Many of the clothes that we wear at home are not appropriate for India, either in terms of the climate or in terms of the culture. As far as the culture is concerned, India is not a country where you can safely go around dressed as most of us do in the West, so it’s important to be familiar with the Indian dress code and the reasons behind it. Many styles of dress that are perfectly acceptable in the West are downright offensive to most Indians. For this reason, you’ll probably be better off buying clothes once you arrive. What a great excuse to go shopping!

Indian wedding dance. Photo: JD Viharini

Whether you believe it should or not, how you dress profoundly affects how people respond to you—and this is perhaps even more the case in India than in most other countries. Women who dress and act modestly are much more highly regarded than those who flout the cultural norms, and they are safer from sexual harassment. On the other hand, wearing clothing that is indecent by Indian standards is insulting to the culture, and it also gives men the idea that you are available for sexual favors to anyone who wants you-even if your behavior emphatically indicates the opposite.

People sometimes feel that my advice is too conservative because ‘everybody’ dresses in a certain way that is far less modest than I’ve mentioned, but on closer examination, I find that their idea of ‘everybody’ is virtually always quite limited. Context is everything and it can’t be ignored.

So who is ‘everybody’? Visitors often fail to think of the local people as part of their ‘everybody’. But it’s not just visitors. Many Indians are disinclined to include anyone belonging to classes they consider as lower than themselves. Who do you normally include as part of your ‘everybody’?

Rajasthani women in traditional dress. Photo credit: Michael Foley (Creative Commons)

People in the background of our awareness tend to be invisible to us. But, we, being outsiders, are usually not invisible to them. When I advise looking around at how the majority of locals dress, I am asking you to consider a much more inclusive set of ‘everybody’ than you may normally be inclined  to do.

It’s true that many girls and women in Mumbai and Delhi and other places that see a lot of tourists, as well as on college campuses, have taken to wearing Western clothes in ways that don’t always respect traditional values of modesty, but it’s really not acceptable to most Indians. We—especially Western women—are already at a disadvantage due to common preconceptions about foreigners, so it is much safer to dress a bit more conservatively. And don’t look to Bollywood or fashion magazines for cues on how to dress; they have nothing to do with real life.

Since standards vary from place to place, you can look around at how most of the local women dress (not the tourists), and try to cover up to a similar extent. Nevertheless, it’s essential to understand the basic Indian dress code. What kind of clothes you choose to wear is not as important as how you wear them. If you don’t want to always be thinking about what to wear, you can just follow the general guidelines below to feel comfortable virtually anywhere in India.
While it’s certainly OK to wear Western clothes almost everywhere, it’s essential to wear them in a manner that is respectful to the very modest Indian culture. However, in certain remote areas, you will be much better off adopting Indian clothes. Most Indians are much too polite to tell you to your face if you are inappropriately dressed, but they certainly notice.

Photo credit: Daniele Sartori (Creative Commons)

Basic standards of modesty all over India require that you cover your knees, upper arms, shoulders, cleavage and midriff. It’s acceptable for your midriff to be exposed when wearing a sari, but not otherwise. Shorts and short skirts are not acceptable. Underwear should always be worn discretely under your clothes where it belongs, and it should not show at all; moreover, a bra is essential unless you are as flat-chested as an eight-year old. Tops should not show your cleavage or be too tight or revealing. Leave your sheer blouses, shorts, spaghetti-strap dresses, bikinis, tank tops, etc., at home. While sleeveless tops are becoming more common in most of India’s big cities and some other locales during the hot season, in general they are not acceptable; however, short sleeves are usually OK.

When wearing pants, tunic-style tops that cover your crotch and buttocks are preferred. At home, many of us like to wear our blouses neatly tucked into jeans or slacks, but here, it’s generally better to let them hang out. One great advantage of wearing long tops is that they hide the fact that your underwear is visible through thin fabric so you can wear lightweight pants in hot weather.

