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Home > Business > Columnists > Guest Column > T N Ninan

India: Wrong business attire

June 03, 2006

There are few things as uncomfortable and inappropriate as having to sport long sleeves, a closed collar with tie, and a western suit--usually made of dark, heavy material--in the full heat of an Indian summer. Yet, this is what most Indian businessmen and corporate executives are subjected to, by the dictates of business etiquette.

Having been to far too many encounters and settings where one has had to choose between being lightly dressed but standing out in the crowd, and conforming by wearing a suit when the temperature is in the forties (and a closed collar fitted with a tie does not improve matters), the question forces itself on you: why has India's fashion fraternity, and indeed the official government system, not worked out a formal male attire that is suitable to the country's mostly tropical climate, and at the same time appropriate for a business or formal context?

A great many other countries got round the problem a long time ago. The Philippines has had the traditional "Barong Tagalong" (the dress of the Tagalog) as its formal attire for decades. This is a loosely-cut, embroidered shirt, made of a variety of light materials (including thread made from the pineapple and banana!) and worn in comfortable fashion outside the trousers.

You can see everyone from the president downwards wearing it and looking perfectly at ease as well as properly attired. The Indonesians have their variant in the batik shirt, once again something that everyone from the president downwards is quite happy to wear with an open neck and not tucked into the trousers, for both business and formal occasions--with a variety of options for the material to be used. And in Thailand, there is a short- or long-sleeved shirt with a high collarless neck--you can add a cummerbund for formal occasions, if you so wish.

In these and other countries, even visiting businessmen and dignitaries gladly switch to the local form of attire, perhaps out of relief at not having to wear a western suit that was designed to be worn in a cold climate.

At summit meetings of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping, the assembled heads of government usually line up in local attire for the usual photo shoot. And they are decidedly more eye-catching than the G-8 leaders, who usually get photographed in business suits.

In South America, too, an appropriate solution has been found. Whether in Mexico or Cuba, the Guayabera is worn on the street, at business meetings, on formal occasions, or even to your wedding--indeed, many call it the Mexican wedding shirt.

Go to a businessmen's conference in Mexico and you will find almost everyone wearing the shirt, which is almost always white and worn loose--and easily recognised by its large pockets, and pleated front and back. No one feels obliged to wear a western suit, and no one looks under-dressed either. Why, even Nelson Mandela in South Africa prefers to wear batik shirts, including on formal occasions--and this has become a bit of a trade mark, much copied.

The problem in India is that much of the traditional Indian dress for males is inappropriate for a contemporary business setting. P Chidambaram, for instance, wears the south Indian dhoti--which most people would not find convenient. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wears the Bengali dhoti, which is even more of a problem.

Manmohan Singh has adopted the more appropriate kurta-pyjama with a waistcoat, but for most people the kurta has too long a tail to be a good option.

The only Indian leader who made a fashion innovation was Nehru, whose 'Nehru jacket' even invaded western fashion consciousness with its stand-up collar, but that was more winter attire and did not solve the summer problem.

Surely, in a country with such a rich variety of textile and clothing traditions, it should not be difficult for imaginative clothes designers (who seem to be a flourishing tribe) to work out a happy marriage between traditional Indian forms of dress and the contemporary context.

Anyone who does that will find many people grateful for formal release from the pressure to wear dark-coloured, stuffy clothes in a hot climate.

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