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Employees at the Google office in Gurgaon, near Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Employees at the Google office in Gurgaon, near Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

What India wears to work

Smart casuals and carefully creative dress codes have replaced the inflexible triad: sari, 'Western formals' and the suit

Among the many gems in French philosopher and linguist Roland Barthes’ brilliant book, The Language Of Fashion, is a sparkling insight. “Histories of dress rarely consider anything but royal or aristocratic outfits. Not only is social class reduced here to an ‘image’ (the lord, the lady, etc.),…but...outside of the leisured classes, dress is never linked to the work experienced by the wearer: the whole problem of how clothes are functionalized is ignored."

In India, two classifications other than royalty persist in dress histories: regional diversities in clothing and the nationalist movement that made Khadi both dress and political statement. Regional dress evolved towards functionality, especially for rural workers, but no contemporary urban dress history talks about the Indian workforce outside the agrarian sector. Especially in this century.

What do Indians wear to work? Besides, of course, sunscreen and burning ambition?

This includes bankers, corporate honchos, government clerks, railway officers, student leaders, teachers, human resources trainers, marketing wizards, insurance agents and other professionals who don’t wear uniforms. The media, advertising, liberal arts and glamour industries have always had an informal dress code. Have their choices changed over the years? And what’s driving the change?

Hear it first from the experts. “There is a product side, an anthropological side and a market side to the workwear narrative," says fashion designer Narendra Kumar, creative director of e-commerce firm Amazon India. In April, Kumar introduced a range of workwear shirts and tops for women. Called Fleet Street, the collection has around 70 styles—all easy to wash and iron, and priced from 1,299-2,499. “Given the Westernization of the corporate office in India, the increasing number of women joining the workforce and the existing portfolios for workwear in established ready-to-wear brands, I saw a need gap," says Kumar, adding that one doesn’t have to wear a jacket to look Western or smart.

There are other similar views. “Younger women seamlessly switch from ethnic to Western wear—an ability Indian women employ fabulously—while senior female management in professions with customer interfaces like banking still rely on the sari," says Manjula Tiwari, chief executive officer of the Future Style Lab at fashion and retail conglomerate Future Group. Tiwari, who headed the women’s fashion division at e-retailer Jabong till May last year, adds that while there is an increasing preference for Western formals among younger professionals like doctors and lawyers, she doesn’t see fitted and short clothes as workwear as these are not part of the Indian sensibility.

India’s most well-known female bosses wear either the sari or Western formals to work. The managing director and chief executive officer of ICICI Bank, Chanda Kochhar, is usually seen in saris, while Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director of biopharmaceutical firm Biocon Ltd, is known for tailored formals, worn with scarves. Indra Nooyi, the India-born chairperson and chief executive officer of food and beverage maker PepsiCo Ltd, was featured in Fortune’s 2014 list of the Top 10 best-dressed CEOs in the US. Designer Ralph Lauren was on the same list.

Back in India though, carving an identity in the contemporary workplace is no longer a task easily set between the binaries of sari versus “Western formals". The latter is a portmanteau term, used by Indians to denote jackets, shirts and trousers for women. Menswear doesn’t have this category, even though a majority of Indian men wear “Western formals" to work.

“Workwear had begun to be classified as boring, it needed a reinterpretation to make it contemporary, fashionable and stylish," says Vinay Bhopatkar, COO of fashion brands Van Heusen and People (both are part of the Aditya Birla group’s Madura Fashion & Lifestyle). “An entire generation of people wearing Van Heusen has grown older. Now job choices are not conventional any more, nor are workplaces. Our positioning has changed to fashion for professionals, as it is about the impact of power dressing while keeping market trends in mind," says Bhopatkar.

A Van Heusen store in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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A Van Heusen store in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

It’s an interesting crossroad: the culture of the office and the city you work in, professional standing and seniority, age and gender, family expectations, safety at the workplace, mode of travel to work—metro, bus, cab or personal car—the climate, and how you want to portray your personality. Choice of dress is a clinching factor if you want to look like a suave leader or present yourself as a creative type, with messy hair and crumpled shirts.

