At the 2011 World Economic Forum summit in Davos, Switzerland, a European journalist looking to identify Chanda Kochhar, managing director and CEO, ICICI Bank, was told that she would be “the only woman at the Congress Hall who’d be in a saree”. Kochhar is among the few business leaders known to take their sarees along on overseas trips.

“At an international event, a woman wearing something of her national origin gives a message that she is socially and emotionally secure,” says fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee. “It also signifies that she draws strength from her roots and there is a quiet arrogance that creeps in.”

Although the saree has been an integral part of Indian clothing for centuries—both as formal and casual wear—it is the dedicated patronage from women in power, despite the growing Western influences on officewear, that has made it a powerful style statement. Think Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance, in her Bhagalpur silks and Andhra khadi, or Shikha Sharma, MD and CEO, Axis Bank, in her Patan Patolas. However ordinary they might appear, it would be naïve to think that the look isn’t well-crafted. Mukherjee calls it “inverted snobbery”.

Sarees at a ghat in benares.
Sarees at a ghat in benares.

Wearing a saree to work today is more than just style. Sujata Keshavan, co-founder, Ray+Keshavan, a Bangalore-based graphic design agency, says: “All sartorial cues are an extension of the brand that you are.” Manisha Girotra, head of UBS in India, adds that wearing a saree conveys seriousness and stature. “It’s almost like a uniform in the banking world, much like the Indian woman’s equivalent of the Wall Street banker’s pinstripe,” says Girotra, who buys from designer Anamika Khanna and the brand Raw Mango.

Mukherjee explains that since Indians have grown up with strong images of women in sarees—be it their mothers or school teachers—a woman walking into a boardroom draped in a saree automatically commands respect.

In fact, for Suvalaxmi Chakraborty, CEO of State Bank of Mauritius’ Indian operations, a saree is part of the preparation for an important meeting. “I sometimes feel I’m the second best if I haven’t worn a saree for a formal meeting,” she says. She credits her years at ICICI Bank, “watching senior colleagues such as Kalpana Morparia and Lalita Gupte conducting themselves so gracefully in a saree”, for shaping her preferences.

While Keshavan says “you cannot go wrong in a saree—it brings such a gravitas to the wearer”, there are some unwritten rules regarding the ideal saree for work. It’s almost always a silk saree for Morparia, who is careful to pick corporate colours such as black, blue, grey, or maroon when hosting formal events that involve foreigners. Puneet Nanda, MD and creative director, Genesis Colors, and designer at Satya Paul, says more conservative fabrics without overt embellishments do well in corporate settings. The well-starched cotton sarees that Sharma wears would fit the description, as would handloom drapes. A French chiffon paired with a string of pearls—a style epitomised by the late Maharani Gayatri Devi—is also a popular choice among women business leaders.

For Mukherjee it’s not just the fabric that delivers the power punch, but also the weave and the patterns. He says: “One great saree for workwear is the Pattu from Kanchipuram. These are usually woven in solid colours, with geometrical patterns, and give a clean look.” Sarees from Kotpad in Orissa and the North East also tend to have a severity and architectural quality that go well in the corporate sector, he adds.

So what’s the ultimate power saree? “A Patan Patola is one of the most powerful sarees you can wear to an international event,” says Mukherjee. This saree has an esoteric weave that sometimes requires over a hundred hours to make and can cost up to Rs 2.5 lakh.

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