Suit Or Sari? On Professionalism And ‘Ethnic’ Dressing

By Guest Contributor Sayantani DasGupta, cross-posted from Stories Are Good Medicine

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 kameesedupatta, 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.

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  • Darren Nealy

    Thank you for this article. I plan to share this with law students at my university as we prepare for a program about these kinds of issues. It will be our second time conducting the program (which we call “Legal Assimilation”).

    Your thoughts will provide a wonderful springboard for an engaging discussion!

  • TeakLipstickFiend

    Thank you. I am often thankful that I work somewhere I don’t need to wear a suit. A woman wearing a sari at a podium might get a different reaction, depending on the situation, but from me it would be a positive one. However, in the end, my reaction would come down to what she said, rather than what she wore.

    But a revolution in “professional” clothing and general styling would be welcome, for both women and men. I often feel sorry for men who feel obliged, for professional reasons, to wear a suit on a hot day.

  • Sarah Hannah Gomez

    Alchemist beat me to the comparison I was going to make, but I still wanted to pop in to say great piece, good points, I wish I knew what to do! I’m lucky enough to be in grad school now and be able to wear a variety of things, and as a future librarian (even if I don’t want to work in a library, per se), I think I’ll be able to continue wearing whatever I want, doing my hair however I want, etc without my professional peers taking issue. After all, librarians make a big deal of being seen as quirky individuals, not tight-bunned sissies. And while this isn’t entirely comparable to you as I don’t really belong to a culture that has a particular traditional type of clothing, I do worry about the fact that my body has proportions that make it that I sometimes have to wear clothes that seem to shout out what group I’m in (i.e. if you have a butt, sometimes you just have to wear Apple Bottoms; when you have large breasts, nearly everything makes you look like Pamela Anderson) and I’m going to have to face similar conundrums.

    Anyway, mostly just wanted to say go you, respek, and solidarity! hehe.

  • Montclair Mommy

    “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.” I agree.

    • Anonymous

      I would disagree. People respond to all sorts of cues, and putting on a suit is a way to slip past one of their filters. This doesn’t mean that anyone should put on a suit for that reason, but there are certainly degrees of prejudice and bigotry (hence the disparities in sentencing for black people with different skin tones), and a brown person in a suit signals something different from a brown person in non-Western dress. Putting on a suit, straightening our hair, wearing studs instead of hoops – none of these things eliminates bigotry, but they can do a decent job of fooling gatekeepers at times.

      • Dot

        Agree with you brownmichelle. Arguably one of the biggest social cues (appearance/outfit/hair aside) would be accent and voice. A brown person in a suit with an ‘Indian’ accent would signal something different to a suited brown person with a New England accent or a sari-wearer with a Southern accent or even a brown shalwar-kameez wearer with a Parisian accent- they’d be received/coded slightly differently.

  • Anonymous

    A text that may be relevant to this article is Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress, edited by Sandra Niessen, Ann Marie Leshkowich & Carla Jones. It touches on issues of dress and cultural/national identity in an increasingly Westernized Asia, and the ways in which Asians’ stylistic choices reflect complex geopolitical histories of colonialism and globalization.

  • miga

    This was a really thoughtful piece. Have you/can you show it to the lecturer? It’d be really interesting to read a followup piece on what she has to say in response.

  • Sayantani DasGupta

    thanks for the comment Alchemist – I agree absolutely that the issue of ‘natural’ hair and professionalism is very relevant here. (I’m sure you must have seen this photoshopped image of Michelle Obama with a natural hairstyle and read the discussions around it: I think also related is wearing hijab – particularly in places like France that have actually banned it in public spaces like schools.


    This reminds me of black women being told that our straightened hair is not professional and presentable by other blacks and non-blacks. I consider “professional” code for white and middle class.

    • Mickey

      Do you mean hair that is not straightened?