Indian girls swimming at a Goa beach. Who needs a swimsuit? Photo credit: Michael Foley (Creative Commons)

If you bring a swimsuit, it should be a conservative one, no matter where you plan to wear it; a one-piece is preferable. On the way to or from the beach or pool, or whenever you are interacting with locals, put something modest on over your swimsuit. Bikinis are really not acceptable, even in Goa, where many women wear them.
In certain conservative locations and in some places of worship, you’ll also need to cover your head. Observe what the local women do, and do likewise.

Most traditional Indian clothes are much more comfortable than Western clothes, especially in the heat. Surprisingly, even in extremely hot weather, having your arms and legs covered with very light cotton actually keeps you cooler than shorts and halter tops can. The pantsuits can be as comfortable as pajamas, especially if they are made of pure cotton. They are by far the most comfortable thing to wear for overnight train journeys. But traditional Indian garments are not only comfortable, they are also beautiful—and they are far more flattering to imperfect figures than most Western styles. Even a person with a very prosperous figure, so to speak, looks much more graceful and beautiful in a sari or well-cut Punjabi dress.

And most Indians love it when you wear Indian dress because it shows your appreciation of their culture. Wearing traditional clothing also serves as a great ice-breaker; many people will comment on it, and you will find that the comments are generally very appreciative. On the other hand, it’s really not necessary to go ‘full desi’, to wear the full ensemble complete with Indian jewellery and everything, unless perhaps you are going to a fancy wedding or something. In that case, you may want to ask in advance if what you are planning to wear is appropriate anyway.

Aside from the anarkali dresses that are worn over churidhars or long skirts or sometimes salwars, long dresses are not usually worn, though long skirts with blouses and a light shawl are common in the South as well as Rajasthan and Gujarat. The loose, ankle-length dresses you see for sale everywhere are really nightgowns or house dresses. While it’s OK wear one, say, to the corner market for some milk, or while having morning chai with friends on the veranda, it’s not acceptable to wear one all day. Incidentally, those long, plain cotton ‘skirts’ that you see for sale are actually sari petticoats. They may look like long skirts, but they are undergarments that are worn under saris. If you wear one as a skirt, people are likely to make fun of you for your ignorance.

The sari, which is arguably the most beautiful style of dress in the world, is the most common form of women’s clothing; it’s worn almost everywhere in India, although it’s wrapped in different ways according to local custom. Saris are comfortable and easy to wear once you get used to them. It’s fun to learn to wrap one, and any Indian woman will be happy to show you how to do it. You can get a really beautiful sari for very little money. The sari the girl in the photo above is wearing is not an expensive one, but it looks great.

Also very popular in many areas are the various styles of pantsuits: the Punjabi suit, also called salwar (baggy pants banded at the bottom) kameez (long shirt) and churidhar (very skinny, bunched pants) kameez are the most popular. Kurta pajama (long shirt over straight-leg pants) is more commonly men’s wear, but women can also wear them. I personally prefer straight-leg pants, though narrower than the usually baggy pajama pants.

Some tribes have conventions of dress that are a radical departure from cultural norms elsewhere, but I wouldn’t advise imitating them unless you are invited to do so. Tribal dress often has subtle implications about the status of the wearer that are an essential part of a person’s identity. Putting on tribal dress could be offensive if you get it wrong. And there are some items that are only permitted to individuals of certain status.

The most essential thing to remember is that your clothing should be respectful of the culture, no matter where you are. Obviously, you can be somewhat more relaxed in some places, but don’t overdo it. Those you meet will appreciate your cultural sensitivity if you dress according to local standards.

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35 Responses

  1. Kamalee on 26 Sep 2014

    I performed for a Tamil song in beauty bridals pageant..I wear anarkali punjabi suits. then I received comments from judges that Punjabi suits not be wears for dance performance.. its is true r not true? .

    • JD Viharini on 05 Oct 2014

      It’s true that they normally aren’t traditionally worn for dance performances.

