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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.