Suit or Sari? On Professionalism and ‘Ethnic’ Dressing

By Sayantani DasGupta

I had the pleasure to attend a women’s leadership conference this past weekend. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet innovative and dynamic women from seven different decades, and I was so inspired by much that I saw and heard.

But it was a lecture by a popular professor — an expert in public speaking and issues of gender and communication — that left me unexpectedly troubled. And it’s taken me a couple days to figure out why.

I last saw this professor lecture more than 20 years ago – and she’s still the same funny, sharp-witted, and insightful speaker I remember from back in my college days. She urged us conference participants to be assertive, not aggressive, in our speech, to think about standing and sitting with confidence, to avoid lilting upward at the end of our sentences, to resist being cut off by others while we’re speaking.

All of this made a lot of sense to me. I know that women are often taught to defer to others in conversation (“no, no, you go ahead”), that we may unconsciously adopt physical postures of passivity or childishness (the cocked head, the crossed leg stance while standing), that we may sound as if we’re apologizing, for even our names (“my name is Sayantani??”).

And yet, when the lecture got to the issue of dressing for presentation success, I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable.

“Don’t wear skirts that are too short,” she said, “And, man or woman,  if you’re planning on crossing your leg at the ankle (a gesture men often do), please wear calf-high socks. There’s nothing as distracting as a hairy leg, female or male.”

Okay, no hairy crossed legs, check. Seemed simple and logical enough.

“Don’t wear patterns, scarves, obvious jewelery or dangling earrings — they distract from your face and your message,” she urged.

Okay, I guess I could see that, I thought, thinking dubiously of the patterned scarf I was wearing, as well as the embroidered Indian top, the gold paisley shaped earrings, also from India.

“Don’t wear patterned clothing. I stick mostly to black, and perhaps one solid color to pop,” the lecturer added. She was wearing black pants and a red blazer.

That was the advice that continued to bother me. After all, just the night before, at the conference’s formal gala, I was among one of few women in ethnic dress (a salwaar kameese, dupatta, and fancy jacket), and got nothing but compliments. It’s a deliberate gesture of ethnic pride I often make at formal occassions, but it’s also a practical one – my nicest and most dressy clothes are usually Indian clothes.

Over the next few days, I began to wonder: Do such pieces of advice eliminate personal style – either regarding speaking or dressing? Do they mandate an appearance of ethnic homogeneity? I mean, did Aung Sung Suu Kyyi or Winnie Mandela or Indira Gandhi (all powerful global women leaders and speakers) avoid patterns and jewels? In this rapidly shrinking global world, was it possible for all women to dress alike anyway?

I approach this issue through a particular lens, of course, that of a woman of color, but also a woman whose parents are immigrants. I am also a woman who watched my own mother, who came to this country at the age of 19 and was quite a jeans-and-beads wearing hippie for a number of years, stop wearing Western clothes altogether. It was shortly after the racist ‘dotbuster’ incidents in New Jersey — when a group of thugs who declared themselves to be ‘dotbusters’ were terrorizing people of Indian origin. My mother, determined to show solidarity and pride in her identity, went cold turkey – no more jeans, no more Western clothes. She’s a widely known academic and activist, and often does public lectures and trainings and yet – she’s always dressed in either a salwaar kamesee or sari, with, yes, a bindi on her forehead.

Now, I understand, both my mother, and now I, are academics and there are obviously different expectations regarding dress and public presentation in many professions. Corporate America or television journalism are less forgiving regarding presentation style than a university, or a creative business. Yet, I have an aunt who is an attorney who has developed her own style of professional dressing for the courtroom – a dark colored cotton sari topped by a suit jacket. And obviously, corporate women in India and other countries surely wear different styles of professional dress.

I too am usually found with at least one piece of Indian clothing on my body – a flowing kurta on top of dark pants, topped by a blazer or jacket. It’s my style, my interpretation of professorial dress codes, and I think, like my mother, it also reflects something political: an identification with my roots and origins that I’m not willing to give up.

Might a woman wearing a sari at a podium get a different reception than a woman wearing a dark suit? Perhaps. I guess it depends if the podium is in New York or Topeka, Washington or New Dilli. But isn’t that difference in reception one worth challenging and interrogating?

I guess my point is ethnic dressing, like standing straight, meeting people in the eye when I talk, and not apologizing for my point of view, is actually a form of assertive communication on my part. It’s a personal choice – just as any other woman’s style of professional presentation is her personal choice.

And honestly, even if  if I dress like Hillary Clinton or Madeline Albright, no one’s going to be mistaking me for them any time soon. If people are prejudiced against me for dressing ethnically, will they be any less so if I put my brown skin and Indian face in Western clothing? I hazard an assertive no.

Like the question mark I keep trying to keep off the end of my sentences, I don’t want to apologize for looking, and sounding, like exactly who I am.

