai, against 53% in Bangalore, found themselves distracted by female colleagues’ hemlines and necklines. Meanwhile, 91% of Kolkata respondents felt well-dressed people are taken more seriously, while 39% in Hyderabad disagreed.
Delhi-based Sourajit Ghosal, director and co-founder, Storm Communications Pvt. Ltd—a brand activation enterprise with national operations across metros, tier II cities and villages—counts among his clients Indian and multinational brands such as Asian Paints, Samsung and Pepsi. Ghosal attributes Mumbai’s more accepting attitude to its cosmopolitan culture, tolerant of women outside the home. As to Kolkata’s emphasis on formal attire (73% preferred it, irrespective of role and seniority), he blames it on a colonial hangover. “Here, even door-to-door salesmen turn up in a tie. In Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Shimla or Jaipur, I rarely see men wear a tie except with a blazer,” he says.
Ghosal notes that every city’s mindset has its quirk. In Delhi, he says, a first-time client will note whether he carries a BlackBerry, and the make of the car he drives. “In Hyderabad, CEOs and successful entrepreneurs are more chilled out: pressed clothes, a shave, but more stress on being punctual, not brands worn.”
Ghosal also points out to contrasts between metros and smaller cities such as Patna: “In a small city, the stakes are lower for every transaction and both sides probably know each other, so you can get away with less attention to your clothes.”
What’s your formal brief?
All said and done, however, first impressions are based on appearance, Ghosal says. “When two salespeople meet a client for the first time, I have seen that the one dressed better, or more conservatively, is the one addressed more.”
What not to wear? The consensus is to avoid anything “distracting”, be it kurta-pyjamas, excessive jewellery or sindoor, according to Ghosal, or shabbiness, according to Basu; or even a business suit outdoors on a hot day. That means half-sleeved shirts are just fine for 44 degrees Celsius Delhi.