In the early nineties, when I was a post-doc at Yale University, I insisted on not shifting to Western attire. “We are proud of our culture and will stick to it” attitude!. Well I wore long sleeved salwaar kameez through the four seasons. As summer set in, the Secretaries on my floor started to shed their apparel and were soon down to short skirts/ hot pants and much less! I continued in my long sleeved clothes. One day one of them could not resist her curiosity, “Do you not feel hot?” “Hot or not, these are the clothes we wear. The max that changes is the fabric, silk in winter and cotton in summer” And so it went on till a little over a decade ago. In my travel to the West, I started to notice much more attention directed at me or my salwaar kameez! Once when I lived in DC for a few months I had borrowed my daughter’s trousers and T-shirt to wear at home and go down to the washing etc. One day, due to sheer laziness I walked down the street to do my shopping at my usual local store in the borrowed trousers and T-shirt. Suddenly I felt that I was invisible! No one looked at me, I seemed to melt with the surroundings! What was it? Obviously the colour of my skin or the colour of my hair did not attract attention, it was my clothing! So finally even the patriot in me has resigned to the idea of Western clothes, at least in public places while travelling in Western countries!!
As I lived on the management school campus for two decades, I was always struck by the sudden change in attire of the young student community, both boys and girls during the insane period of Placements! All the colour on campus suddenly disappeared. Black and white, at best grey or blue! Not just colour gone, the whole world collapses into a unisex dress code of black trousers, black coats and white shirts. The guys may infuse some colour with a TIE!
What is the psychology/sociology/economics (?) behind this? They call it corporate culture in the top management school in India. Is it corporate culture or just a copy of the West? The place reminds me of the Western local airports and some local stores in Europe. Completely devoid of colour! The competition is intense to get into the top consulting jobs (PwC/MacKenzie/E&Y) or investment banks (Goldman Sachs/Du etch Bank)! Why take the risk? Girls in particular lose out, no gorgeous silks, dupattas, aachals flowing! Not professional, I suppose, is the idea of corporate culture.
And then the women embark on their careers, Management or otherwise. The dress code remains. I recently came across an article on women entrepreneurs and incubation in the US. The same struggle for the Western women, one quote “I spent many years wearing trousers and being, trying to be one of the boys and I think as I’ve got a bit older and I’ve matured in my own sense and belief in my own abilities I’ve decided that I can dress a bit more girly and get away with it”.
Recently I came across a number of tweets on the wardrobe of Asian women. It swung on both sides of the pendulum. Some were appreciative of how Asian women manage to maintain a balance between Western and Eastern attire. And some were, well: “Sometimes I really question the wardrobe of middle aged Asian women!” “Are Asian women born with an incredible wardrobe?” Given the range of comments, I am not sure if this was a compliment or sarcasm? We appreciate colour and this reflects in our dress sense and hence my earlier apprehension of the disappearance of colour from campuses. This becomes the butt of various not so nice comments!
And then I joined IRMA! I was relieved to see girls on campus in various forms of Indian attire! I walked into class one day and found the kids were dressed rather formally. “What is the matter today?” I discover that they were being photographed for the Placement Brochure! Many of the girls were in sarees! One comes down the steps of the aisle hobbling along in a saree. “What is the matter? Have you hurt yourself?” Another student, sitting in the front row, quips “No Mam, she is wearing a saree!!” “Good heavens, is this where we have got to? You cannot walk around in a saree?” “No Mam”, says the girl in the front row, also wearing a saree, “I am comfortable”. Great, I feel a little relieved.
Come Placement time, the madness hits the boys and some of the girls. IRMA tries to imbibe the Indian rural ethos. The recruiters are different, not many corporate firms, and the system is able to infuse enough of ‘ruralness’ to allow some students to stand up to the corporate culture! In fact it is very heart warming to see some boys in the traditional North India Kurta! Still the ‘culture’ is creeping in!
The academic world is still a small space where women have not given up on the Indian style of dress and colour. Academic conferences are where you still see the full range of sarees and latest fashion in salwaar suits. My preference is for crisp cotton, preferably handloom, sarees. But increasingly I find that the saree and unfortunately the cotton saree is not the most visible attire.
My patriotism extends to the traditional handloom weavers. I do find that they are also trying to merge styles and weaves in order to remain attractive and relevant. The salwaar suit is also being modified with more pant-like effect, but without losing the charm of flowing dupattas and the full range of colour! So there is hope for the charm and colour of Indian wear!