I am a career woman.
I am a career woman, originally from India, now living in the west. I don't wear power suits. At least not every day. I bring out my suits only for conference presentations and for teaching sessions. Otherwise, my colleagues see me wearing trousers mostly, and almost as often, skirts. And not just A-line or pencil skirts but frilly skirts, ethnic skirts, and for a short while, even a bright red, heavy, ankle-length tribal skirt that was picked up from Nepalese women selling wares on the streets of Delhi. When I was younger (and slimmer) I could make a pair of overalls look decent on me. I went through a phase where a tie, or a pair of suspenders, were my trademark accessories. Since my career has always been in academia, I have not had to worry about being stylish or fashionable in the typical sense of the words, nor have I had to follow any formal dress code. It had been sufficient for me to dress decently and comfortably--unwritten rules that seem fair and sensible to me. And so, over the years, without having to spend too much time or money, I managed to assert my own personal sense of style, which is neither catchy enough to land me in the pages of fashion magazines nor drab enough to give me the dubious honor of being the case-study for the 'What not to wear to work' club. In other words, I blended well.
Of late, as a mid-career, middle-aged, middle-class woman, I am beginning to have dress issues. I am at the stage when trousers and skirts, unless they are made by very clever (and very expensive) designers, have a tendency to make me look washed out.
Perhaps not every day. At least not yet.
But gone are the student days when I could turn up late at a lecture, having overslept, and having just hurriedly put on old faded jeans and sweatshirt, and still feel the admiring glance of a fellow student or two. Youth was enough of a guarantee for sartorial confidence; for being the sufficient accessory on 'dress-up' days amidst chronic thriftiness; for managing splendidly despite never heeding to the advice of conventional fashionistas in the west. But now, as I spend more unhappy minutes in front of my full-length mirror, and see, more often than not, my mother's silhouette reflected back at me, I am wondering why I am reluctant to follow the wisdom of Indian women: that there are days and occasions when a sari looks best on an ethnically-Indian body that is beginning to fall apart.
OK, maybe I am being too dramatic and too pessimistic, too soon. Still, of late, I have begun to wonder why I shun the sari in a work-place environment more than I shun any other piece of garment. In fact, the only time I wore a sari in an academic/career environment was when I defended my veterinary student thesis in Kiev, Ukraine. As all international students of the countries of the former Soviet Union know, defending your thesis in your national costume was an unwritten tradition that we proudly and gladly followed. But what changed between then and now for me? Why have I never worn a salwar kameez or a sari (or even a half-sari) to grad school, and later, to work?
To be fair, I have mixed and matched different pieces of ethnic garments. I have worn a kurta with jeans; a salwar or ghagra with a long T-shirt; a bright dupatta as a scarf to add color to a black suit; even a Ukrainian peasant blouse with jeans. But in this seemingly modern woman's mix-and-match wardrobe, the sari ensemble finds itself in a 'no win' situation. As the modern sari is paired with a short, tightly-fitting blouse, neither the blouse nor the sari seem to have a life without the other. (Unless the sari-blouse is part of Gwen Stefani's wardrobe. She can probably wear a sari-blouse with military fatigues and still manage to make a fashion statement.) But the point I am trying to make is that I have never worn an outfit that can be identified as 100% ethnic to work. It is as if I have always been careful about asserting that I have the right amounts of whatever mettle it takes to build a career in a man's world in the west. But am I truly being honest with myself? What is it that makes me uncomfortable and nervous about the idea of wearing a sari to work? There is no outright policy against the sari at our university. In fact, I know of at least one staff member who wears saris every day to work. It cannot be that uncomfortable. It is the default outfit of millions of women everyday, and 99% of them do some amount of work either at home or outside of home. At least tens of thousands of them are part of the diaspora. So what is stopping me from wearing this garment which is all my foremothers ever wore? The more I question myself, the more I have to face the fact that one thing is for sure: it is I, and only I, who has boxed myself into thinking that some clothes are more acceptable at work and others less acceptable.
I know of at least three extraordinary women who have chosen to think otherwise and have managed to leave long-lasting impressions on me.
