At any point in time, Nidhi Kataria has about 20 workwear shirts in her wardrobe, most of them in solid colours. The 24-year-old marketing executive with MoneyGram Money Transfer, New Delhi, who started working three years ago, prefers to wear formal, full-sleeved shirts to work.

Abhiroopa Mathur, a partner at Rabbithole, a Delhi-based graphic design firm, always accessorizes her shirts with a scarf when she has a meeting with a prospective client. Like Kataria, she too gravitates towards shirts in solid shades or fine pinstripes and avoids florals and geometric prints.

1. Frill shirt, The Shirt Café, Defence Colony, New Delhi, Rs1,999. 2. Waistcoat, Rs1,795, and white shirt, Rs1,295, at all Van Heusen stores. 3. Zip shirt, at all Westside stores, Rs799. 4. Striped shirt, at all Zara stores, Rs1,990. 5. Sleeveless belt shirt, The Shirt Café, New Delhi, Rs2,199. 6. Printed floral shirt, at all Park Avenue Woman stores, Rs1,599. 7. Pleated yoke shirt, at all Wills Lifestyle stores, Rs1,599. 8. Stretch cotton shirt, at all Allen Solly stores, Rs1,299. Photographs: Divya Babu & Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Walk in to any shirt store for men with a specific colour, pattern, fabric or silhouette in mind, and you will be spoilt for choice. But the women’s section is frozen in time. “The real problem is that most brands assume that women want to dress down at work, or dress masculine," says Vasudha Jain, 27, associate vice-president, Infinity Business School, Gurgaon, whose workwear wardrobe consists mostly of shirts and trousers. “Why should a woman always wear pinstripes or solid colours?"

According to Ajay Ramachandran, the Bangalore-based COO of Van Heusen, the women’s shirt/blouse market has seen double the growth of the men’s shirt market in the last couple of years. Yet women who buy the garment invariably list three major issues: ill-fitting shirts, severe styles and a restricted colour palette. Natasha Chopra, who heads Delhi-based Select Citywalk mall’s Styling Services consultancy, which offers personal shopper services for corporate dressing (Rs3,000 for 2 hours), says the toughest aspect of shirt shopping for women is finding the right sizes. “This is the most common complaint from our female clients. A small, medium, large in different brands means different things."

Van Heusen and Allen Solly say customer feedback suggests that women want slightly more feminine styles even for workwear. Most women in the metros gravitate towards the section that was once quaintly categorized as Friday dressing. However, Sooraj Bhat, the Bangalore-based brand head at Allen Solly, says it is tough for them to experiment too much with classic workwear shirts, that is, solid colours in a mix of cotton and lycra. “These shirts are popular, especially in smaller metros. But now in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, women are asking for more stylish shirts, with a feminine slant. For them we have a chic casual line." In the last few seasons, Van Heusen too has been working on upgrading its chic “blouses" line. “A blouse can resemble a shirt but it is not as formal. It can have buttons, collars, but we are experimenting a little by using embroidery, narrow cuffs, introducing waistcoats," says Ramachandran.

Even as branded shirt makers gear up to manage the changing scene in the women’s workwear market, Vibhuti Kabra, a 26-year-old corporate lawyer-turned-shirt maker, has decided to make the hunt for a perfect workwear shirt less exhausting, at least in Delhi. “I want to produce shirts that will make a woman stand out in the crowd," she says. Kabra, who used to buy most of her shirts overseas, has opened a niche store, The Shirt Café, in New Delhi’s Defence Colony. The four-month-old store gives women the option to buy or tailor shirts that help them look feminine and formal at the same time. Here, in addition to the staid pinstripes and solids, you’re likely to encounter bows, frills, embroidery, lace collars and empire-waist shirts.

Jain, meanwhile, has been expanding her workwear wardrobe by adding shirts made from fabrics such as satin and crepe rather than the usual 95% cotton and 5% polyester or lycra mix and has even been tempted to add fuchsia to her wardrobe. “Brands like Benetton, Zara and Mango have made it possible to buy shirts with small differentiating factors like embroidery or capped sleeves," says Jain.

Chopra too encourages her clients to experiment. “We tell clients to try different fabrics and silhouettes. We also advise them to invest in linen jackets, scarves and other accessories so that their workwear looks less severe and more dressy. This creates a look that helps them stand apart in the sea of blues, lavenders and pinks."

Next time you walk into a store to buy a workwear shirt, don’t be afraid to experiment because everyone around is doing so.