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

If you are to wake up at six in the morning, finish household chores, travel on multiple public modes of transport for two hours to get to the office, what will you prefer to wear?

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Saree at work? How many times have you checked what is appropriate to wear to a corporate office and ended up with the most uncomfortable clothing? Trousers that are oh so uncomfortable, hurting heels, brown or black handbags?

In the book, The Language of Fashion, the author Roland Barthes writes that histories of dress never considered anything outside aristocratic outfits. According to those histories, the dress is reduced to the social class of the person - the idea of dressing like a lady. It is never linked to how it feels to the wearer or accounts for the experience of the wearer.

Even the former Chairperson of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi has experienced corporate clothing discomfort. In her memoir, My Life In Full Nooyi shares how her comfort in working wearing a saree led to her losing out on client meetings. Her colleagues felt that taking her to a client meeting at Indianapolis would have been too jarring. She had accepted the reason as to why her colleagues left her behind. According to the former PepsiCo chief, it was a small price to pay. Is it no discrimination?

Regardless, Nooyi never stopped wearing one. She narrates another incident in her memoir, which goes back to her time at the Yale School of Management in 1978. For the summer job interview, Nooyi chose to wear a dark blue polyester outfit with a turquoise colour blouse.  She was uncomfortable the entire time but wanted to fit in.

Does it sound familiar? The workplace culture defines the clothing an employee chooses to wear, to fit in. Phrases like 'wear for the job you want not for the job you have' does not really help in this situation. In India, of late, in corporate offices, it is either western formals or the traditional ones (which changes according to the geography in India).

Many would say, is this option not enough? The western formals you get for women are more fitting compared to men. It is either skirts and blouses or trousers and shirts. Many women are not comfortable with clothes that stick to the body because of the gaze. Then wear a saree? For many, saree denotes "style saviour" and "identity badge".

To talk about gaze it is also important to understand the mode of transportation used by a woman also determines her choice of clothes. If you are to wake up at six in the morning, finish household chores, travel on multiple public modes of transport for two hours to get to the office, what will you prefer to wear?

The choice was absent in most corporate workplaces until recent. As the design of workplaces started changing and start-up companies entered the race, casuals suddenly became the new cool. Jeans and Kurti, joggers and t-shirt entered the corporate language, and why not - if the employee is happy productivity increases.

Companies like Goldman Sachs reduced their strict rules to formal clothing and allowed "flexible attire". Virgin Atlantic, too, relaxed its dress code. The shift here was also to scrutinise how women were treated during the #metoo movement.

According to a workplace culture expert, Jamie Notter, the casual dress code has been trending for 10-15 years, ever since millennials joined the workforce.

But again, what women wear should be their choice and not enforced by a piece of paper ascribing the gender lines to what can be worn as office wear.

As the Director of Career Development, Jane Morrison pointed out to Nooyi, "Next time, just wear a saree. If they do not hire you, it's their loss. Just be yourself."

(Opinions expressed are the author's own)

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