- During my first summer in the U.S., I met a Tamil Brahmin neurologist on the east coast. It was said that she attended med school after she came to the US as an arranged-marriage bride to an Indian green-card holder, and that she studied for the MCAT during her pregnancy and started med school while her baby was a wee one. Having become a renowned neurologist by the time I had a chance encounter with her, she was unapologetically true to her roots and to her own habits and comforts. She wore a sari to work, even while driving an SUV and having teen-aged girls who wore not-so-short shorts. And in response to some inane question from me, she announced in a no-nonsense voice that she never wore anything but a sari in all her life. At that point in my life, I could have sheepishly told her that I can count, on my fingers and toes, the number of times I actually wore a sari in my entire lifetime. (But I didn't.) Instead, I learnt an important lesson that day--that if you are really good at what you do, you can make your own rules about things that matter a lot to you.
- In the fall of 1996, I went to do an internship at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. At the cafeteria, I would often see a woman dressed in the most beautiful saris--Pochampallis, Bengal cottons, Kashmiri silks--and looking extremely elegant and poised. Being in the U.N. building, she wasn't the only woman in a sari that I came across. But what set her apart from the other sari-clad women was the fact that she was of African descent. I was instantly impressed and curious! Who was she? How and why did the sari come to be part of her wardrobe? How did she learn to wear the sari with more grace than I can ever hope to? Did she not find the sari uncomfortable to work in? I do! I am afraid I never found the answers to those questions as I never attempted to converse with her. But like some proverbial mystery woman, she still occupies this pretty picture in my head every time people talk of 'the graceful sari.' That's right, no narrative of sari for me is complete without a mention of her. The lesson she taught me is this: you don't have to be South Asian to honour the sari. For that matter, you don't have to be from any particular culture to honour any and all aspects of that culture. (Just as there is no guarantee (or obligation) that being from a culture binds you to just that culture.)
- The third woman who inspires sari-sized awe in me was neither a trailblazing professional in control of every aspect of her life nor a picture of poise and elegance. Yet I am connected to her in ways I can neither ignore nor underplay. The woman is my great-grandmother -- a non-Brahmin daughter of peasants and wage-earners in the weaving communities around Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. The simple maroon or brown 'nool pudavais' (cotton saris) she wore were rendered soft by the scorching sun--the same sun that made her skin dark and leathery as she planted peanuts, tended to the family cows and dried large spools of dyed thread in the streets and alleys around her home. She wore a blouse-less sari that made her bare right shoulder neither attractive nor unattractive. Her daughters and daughters-in-law, having married men who no longer found petty-farming viable and who tried their hand at petty-merchandising in big city Chennai, would never wear saris without blouses. One of her granddaughters (i.e., my own mother), having climbed the socioeconomic ladder, would incorporate the salwar kameez into her wardrobe at around the same time she would try her hand at a second career (the first having been that of an unhappy, restless homemaker). Her career, for the most part, included selling saris -- colorful, glorious, choice selections of saris from around the country. The granddaughter of the woman who labored for most of her life in her humble, unassuming sari thought the garment to be beautiful but not necessarily practical.
And my mother is not alone.
In the districts of Kanchipuram or Kanyakumari nowadays, the salwar kameez is more ubiquitous as a daily-wear option among the younger generations of the better-off than the sari is. Perhaps it is the comfort factor; perhaps it is the fashion trend of the day. And maybe it is the pure liberty of having choices. I, of all people, have no right to judge.
So I bring this story back to me. Only I don't close the circle. I draw a line that extends further away from my great-grandmother. I am most unlike her than anyone else in her family--in thought, in my chosen geography, in the way I make my living. Mainly, in the amount of control I have over my life. I don't toil the dry, hard earth of any countryside. I hardly touch a cow anymore. I don't even have to follow a strict dress code. I research, crunch numbers, and write for a living. All at the computer desk, all in the comfort of my office. Yet I have regarded the sari as an outfit best reserved for evening celebrations, an outfit I would not consider wearing to work even one day in a year.
Something has changed in me this year. Not suddenly. Not overnight. I have been toying with the idea of not discriminating against the sari ever since I came back from a trip to India last August. On a Google search, I came across others, in the U.S. and the U.K., who have had similar thoughts. Along with them, I hope to answer the question, 'Why a sari?,' with the answer, 'Well, why not a sari?' Maybe it will not be my chosen garment for every working day of the year, but maybe I can choose to wear it for at least one day a year.
So what better day to begin celebrating the garment of my great-grandmother than the 8th of March, the International Woman's Day?
For other stories of saris, visit writer Kalpana Mohan's Facebook page.