This fast-moving and crowded carousel of dressing can, however, be mapped with some clear pointers. Consider these: Formal wear persists in client-interface jobs but there is increasing inclusion of “smart casuals" and “semi-formals" in workplace dressing. This has resulted in a broad acceptance of jeans, cargos and other relaxed trousers, collared T-shirts or half-sleeved shirts with Chinese collars and slim fits—and is visible in many formerly stiff white-collar jobs. The kurta, however, remains an oddity for most office-going men, despite the popularity of the Modi kurta. India’s top male CEOs still wear sharp suits with ties.

But Friday Dressing has been wiped out as a category in workplaces that are imbibing new trends—every day is a Friday when it comes to clothes.

In American TV serials, Julianna Marguiles’ role of the ambitious lawyer Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife, or Robin Wright’s role of Claire Underwood as a power-guzzling first lady in the House Of Cards, were created partly through their designer wardrobes. Not so in India where, barring a small section of men and women featured in fashion magazines for the luxury bags, shoes and clothes they wear to work, designer prêt is usually seen as too expensive for daily workwear.

For many women, the sari works as a style saviour and identity badge. Out of favour in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it returned to reclaim its place as one of the most sought-after formal garments. The traditional three-piece salwar-kameez has taken a back seat but there is an innovative regrouping of ethnic separates with lycra churidars, palazzos worn with kurtas of varying lengths, and tailored trousers worn with handloom kurtis. Tops from dozens of Indian and foreign brands, from Marks & Spencer and H&M to Allen Solly and Big Bazaar, are now paired with deconstructed bottoms. Fusion dressing is on a roll in the office-wear category.

Van Heusen’s workwear options for women. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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Van Heusen’s workwear options for women. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

If kurta-shirts or handloom printed shirts are now workwear for men, so are summer dresses with Roman sandals and chunky bracelets for women. “With more women joining the workforce, their buying power has certainly gone up, as has awareness of how one looks and what one would like to project. Women indulge in a lot more variety and purchase a mix of Western and Indian wear, depending on the culture of the workplace, which remains an important consideration," says Charu Sharma, product director at Fabindia, once the one-stop shop for Indian workwear. She adds that Fabindia has seen a growth in categories like dresses, jackets and pants that can be deemed office-wear by younger office-goers.

The blurring of gender boundaries in colour palettes has opened up an untried vista in menswear just as the popularity of tattoos, body piercing, funky nailpaint and boyfriend shirts and trousers has for women.

The smart-casual trend has trickled down to footwear—sporty sandals, sleek chappals, suede brogues in bright colours and trendy sneakers have replaced the staid black or brown leather shoes of the past. Women are increasingly drawn to specifically targeted workday make-up—concealers, eye liners bronzers and long-stay 9 to 5 lipsticks, especially in air-conditioned work spaces. The craze for the smartwatch is another marker of what urban Indians wear to work.

Office-goers outside North Block and South Block in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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Office-goers outside North Block and South Block in Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

To trace the diverse dimensions of this story, we spoke to government employees at the Metro stations outside Nirman Bhawan and Udyog Bhawan in Delhi and visited the Google office in Gurgaon, adjoining the Capital. One is the heartland of Hindustani babudom, the very flagship of the sarkari daftar, or government office; the other the fiefdom of casualwear, where the black, round-necked T-shirts of the late Steve Jobs, the co-founder of technology firm Apple Inc., are treated as the high point of style. If fashion at Udyog Bhawan—the Nilgiri canteen inside the ministry of textiles is a key place to observe what’s going on—still means grey and black trousers for men with blue striped shirts or staple salwar-kameez and polyester saris for a majority of women (handlooms are harder to wash and iron), at Google, a pair of denim shorts, worn with an Apple watch could be workwear. In government offices, old-style dressing decorum is still the unspoken norm, so no mini skirts, stilettos or bright lipsticks to work. But at Google, dominated by young professionals, it is all about innovation, even in dress. As Gaurav Bhaskar, senior manager, corporate communications, says: “There are no guiding principles or dress codes. The aim is to offer a productive, comfortable, enabling work environment. So jeans and sneakers, shorts or track pants, everything is fine." Bhaskar says executives employed in the legal, marketing or client servicing departments choose formals while the rest wear what they wish.

