What women wear to work
Skirt suits, formal trousers, dresses, tunics and kurtas with pants or jeans and a T-shirt... as many offices relax their norms and designers and brands go all out to woo their customers, the Indian working woman’s wardrobe is an eclectic mix of stylesUpdated: Nov 23, 2019 21:41 IST
In Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, released in 1963, Arati, a sari-clad, married woman from a middle-class family in Calcutta, takes up a job as a saleswoman to help her struggling family. Slowly, as she changes from a timid housewife to a confident worker, so does her appearance. A little. Edith, an Anglo-Indian, skirt-wearing colleague, teaches her how to apply lipstick, gifts her a pair of sunglasses. The saris remain.
A decade later in Bombay, Basu Chatterjee’s office-going heroine, Vidya Sinha, in the 1976 release Chhoti Si Baat, still wears saris, but they are brighter, with prints.
The concept of Western formals came to India with the coming of the British. But back then it was mostly for men. “Till the 1970s, and probably even in the 1980s, saris were the most common attire for women here, and became the quintessential office wear when women started going out to work,” says Anuradha Kumra, president (apparel), Fabindia. “Today, though saris continue to be considered formal attire at most offices, I find only women who are at a senior level, or of a certain age, wearing saris to work.”
It probably started changing with the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. The opening of the economy meant not just more companies and a variety in jobs, but exposure to global fashion and access to brands selling those.
“The biggest change in the last 20 years has been the huge increase in the number of women in the workforce,” says designer David Abraham. “Along with this work wear has changed from traditional Indian saris to an eclectic mix of contemporary Western office wear like trouser and skirt suits to modern interpretations of the salwar kameez.”
Comfort and mobility are key, says Kumra. Bifurcates are popular. It can be a tunic with formal trousers, jeans, or a kurta with straight pants or a churidar. But it can’t be a blingy kurta, says Rashi Gupta, a bank employee based in Delhi.
“India is one of the youngest nations in the world,” says Niki Haylett, head of international buying, Marks & Spencer, and “is embracing a new way of dressing for work”. This could mean a “mix of casual and formal pieces and rethinking about how we style outfits. We’re seeing tailored blazers over jeans and T-shirts and dresses and trainers as key looks for work that transcend into the weekend.”
Agrees Kavindra Mishra, CEO, House of Anita Dongre. “With office spaces getting modernised, and casual outings merging in work meetings, we notice more and more people going for semi-formal styles”.
The pant suit is having a real moment, but it’s not like the power suits of the 1980s, say fashion experts. Haylett suggests pairing it with T-shirts and trainers for a contemporary look. Dresses and skirts are being worn more. “While pantsuits and skirt suits occupy 20% of the [western formals] work wardrobe, 80% includes formal dresses, formal shirts with trousers/jeans,” says Mishra.
Professions matter. Those in traditional corporate jobs or people-facing roles such as business and human resource management, sales or legal may often have to dress more formally than those in creative jobs.
At many offices, those who have to represent the company in front of others have to dress more carefully. “In IT, most engineers now wear jeans - not distressed, though - and a shirt or T-shirt,” says Divya Midha, a Delhi-based HR professional. Kurtas with a variety of lowers are also popular. But for customer meets, “ it is crisp formals – a pencil skirt or trouser with a shirt, a business suit or a sari or formal kurta,” says Riddhi Chaturvedi, who works in the sales team of an IT company in Gurgaon.
That division in attire, between those in back-end jobs and those in client-servicing, is also there in the banking sector, says Chiranjit Banerjee, of Bengaluru-based hiring firm, PeoplePlus Consulting. “Most back-end bank jobs are IT jobs now. So the dress code there is similar to that in the IT industry,” he says.
And seniors across industries usually dress more formally.
“Freshers are always given a dress code during induction. With time, we tend to relax a bit, pick up from others and generally adapt to what everyone else is wearing,” explains Baisakhi Chakraborty, marketting officer at a sales office in Mumbai. Weekdays mean trousers, pencil skirts, formal dresses (knee-length) for her. Saris and kurtas are allowed. But at seminars and conferences, it’s Western formal, she says. Blazers are a must then. Fridays are more relaxed. She can wear jeans, or more casual skirts and tops - “but not the kind of top you’d wear on the beach”.
The important point to remember, says Abraham, is that work wear should fit in with the overall atmosphere of the work place you are in. The idea is to look “decent and presentable”, as Gupta puts it.
With the increase in purchasing power of women, shopping options have also increased. “I think about 10 per cent of a woman’s shopping expenditure is spent on office wear,” says Kumra. Chakraborty, for example, typically adds three new sets to her work wardrobe every month-and-a-half, shopping at places like Park Avenue, Van Heusen or Pantaloons. Many online retailers too offer a wide range of office wear.
With so much to choose from – and given the arduous commute on Mumbai local trains or the Delhi Metro – saris for most young office goers are now reserved for occasion wear.
Complete Your Look
Shoes: Comfort is key. Heels may look smarter, but flats are fine if the job entails running around a lot. For a formal look, it’s covered shoes, though women are also allowed to wear sandals or peep-toes at many offices now.
Makeup: Those in client servicing or marketing, should keep the make-up subtle – a matte or light shade of lipstick, a touch of kajal and liner. In other, more informal jobs, women can go for brighter lip colour and bolder eye makeup.
Accessories: A chain-and-pendant, earrings and a bracelet are okay. But no OTT pieces, such as bangles with ghungroos, the sound of which may disturb colleagues. A statement ring, brooch or scarf adds some individuality to the look.
Skin show: Sleeveless is fine at most offices. Dresses and skirts should be knee length or below the knee. Sari blouses may have a comparatively deeper backline, but when it comes to cleavage, it’s probably better to be discreet.