Saturday, January 20, 2007

"OMG What do I wear?"

A friend from London - a rather attractive Englishwoman in her late twenties - was in Mumbai last month. We went sightseeing and shopping. Because it was muggy and warm, she wore a dress with a halter neck. It took her all of ten minutes on Mumbai's streets, to realise it was a mistake (if stares could burn, her shoulders would be charred to a crisp). For the rest of the day, she wore a hot cardigan, and didnt take it off even in the 'safe' environs of the Taj Sea Lounge. I met her again in London last week, and over drinks at Corney and Barrow, we laughed the whole incident off.

I was in Dubai as well last week - and I worked with several young women, all of them modestly dressed in black abayas. In the ladies loo, the abaya's would be adjusted, the head-scarves wrapped and re-wrapped until modesty was assured. In the same office, there were women from South Africa and London, wearing exactly what they would wear in their home countries - skirts, trousers, jackets. On Day Two at work, I wore what is called 'Indo-Western' - a black raw silk kurta with black trousers and a stole. I realised I was standing almost *exactly* at the sartorial mid-point between the abayas and the business jackets.

The whole thing has set me thinking about 'appropriate' business dressing.

In the first place, there is the debate about whether or not to be appropriate.

When I travel on work to London, I agonise over what to wear. What I *want* to wear is some of my sarees. I know I will look confident and attractive - but Lord, I won't fit in. And it's a bit disconcerting in meetings when people keep eyeing your midriff/waist. It's strange - in London, there's so much cleavage on display at work, and men don't stare. But when it's comes to saree-clad midriffs, there are definitely some startled glances. It is irritating at meetings, when you're standing up to make a presentation, and the audience is not looking at your face.

Anyway - what I end up wearing is clunky business jackets, hating how they fall on my five-foot-nothing frame. I tell myself it makes business sense to not look exotic, when you're trying to convince some staid banker that you know what you're talking about. But I resent the unspoken rules. I don't *want* to fit in!

On some recent trips, I've started wearing the saree (to hell with the consequences). Perhaps it's a sign of new-found confidence, or perhaps it is just vanity. I don't know.


Meenakshi said...

Your debate sounds so familiar.
Should I wear a saree and stick out or wear pants & blend in? After many years of travel abroad on work I use the saree whenever I want to make a "statement" otherwise it is good old pants.
The Saree is a distraction. No doubt about it.

Surya said...

As you can see from comments on multiple posts, I am devouring your blog after just coming across it (or maybe I have before, it looks familiar, but was lost in the everyday mess of offline chores).

Anyways, I could never wear a sari in a business presentation. Somehow, I feel like I stick out anyway given I am brown and a woman and not as tall as the rest ( though my heels make up some bit of it), so why make it worse? What works for me is, smart striped shirts with dark colored pants. Skirts look fab too, but I hate wearing stockings, and I would freeze in the winter without them. I used to find the shirt/ pant thing really boring, but nowadays, on a casual work day, with no big presentation to make, I still wear western clothes, but take out my creativity on the colors or accessories like a scarf or brooch or knee high boots.

helga said...

In a forum about "working in an Indian office".. I found this:
"if you're a woman, probably best to avoid the knee-length or shorter skirts with stockings/tights that would be considered proper in the west, because they might be fine inside the office but would cause a hassle between office and home"..

And I could really scream.. since -never mind the "shorter than knee-length - not an option but apart from that this describes how I HAD to look like in highschool as well as my earlier holiday jobs as a student (bank.. hotel reception)I HAD to and I HATED IT..and as soon as I got home I would "drop" the "rags"- stockings first thing, and change into "trousers'.. jeanslike though not blue or cotton..a long "India-cotton" Tunica shirt.. or a T-shirt and shirt/jacket over it..If I felt "romantic" or going out for a party I would wear long skirts-(I'd call it "gypsy look"..)in summer plain coloured cotton., in winter black with gold decoration..or silver..
And ohh pleasant surprise..I NEVER followed fashion.. but "fashion" followed me..and "all of a sudden" 54 -my "taste" did not change one bit but what I wear.."coincides".. with "fitting in.. proper and decent"..(unlike the now a days fancy girlies with -even in winter - a naked belly between trousers and top to show the navelpiercing they have..)..Can't wait to try a saree..(silk please) not that different from my "gypsylook" "make my day" at the next western Christmas party..

Nitya said...

Let me reiterate the story of Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Coke who dressed up in business jackets at Yale failed to get her job at the first interview because she looked like a "country bumpkin" in her words. This was in the early 1980's when she was interviewing for her first job after she graduated from the Yale Business school. So off she went to the career services and told her tale. Next day she was in a saree and her usual confident self and clinched her first job with Boston consulting .
Good Luck Deepa. Go in your beautiful sarees. It exhibits CONFIDENCE with a capital C. It is time the beautiful sarees become the symbol of successful business women.

sheetal said...

when i joined air hostess training institute .. as part uniform we had wear knee length skirt and stockings i use to travel to institute in my two wheeler at each traffic signals most of men use stare my legs . i was totally shocked by there attitude .tht first and last day i never wore it stockings public/outside India I feel wearing stockings is considered as taboo…

Anonymous said...

OMG! No wonder. I am in Bombay for about 3 months and am interning here. Back in Melbourne, corporate means skirts , shirts and stockings. I thought I was being conservating wearing my stockings as I wasn't showing any skin. I have never had so many stares my way. Apparantly fuel for office conversation as well. Oh well. I'm off to buy myself a kurta now. :-(

kalps said...

This is just a matter of perception, and also i know if I have something worth for, no matter what i wear, be it utter casual dress thats gonna make impact. However just going by formal thing,when i do make presentations even in India, I prefer wearing business suit or sometimes just shirt and trouser...and feel perfect comfort.. As far as Saree tale,I think people outside who are pretty habitual seeing too much skin stare because of curiosity of seeing something very different.