​Western wear edges out saris at offices

Written By Unknown on Kamis, 11 April 2013 | 22.23

MUMBAI: Maybe they should also teach the art of dressing (not just dressing-up balance sheets) at B-school. Time was when placement season on campus mostly resembled formal parties - young men in sharp suits and ladies draped in elegant saris, all smartened up for the big day. But that's changed now, with most women not prepared to go the whole nine yards.

While the most visible women CEOs who occupy the corner office are almost always elegantly clad in saris, be it a Shikha Sharma at Axis Bank, Chanda Kochhar at ICICI Bank, Naina Lal Kidwai at HSBC or Meera Sanyal at RBS, the next generation prefers a different look.

Western work-wear (or some fusion thereof) is becoming entrenched in the Indian office. The trend started in the 1990s with young business scions sporting not only foreign degrees but also international brands. Gradually, even domestic brands have flourished, catering to a widening consumer base.

The shift is generational, no doubt, but also triggered in part by MNC culture. Sameer Wadhwan vice-president, HR, Coca-Cola India & South West Asia, describes it as a function of evolution. He says that over the years, since liberalization and the entry of MNCs into India, a person's professionalism, value systems and employability in a globalized world have been determined by various things, including attire, which has been catalyzed by MNC culture. That's the same reason why western outfits are now more commonly seen at interviews. Besides, there's also the convenience factor -- pantsuits, being more manageable, help when one has to run from one interview to another, or one task to another.

A CEO, who believes strongly in the sari, attributes the change to a generational shift influenced in part by the media. "There is perhaps a misplaced perception among youngsters that the more global they look, the more global the mindset attributed to them will be," she says. "So they are only dressing in a way that they feel will advance their careers."

Faculty at top B-schools have also watched this trend grow. "In the last few years, there has been an increasing acceptance of western wear due to a variety of reasons -- convenience, the 'professional' look and greater acceptability internationally," says Siddharth Singh, tenured associate professor of marketing at Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. He describes the tilt away from saris as a general attitudinal shift towards dressing in what one is 'comfortable' in. "Saris, by their very nature, are relatively more involved, both in the draping as well as in the handling," he says.

Ameeta Chatterjee, an investment banker, regrets the demise of the sari, and says that ironically it can be the ultimate power dress for women in India. "An understated silk sari with a contrasting border exudes confidence, power and money in a subtle yet sophisticated, gentle yet professional manner. Besides, the respect accorded by office staff and clients if you're dressed in a sari is unmistakable. It somehow manages to add a number of years to your look, which can be good for business, if not for partner-scouting."

Devi Singh, director of IIM Lucknow, agrees that the use of the sari has reduced drastically. Describing it in part as the new way of life, he says that whether it is ease of use or low maintenance, or the fact that draping a sari takes longer, business suits have overtaken. It's a trend that cuts across cities. "Today about 5% of lady students wear a sari, and most students have made the shift keeping the comfort factor in mind," says Uday Salunke, director of Welingkar Education.

Indira Parikh, who was the only woman director of an IIM and now heads a B-school in Pune, has an interesting tidbit to convey on why the sari used to be a favourite, at least among the poster-girls of India Inc. About 30 years ago, Parikh researched gender issues in a top FMCG company and found that as women moved up the ranks, their dressing included more of saris and salwar-kameezes. Pants were for the juniors.

Things have obviously changed. It's not as if sari wearing has reduced only in B schools. "The change in attire is evident even in offices. Women prefer the salwar kameez or western attire and only on select occasions do they wear saris," says an HUL spokesperson. It's not clear if the trend has had a limiting impact on the market dynamics of the sari industry.

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