  2. Susan on 09 Aug 2014

    I am going to be traveling in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan and Nepal this winter – northwestern states and south to Pune thereafter. Much of the northern travel will be via trekking with donkeys and I will be at various elevations. I have plenty of western trekking/outdoor clothing, but want to be appropriately dressed for visits to homes, monasteries, and local businesses. Even when trekking, I would like to dress as the locals and not stand out too much – admittedly rather difficult as I am a 5’10” gray-haired 63 yr. old woman. Can you suggest appropriate attire (including typical accessories) for Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh and where I should try to purchase it. I appreciate quality textiles and construction, but am most certainly not a “woman of wealth” and do not want to appear so. Just want to blend in best as I can and not have to worry about what to wear. Many great tips on your website – thank you.

    • JD Viharini on 13 Aug 2014

      Hi Susan,
      Sounds like a fabulous trip! It seems like you want to do your shopping in advance, but I would really suggest buying your clothes once you get there, maybe a bit in each place if you have room in your bags. There could be quite a bit of difference in local attire, the main common feature being that Himalayan women tend to dress very modestly. Once you arrive, look around and see what the local women usually wear and ask someone at your guest house where to buy local clothes, or even take you shopping. That’s what I would do in your situation. The local markets should yield plenty of wonderful textiles and clothes at a reasonable cost. It’s definitely helpful to blend in as much as possible, and not dress like a clueless tourist, but of course there’s only so far you can take it. Although it doesn’t have specific clothing tips for any area, I think you might find my book, Enjoying India: Women’s Safety, quite helpful.

      • SusanName on 26 Aug 2014

        Thank you very much. I have purchased the digital version of your book “Enjoying India”, and am sure I will be referring to it often throughout my journey. Will indeed purchase locally, both to support the local economy and for the fun of it.

  3. haiza on 30 Jul 2014

    Hi i am planning to go to india to visit a friend…is it safe to visit a male friend whom i just came to know thru internet?

    • JD Viharini on 03 Aug 2014

      Meeting some guy you met online always poses a risk no matter where it is. I don’t think India is any riskier than other countries, but you should be really careful. As you know, people often misrepresent themselves online on dating sites, etc. Do remember that con artists generally make their way in the world by being charming. When you meet, do it in a public, crowded place like a restaurant (preferably not a bar). Also, be sure someone knows who you are meeting and where and when you should be back. I highly recommend that you pick up my book, Enjoying India: Women’s Safety, and follow the recommendations more conservatively than you might normally. It’s available on Amazon here.

  4. […] respect it and dress accordingly. For tips on what that means as far as women are concerned, see this post. Sometimes it does get hot here in the daytime, but dressing as if you are at the beach is not […]

  5. Shubham Saxena on 29 Apr 2014

    I am an Indian and i would like to bring this to your kind notice that..India is most Tolerable county so the never force to wear indian dress. They simpley mean that no matter whether u wear western on Inidan but it should not be vulgor and to short it must cover the private parts.

    • JD Viharini on 04 May 2014

      Well, of course no one should be forced to wear Indian dress. I’m not sure why you felt the need to make the comment.

  6. […] Can’t tell your sarees from your salwars? Don’t ask me – ask wikipedia, which knows everything, and is always accurate. Or take these wise words from JD Viharini on clothing for foreign, female travellers to India. […]

  7. ANA on 14 Jul 2013

    I will be staying 4 months in New Delhi working in a multinational company.
    I would like some advice regarding office’s dress code.

    Thanks you,

    • JD Viharini on 26 Jul 2013

      It really depends on the company so it would be good to ask them before you come. I recommend keeping it on the conservative side, in any case.

  8. Victoria on 27 Apr 2013

    Thank you so much for this article! I am traveling to India in approximately a week and will be facilitating corporate training classes. This past week I have been conducting a lot of research on dress and this was one of the better articles. I will be in New Delhi. If anyone has additional comments or input on dress in Delhi, I am open to it.

    I will be training corporate teams during the daytime and working out in a gym during my off time. Since my birthday is during my travels hopefully I can get a local to sell me an awesome birthday dress!

