How to Dress for Travel in India

Agra
Agra

Millions travel to India every year. Millions of women travel to the nation as well. For those of us who did not grow up within the cultures of India, and especially women like me who grew up with certain Western customs of dress, adapting to the way women dress in India can be confusing and difficult. So many jewels, so many markings, so much fabric!

While I was there for two months this year I spent a lot of time, a decent amount of money, and a load of my boyfriend’s patience on the attempt to dress appropriately as a conscious tourist. More than a few women I saw travelling in India were inappropriately dressed; modesty and women’s behaviour are governed by vastly different rules than in the US or Europe. Yet the ones I saw attempting a sari and bindi combination or dressed like their interpretation of a “gypsy” seemed hackneyed or culturally imperialistic.

The suggestions below are by no means unbreakable. It’s difficult to walk the line between cultural propriety and overselling one’s understanding of a culture not one’s own, but I hope that my outfits for India made valiant attempts. Panajim

Kurtas (koor-tahs) are a type of shirt favoured by most young women in India. The fabric is loose, generally of linen or cotton, and flows around the waist and hips. The idea is to obscure your butt and your female shape as much as possible. This one from Panaji is a bit short by Indian standards.

Batheri

India is ridiculously hot. But boobs, especially those of my size, are a liability. If you are female and planning to travel in India, pack a lot of scarves and be prepared to buy a few more on the way. Most of the time I wore mine over the shoulders as shown, which is how the women wore theirs. Other variations included straight down over the boobage, wrapped around my shoulders in shawl style, or over my head and shoulders like in the first photo of this post.

Scarves significantly reduce the staring, comments, and not-so-sneaky photos with which men  will inevitably bother you. Learning to wear one as part of a traditional ensemble was key to my ability to walk into the streets with less worry.

Taj fashion

Since you’ll be wearing a lot of scarves to obscure your female bits, you can coordinate with your bottoms and make an ensemble like the ones local women wear. Above is one of my improvised salwar kameez outfits, the preferred uniform for young women. Leggings or baggy pajama pants, preferably in cotton or some other light fabric, a longer kurta, and a matching scarf. The pants always match the scarf, and the shirt often seemed to clash as much as humanly possible with the others.

Jaipur

I spent most of the two months in India swimming in fabric. If you are female, I suggest you do the same. In many of the more touristed areas Western women could get away with wearing less than Indian women, but in areas off the beaten trail it is important to have layers of fabric between you and the world of India. Skintight anything is not appropriate, unless it’s leggings under a long shirt or dress.

Kochi

The photo above was taken in Fort Kochi, a city in South India. It is a tourist hub, and more forgiving when it comes to styles of clothing that would be taboo in cities three hours from there. Yet even there, I would not have felt comfortable in shorts. TMI ahead: I did not shave for two months while in India, and part of the reason was that bare legs are unacceptable. However beastly they got, I kept them safely covered in long skirts, baggy pants, and leggings.

Don’t expect to get tan in India if you are female.

Dutch Palace

Wearing bright colours is key to most Indian women’s style, and fun to incorporate into an otherwise stifling travel wardrobe. It’s telling, in a way. Women’s clothing is so restrictive and modest in India, but is as bright as gemstones and often covered in sequins. Embrace this. It’s the only fashion freedom you’re likely to have.

Mind you, it was 41 C outside
Mind you, it was 41 C outside

Be prepared for expectations to shift at a moment’s notice, and to vary widely by city and by state. India is not a homogeneous culture, contrary to popular belief. In some places, Indian style clothing may look idiotic on a non-Indian woman. In others, it may be expected that you cover every inch. Be flexible, and keep your scarves handy for sudden changes in propriety/comfort.

Let’s review:

#1 Kurtas are your best friend.
#2 Scarves. Scarves. Scarves.
#3 Matchy Matchy = Improvised Salwar Kameez
#4 Baggy is best.
#5 Cover your legs, butt, shoulders, chest, waist, and occasionally your head. 
#6 Be prepare to sweat your face off constantly. 
#7 Change your clothes as circumstances change. 
 

There is a whole set of issues that go with the way women are expected to dress in India. A whole set of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad issues. But that’s another post.

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Fashion Interlude

13 Comments

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  1. Coleen, This is a brilliant post! Your combination of cultural sensitivity, fashion sense, and travel savvy are a joy. I traveled to India when I was living and working in Khartoum, Sudan. Both are very modest places, so I dressed the way you recommend and it worked well. Thanks for this great insight and advice. All the best, Terri

    • Thanks so much! I was very sick of scarves by the end of my time in India, but luckily the chilly weather here in England has allowed me to like them again. Your blog is really beautiful and interesting! I hope we both follow each other some more.

  2. This is all great advice! I also ADORE your outfit with the yellow kurta, brown leggings, and boots 🙂

  3. Thanks for reminding me why being a male makes the closet less complicated and one’s clothes less daunting to figure out in general.

  4. So cute! i’m not yet planning a trip to India, but when I do, I’ll have to reference back when I am.

    • You may want to check out my other posts about India as well…I found it to be a bit of a travel let-down. It’s different for everyone, and I’m still happy that I went, but I might suggest other places to go before India if you have travel itchiness on your hands.

  5. As a Western Sikh I suggest that kurtas are not your best friend unless you really like them. I don’t think it is necessary to dress local, simply modify your clothes to meet local standards. IMO wearing a sari or kurta pijami or salwar is cultural tourism and can be offensive if not accompanied by an understanding of why those clothes are worn and how to wear them in an appropriate way. Long loose fitting shirts are your best friend, in whatever color(s) you enjoy (just not transparent). Loose fitting pants are fine too (underline and bold!) and I want to stress that IMO leggings are a no (and please NO churiadors unless you really know how to pair them up with appropriate kurta) unless only used under a long dress (below the knee). You may often need to sit on the ground so covering the thighs is important. Practice sitting cross legged in your clothes and see if your thighs are covered. I would also suggest covering arms to a few inches above the elbow, rather than sleeveless or very short sleeve. I do wholeheartedly agree with you about the use of scarves and think you show wonderful use of them in your pictures.

    • I certainly saw that Western women in India who attempted to wear a sari or a full salwar looked somewhat out of place, and I agree that the attempt to dress appropriately when entering a culture very different from my own was fraught with inevitable appropriation of some kind. However, I also noticed that when we were in less-touristed areas I was much more comfortable wearing a Coleen-ified version of a salwar or churiador, which I purchased locally with the advice of women from the area. It’s interesting that you say leggings are a no, because that’s exactly what local women in more than one Indian city advised me to wear! I suppose that like all cultural practices, it varies.

      The intention of the person also matters. I was not attempting to be Indian. I never could fit in, truly. I was attempting to dress like I had noticed that women dressed differently in India. Let me assure you, many Western women I met were not even trying to do so (and then complaining nonstop about how much attention they got). It may not be strictly necessary to dress “local,” but it felt best to me.

      Thank you for the insight!

  6. Loved your idea for a blog. I have started my own blog on Orissa, India. Please do visit and give your feedback.
    http://anurag3009.wordpress.com/

  7. This is really a great article for those women who travel India from other countries and don’t know about the Indian fashion. Yes,I agree that Kurtas are your best friend. These days, Kurtas become famous dress in India. Girls like to wear kurtas with jeans and leggings.

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