Why Does Society Define Women By What They Wear?

ideal clothes for women, indra-nooyi-saree-at-work
What are the ideal clothes for women? Should they decide their attire based on their work or marital status? Should clothes be age or region appropriate? Is there such a thing as “galat kapde” for women, which make them more vulnerable to sexual, crimes? We may be two decades down in the new millennium and yet women are defined/categorised based on what they wear.

Former PepsiCo chairperson Indra Nooyi recalled in her recently released memoir My Life In Full how her colleagues wouldn’t take her along for client meetings in Indianapolis in the early part of her career, since she wore a saree to work and it would have been too jarring in those days. “At the time, I fully understood and accepted my colleagues’ leaving me behind. It seemed a small price to pay,” she wrote. Times have changed, but have the notion around clothes in our society changed much? And it’s not as if West has managed to rid itself completely of defining women by what they wear, it is just that such comments and thoughts are a little diluted there, and well defined here.

What women choose to wear is often a double-edged sword. The same garment, take saree here, can earn a woman the label of being homely or behenji or sanskari. A woman in a suit can be segregated as professional or power-hungry. From the length of a woman’s skirt to how deep the neck of her blouse is, to whether or not her midriff is visible from her clothes – society feels it has the right to comment on everything.

I have seen Nooyi wear pantsuits for as long as I can remember and her pictures in a saree are a newfound treasure trove for me. Nooyi didn’t let her clothes dictate her work-life, she paid the “small price” and eventually her dressing style, the way she wore her hair, gained an iconic status. But what about ordinary women, especially in India? Women who do not have Nooyi’s level of patience or resilience? Women, who have to wear clothes based on social approval and not a choice? When will their clothes not come with a label stamped our society?

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Suggested Reading:

Hey Indra Nooyi, How Did You Stay Married, Have Two Kids and Still Become CEO?

Indra Nooyi Denied Client Meetings for Wearing Saree: What is Appropriate Office Wear?

Women Dress Shaming Other Women: We Have Internalised Policing