Originally posted at Sayantani’s blog, Stories are Good Medicine. Cross-posted with permission.

11 thoughts on “Suit or Sari? On Professionalism and ‘Ethnic’ Dressing

  1. what a thought-provoking article! i don’t agree with this public speaker that you should only wear dark colours with a pop of bright. i think that as long as you have a compelling message, whatever you’re wearing should be fine and you’d be taken seriously–i mean, within the confines of professional wear. even if you were up there in jeans, but had a great message, people would probably understand it! this just sounds like a case of someone trying to make all female speakers fit inside one tiny prescribed box. i think you’re right to want to challenge that concept!

  2. Thanks, all, for your comments! Ayah – thank you for bringing up the issue of hijab and abaya — I think the additional burden is that certain kinds of dress have of course become such heavily coded markers. If not marking us brown ‘others’ as potential terrorists – then at least brown/Eastern/Muslim/South Asian etc. women as ‘passive’/’antifeminist’/’oppressed’/’needing of rescue’. An interesting tumblr site exploring this expectation that brown women are oppressed/must be rescued is:

  3. As a covered Muslim woman and an academic, I can certainly relate. Given that the bulk of my work and teaching are in women’s and gender studies, I’ve often felt the full force of other women’s disapproval (e.g., how can she wear *that* and dare to tell us about feminism?).
    Thank you so much for this piece. My hijab and abaya aren’t going away and I hope you, too, will continue to rock your scarf/earrings/salwar with confidence and without shame.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this, and even though I belong to a western culture I can somewhat relate to the topic. I have a strong identification with a certain musical subculture, and in my free time I dress a certain way, which makes me look different from my fellow countrymen. But this is “me” and I feel very uncomfortable and insecure when I dress “normal”. It’s still an issue for me, since I tend to make myself blend in when I am at work. But after debating pro’s and con’s with myself during the latest years I’ve began to develop some kind of fusion of how a person of my profession “should” dress like, and how I really dress. This makes me focus less on being uncomfortable and I work so much better now.

  5. I really liked the ideas you bring up in this piece. My traditional culture is very conservative and I would never have any reason, other than desire, to wear something as beautiful as a sari. But, my personal, chosen, culture is dynamic and vibrant. I am an artist and an arts educator. I had the opportunity to speak at a national conference this past summer, and was stymied about what to wear. I own several traditional skirt and pant suits that have only been used on interviews. . .And, even then, I felt as if I was somehow being deceptive. Simply put, I wear loud, eclectic, and colorful clothing. What I wear is easily within the appropriate boundaries for my job, but as an art teacher, I have a lot of license.

    I simply couldn’t figure out what to wear for the national conference. I ended up packing a traditional suit, and several colorful dresses and jewelry that was more me. I was so nervous for the conference, that I decided I should wear clothing in which I felt the most comfortable, confident, and “me.” I ended up wearing my colorful dresses. And, oddly enough, what I wore really helped discriminate me from other speakers. I was easy to find after my speeches, and people constantly approached me. . .And, often mentioned my clothing after we talked about their comment/question.

    The speaking engagement led to several more, and every time I’ve worn loud and proud versions of my own closet. I’ve found people are often both surprised and excited by how I dress. . .It doesn’t seem to be a detriment at all. In fact, I would say it is a plus as it makes me memorable.

  6. Thanks for the comments and interesting conversation. @Ashley-Michelle: I agree “the body is political… it is easy to say it’s ‘just’ clothing, but the body is a powerful tool to communicate and reject patriarchy.” @Belinda: The speaker was actually talking about public speaking in any realm. She’s a very smart and well known (and fairly progressive, actually) expert in assertive communication, which is why I was so suprised by her not recognizing that these blanket recommendations might be problematic @pia: I agree, the issue of ‘natural’ hair being seen as professional, or the issue of the hijab, etc. are all related here…

  7. My question is, why can’t ethnic dress be see as professional? Why do all races have to fit into white business culture to be ‘professional”? This was a big issue in the past when Black folks wanted to wear their hair naturally in the office, but that wasn’t considered professional. Luckily that condition is slowly lifting as our country grows more aware.

  8. I think the speaker was thinking more about on camera stuff than in public, where dangling anything pulls attention away from your face. But do you really want to be the ethnic expert or do you want to be the professional expert? Seems like there’s a time and a place for either or both, personally. I think a scarf and earrings and jewelrey and accessories all at the same time are a bit much. Would you feel the same if you saw a blue-eyed blond woman wearing what you wear?

  9. This is a fantastic article, and what is really being said: that the body is political, and your decision to wear the garb of your heritage is not altogether different than a survivor of sexual violence donning a short skirt to turn victim blaming on its ear. It’s easy to say that it’s “just” clothing, but the body is a powerful tool to communicate and reject patriarchy. Great job!

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