We move to the colourfully decorated office canteen that suggests a conscious entombment of formal office culture, to chat with head of market insights Ravi Dixit, programme managers Divyashree Bhat and Abhishek Prasad, product marketing manager Chandrika Maheshwari, associate product marketing manager Elizabeth Blumer and public policy analyst Piyush Poddar. The relaxed office culture has ensured that the entire approach of Google employees towards fashion trends and clothing decorum is fuss-free—there is no pressure to invest in a separate work wardrobe.

Many others are somewhere in the middle. Ask Saranya Thanikavel, regional head of sales at a bank in Bengaluru. While bank employees are allowed to wear casual clothes on Saturdays, there is a certain dress code for other days. “Skirts, dresses with long slits and sleeveless garments are not allowed for women, while men can’t wear kurtas," says Thanikavel, who invests time and effort in her workplace wardrobe. From saris and salwar-kurta sets to Western formals, even separate workwear bags and accessories, Thanikavel says her interest in fashion trends propels her choices.

Bengaluru banker Saranya Thanikavel on her way to work. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
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Bengaluru banker Saranya Thanikavel on her way to work. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

The market pushes workplace style—with innovation and variety, different price points and fashion solutions. In April, for example, Fabindia launched a stitched sari. Sharma says it could be an option for workwear. Two years ago, Van Heusen launched “My Fit", where, for 2,500 per piece, consumers could ask for made-to-order shirts, with individual sizes taken for collars, sleeves, cuffs.

Not only is there a sea of products out there—jewellery and watch brand Tanishq, for instance, has a jewellery line targeted towards working women called 9 to 5—there are style tips on fashion and beauty blogs, self-help books on office chic and thousands of pins on Pinterest boards to equip those fumbling on office style. Brands, in turn, invest in market research to get their strategies right. Van Heusen regularly requests feedback on merchandise and addresses shortcomings. It is because of regular consumer surveys, says Bhopatkar, that the brand has introduced workwear mostly made of cotton that is easy to wash, odour-free, and requires no ironing.

For their recently launched brand Cover Story, billed as India’s answer to Zara, Future Style Lab worked on market research with Santosh Desai, managing director and CEO of Futurebrands, speaking to women across the country. “It was an in-depth study to understand their relationship with their careers, what they thought of their changing status, their ability to spend on themselves," says Tiwari.

Fashion and accessory portals have their own observations. Redpolka.com, for instance, regularly sends out e-mailers titled The Work Wear Edit, with tag lines like: Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have. “Work is on top of the interest chart for our shoppers, including in smaller cities," says Vishakha Singh, the CEO and founder. Google analytics help the website track spending behaviour and gather consumer insight. “An article titled ‘8 Tips To Dress Like A Boss’, published on our content platform Polka Coffee early this year, remains our most read article till now," adds Singh.

Yet wedged between these buzzy zones of “progressive casual" and “no dress code" office cultures is a charming incongruity. It is pointed out by Anuja Chauhan, a well-known author and advertising professional. “In advertising, creative kids are allowed to wear ponytails, piercings, short dresses, shoes with colourful wings. But that itself becomes a pressure—there is pressure if you want to be seen like a slob and pressure if you want to dress cool. Everybody is thinking about what you wear—it is a shallow world, you are judged by what you wear," says Chauhan.

Fashion is indeed a lot of work and style a rare promotion. You must slog to win.

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