Western wear is becoming increasingly popular among women in India in not only the big cities but also in smaller towns. According to management consultancy firm Technopak Advisors, the $14 billion women’s wear market in India is seeing a significant shift. While traditional-style clothing, which currently dominates much of this market, is growing at 9 to 10%, Western-style clothing is growing at double the rate at around 18%.
Talking to daily newspaper Times of India recently, Sharad Mehra, a senior vice-president at Technopak Advisors, noted that, “Western outfits offer comfort, utility, ease and a complete new fashion so more [Indian] women are expected to Westernize their wardrobes. This is not only true of women [under 25], but is as relevant for the older age group as well.”
Recent media reports suggest that modern retailers are stocking up as much as 50% of their shelf space with Western-style clothing. “There are sections of women consumers who wear Western clothes four to five times a week, while others like to wear them two to three times a week,” Arun Sirdheshmukh, chief executive of Reliance Trends, said in a recent media interview.
So what is driving this new trend? Multiple socio-economic factors seem to be at play: The country’s sizable younger population; a growing middle class; increasing globalization and exposure to global trends through electronic media and the Internet; stronger economic independence of women, and growth of the retail sector making Western attire more affordable and accessible.
Nirmala Menon, founder and CEO of Interweave Consulting, a Bangalore-based firm that focuses on diversity management and inclusiveness in the workplace, believes that it’s a strong reflection of women’s empowerment. “Thanks to the British rule and its influence, Western clothes were largely seen as the privilege of the upper crust. Indians who wore Western clothes were immediately associated with a lifestyle and mindset that was upwardly mobile,” she noted. “Today, there is far wider acceptance of Western wear …, especially in the middle and lower income group families and in smaller towns. With the Indian middle class growing more confident … Western wear is a declaration of independence.”
According to Satyajit Majumdar, a professor at the School of Management and Labor Studies of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, this trend in clothing is a subset of larger social phenomena. “Society is now more open to women making choices which were earlier not considered favorably. For instance, girls are now moving to different cities for higher [education] or career opportunities, and taking up independent accommodation if hostel facilities are not available.”
He points to another aspect. “As individuals, [Indians] are now becoming more sensitive to the concept of the ‘self’. This includes various aspects like looks, health, clothing and lifestyle. So all businesses which cater to this notion of the ‘individual’ and the ‘self’ are getting more pronounced in the market.”
Rajeev Gowda M.V., chairperson of the Centre for Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, adds that wearing Western outfits — be it uniforms in schools or as dress code in the private sector — is seen “as the ability to engage with the English-speaking world and the ability to be part of the globalized world.”
Gowda is dismissive of fears among some sections of Indian society that foreign dress codes and cuisines and lifestyles will corrode the Indian culture. “I don’t see any cultural invasion happening. These are natural progressions and we in fact have an amazing ability to ‘Indianize’ everything.”
Indeed, one only has to look at the way international food brands like McDonald’s and KFC or media like MTV and Channel V have adapted themselves to cater to the tastes of Indian consumers. “What I see happening going forward is more a fusion of cultures than any one culture dominating another. In the long run I believe that people will accept whatever is relevant to them,” says Majumdar.