How to dress up like an NGO worker?

Thanks to field visits and conferences, I have realised that most of us working in NGOs in India tend to a follow a similar dress code.

This dress code is functional and efficient because of the nature of work NGOs do. From inhospitable terrains to international conferences in posh venues, an NGO worker has to be prepared. This balance is a little tricky for women, so here’s my short guide to get that NGO worker look right.


Photo Courtesy: CORO India

Cotton: Cotton is your to-go fabric. It’s breathable and will keep you cool during the protest marches, field visits and heated arguments in panel discussions. In the photo above, I had jumped off the stage to sit on it. Only a cotton kurta can offer you that flexibility!

Dupatta: Keep a light dupatta (scarf) handy. It will save your hair and face from dust and sunlight. During sudden field visits, you can also drape it around your short top to look a little ‘sanskari.

Skirts and dresses: Skirts and dresses aren’t a good option during field work, but I keep some for those desk work days. If you are going to an international conference please get something made in handloom fabric.

I got a knee length dress made from Karbi fabric. I wore it to a conference in Berlin and also met the Foreign Minister of Germany. Here’s the photo of that dress. I love it and wear it to promote handloom from northeast India.

That’s me ( first row, 2nd from left) in my Karbi handloom dress. Photo: Westerwelle Foundation

Shoes: Forget high heels in India. I once wore heels and that was the day my office sent me for a visit to a village. It started raining and the heels kept getting stuck in the mud. So, avoid heels just like Superman avoids Kryptonite.

Functional foot wear matters. The kind which you can wear to a village focus group discussion and also to a meeting with the Social Justice Minister.


Bags: I have no idea why most activists carry flimsy jholas. I carry large bags with loads of pockets. My bag can accommodate a laptop, an umbrella, a small water bottle, three notebooks and the Universe.

Jewellery: A friend of mine in university decided to wear jewel encrusted sunglasses and flashy earrings to interview the doms of Banaras. Her choice was a little out of place given that there were dead bodies all around and people were in mourning. So, sometimes it’s a bad idea to go blingy and wear chunky earrings to field work.

Geek glasses: Wear a pair of thick rimmed spectacles when you are sitting on a panel or going to a tough meeting. It goes well with the overall seriousness of such events.

Photo: Westerwelle Foundation


When I am in office I take the liberty to put on my red lipstick because it makes me feel happy like the Pharrell Williams song.

However, I avoid makeup completely if I am going out on field work.

My first job was in an NGO in Ranchi and I don’t put that work experience on my CV. My then boss once remarked, “Mayuri, you are serious about your job and not like other girls in office. You don’t put makeup.

Duh! That’s the curse of being a female professional. By default it is assumed that you will be an underperformer, so you have to slog it out extra hard. Even if you are sleep deprived after filling out those reports you will be judged for your choice of dress & makeup (or no makeup). It’s true for every sector and unfortunately NGOs in India which are supposed to champion women’s rights can also be misogynistic. No wonder the gender wage gap in the social sector is as high as 22.6%.

There is no makeup which can hide this ugly fact.

I love working in the NGO sector and it is time to introspect. If we talk about women empowerment let us also practice it in our offices.

Till we fix this wage gap, let the dress code of our mind be combat gear complete with aviator glasses.

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