When it comes to her attire, Geetha Manohar is a rare Canadian whose choice is not dictated by the weather. Every morning, through bone-numbing winters and sweltering summers, she turns up at her downtown Toronto office in a sari.
“This is what I am most comfortable in. It is decent and suits me,” says the administrative supervisor at the Centre for Addiction And Mental Health (CAMH), who was born and raised in India and now calls Toronto home. As a new immigrant, she wore western attire to work, but was never that comfortable. So her first question when CAMH offered her a permanent job was: “Can I wear a sari to work?”
While it’s understandable that Manohar is more comfortable in a garment she grew up wearing, Bhavani Subramanian’s love for salwar kameezes might seem more unusual. Despite arriving in Canada as a 1-year-old, Subramanian is as comfortable in the ensemble as in Western attire, and wears each for about half the year. After layering up all winter, she looks forward to warmer weather and come spring, her colourful salwar kameezes emerge from the closet.
“The convenience of hanging it in the closet, suitability to the weather and that it is a decent outfit is a good enough reason to wear it to work,” says this accountant at Brydson Group’s Elmswood Spa. In fact, she says, the outfits have elicited only compliments from colleagues, and she wears them to board meetings too, without raising any eyebrows.
Customers at Royal Bank of Canada’s Finch and McCowan branch are used to dealing with a few salwar kameez-clad client service representatives. In fact, “some clients identify with me as they know I speak Punjabi,” says representative Saroj Bhatia. An RBC employee for 18 years, Bhatia has worn Indian attire to work for more than a decade. Indian clothing “is so much more colourful” and “looks good on me,” she explains.
As Toronto’s landscape becomes increasingly multi-hued, workplaces are reflecting a sartorial change. And South Asians who wear their ethnic attire to work see themselves as reflective of Canada’s changing complexion.
According to the 2006 census, South Asians have emerged as the largest immigrant group in Canada, numbering 1.3 million. And for many, ethnic clothes are a bridge to their cultures.
Often, wearing ethnic-specific dress is an expression of one’s identity. And some organizations are making room to accommodate such expression. “CAMH is a very multicultural organization with a multicultural staff,” says Harriet Ekperigin, a manager at CAMH. “Diversity is very important to us and we train our new staff about how to approach people of different backgrounds – both client and staff. I see people around town in different attires and, as long as the attire is appropriate, I think there is room to incorporate culture in what we wear.”
For customer-oriented organizations like RBC, for instance, recognition of diversity makes business sense. At Chinese New Year, staff shopped for Chinese jackets, and saris and salwar kurtas are ubiquitous during RBC’s celebration of South Asian heritage in May.
Initially, Mariyam Bunkei’s salwar kurtas made a tentative appearance only on such occasions. In her decade-long stint with RBC, Bunkei always wore western clothes, but after she moved to the Finch and McCowan branch, she was inspired by Bhatia to wear ethnic clothes. Bunkei’s ensembles, sourced from Pakistan, are now a regular sight at the branch.
“Diversity is one of RBC’s core values,” says Alexis Mantell, manager at RBC’s public affairs and media relations department. “The fact that they (Bhatia and Bunkei) can dress as they wish goes to testimony of the importance for us of diversity.” With the bank expanding its branches across the GTA, Mantell says, “we make sure our employees reflect the clients we serve.”
This approach reflects changing attitudes in workplaces. Cynthia Reyes, co-founder and vice-president of DiversiPro Inc., a Toronto-based consulting firm specializing in diversity, says, “as organizations become more culturally competent, they are allowing their employees to wear certain clothes, so long as it does not pose a safety risk on the job or conflict with the image the company is trying to project to its customers.” And at the same time, she adds, “as more and more Canadians become comfortable in their skins, they are outwardly expressing their ethnicity by wearing particular clothing.”
Barely six months into her new life in Canada, Shashi Srinivisan started wearing salwar kameezes to work. “I was told the very first day at my office in the editorial department of Hollinger Publications that I could wear clothes I was comfortable in and that encouraged me to wear salwar kameez. And I have been wearing them ever since,” she says. In the summer, she switches to crisply starched and ironed cotton saris.
For Chandni Ganesh, wearing Indian attire fostered a connection, but not just with her culture. While teaching at a school with many South Asian students, Ganesh often wore salwar kurtas. “When they see somebody from their country wearing ethnic clothes, they feel comfortable and also look at you as a role model. And you in turn feel okay doing it because it makes the children happy.” Now at a new school, she regularly combines kurtas with dress pants.
Reyes says blending cultural or religious dress with more traditional corporate wear is growing more common. So beyond combining Muslim, Jewish or Sikh religious head coverings with a suit, she says, “a man may decide to wear an African top or a kurta with dress pants a woman may decide to integrate a Chinese silk blouse or a jacket into her outfit.”
Wearing different clothing, says Ekperigin, makes you stand out in a positive way but one has to be prepared also to deal with the curiosity and conversation it invites. At times, standing out can raise acceptance issues. Some desis Desi Life spoke with said they abandoned the ethnic ensemble experiment, not due to disparaging comments but to subtle signals that they did not understand the workplace culture.
It is this apprehension about fitting in at an organization that keeps many visible minorities from experimenting with ethnic-specific attires – especially in the corporate sector. “I think it is a negotiation between cultures,” Reyes says. “Every organization has a certain brand and some brands are clearly not expressing cultural diversity, while some are. I think it is one of those things that will evolve bit by bit in the Canadian workplace.”
Early this year, South Asians shoppers at select Wal-Mart stores saw a familiar dress from “back home.” Hanging on a swivel stand in the women’s section were salwar kurtas with hand-sewn stone and bead embellishments. The Bollywood Signature collection is part of the company’s program called Store of the Community.
Says Karin Campbell, manager of corporate affairs, “We look to carry merchandise that reflects the communities and neighbourhoods we serve. The belief here is that in order to be successful as a company we need to understand the communities we serve and in this case it is the South Asian customers. The stores that carry Bollywood Signature have South Asian population and we wanted to bring merchandise that reflects their customs and traditions.”
The line was introduced in February and is available at stores in Brampton, Etobicoke, Vaughan, Mississauga, Scarborough and Markham. The response has been good, says Campbell. Considering that uniqueness is a hallmark of this ethnic attire, it will be interesting to see whether an assembly line ensemble will strike a note with consumers.
Wal-Mart also introduced a selection of more than 50 Bollywood DVD titles in its stores nationally. In recent months, says Campbell, the company has launched various Store of the Community programs geared to other communities.
Reference: Toronto Star