  9. […] you get here. Make sure you don’t buy a sari petticoat and wear it as a skirt (tip from this article at Enjoying India, which has a lot of other good advice).  I often wear a long polycotton knit […]

  10. […] your partner or someone else. And understand the local dress code, which I’ve blogged about here. How you dress does matter. Maybe it shouldn’t be anyone’s business, but the practical […]

  11. Candace Pitkin on 31 Jan 2013

    I wear a lot of lace – always with blouses or tops underneath. Also lace scarves. Is this appropriate or not. Also three quarter length trousers.

    • JD Viharini on 11 Feb 2013

      Lace is fine as long as it’s over something else that’s reasonably modest. Probably better to stick with long pants, though, at least in most places.

      • s on 24 Apr 2013

        three quarter length trousers are fine too

        • JD Viharini on 02 May 2013

          In some places they are OK, but not in more conservative areas. Depends on where you are.

        • E on 21 Mar 2014

          Definitely controversial, or just not OK some places I’ve been. It’s much more practical to have pants you can roll up.

    • Shravya on 06 Apr 2013

      Lace is fine as long as it’s modest. scarves of any kind are accepted really. Knee length trousers as casual wear is fine in urban and semi-urban places, Rural places, you can try asking the locals.

  12. Kara on 17 Jan 2013

    Greetings, what would you advise for workout clothes? I’ll be staying in the Bangalore Sheraton for several months and will want to use the gym facilities. Any advice would be appreciated! Thanks

    • JD Viharini on 11 Feb 2013

      In the Bangalore Sheraton, you won’t need to worry too much about it, but I wouldn’t walk around the hotel in short shorts. Sweats are good.

    • E on 21 Mar 2014

      Loose long track pants or yoga pants and a t-shirt with short sleeves.

  13. Angela Swann on 28 Nov 2012

    I visited India in 2009 and stayed there for 4 months. I packed very little and bought Indian clothes the day after I arrived. I purchased many salwar kameez and churidar kameez outfits. These worked out perfectly for me. I felt comfortable wherever I traveled in India, in any environment. People responded very favorably to me and were highly complimentary on my attire. I soon became addicted to the ease, beauty and color of the Indian clothing. I also bought two saris, which I wore a few times on special occasions. By the way, when I was there I saw many foreign women, such as myself, doing the same.

  14. JD Viharini on 27 Oct 2012

    It would look a bit odd most places.

  15. Gloria on 25 Jun 2012

    I have a question– would it be modest to wear a tiered skirt or a maxi skirt (either plain or decorated) in India? Or would these look too much like sari petticoats? Would these have to be patterned or decorated in some way to prove that they are not petticoats? And what about white? Do they associate relatively plain white skirts with undergarments?

    Thank you and God Bless!

    • JD Viharini on 23 Jul 2012

      Long skirts are quite acceptable and not likely to be taken for sari petticoats.

      • E on 19 Oct 2012

        In south India long skirts and a blouse are not recommended for women over about age 20. I’ve been advised to go back and change because I looked like I was dressed as a young girl. A salwar suit, or pant/ long shirt /scarf combo that looks like one seems to be appropriate in the most contexts.

        • JD Viharini on 27 Oct 2012

          That’s true, especially if you wear them in the South Indian style, with the long scarf/shawl wrapped around the body. Long skirts are more acceptable in the North. Salwar suits or kurta pajamas with scarves are acceptable almost everywhere.

    • Shravya on 06 Apr 2013

      Long (full length and 3/4th length) skirts are acceptable . I even wear some to college. Though, it’s viewed as a bit dressy if the skirt is too vibrant or messy to handle in some places (eg if it rains often), it is accepted in most informal/casual and semi-formal situations and most definitely not mistaken as a petticoat. Petticoats are pretty obvious when you observe, so it is hard to mistake it to as a skirt

  16. Maggie Ball on 06 Jun 2012

    Great advice. Been to India many times and it is so crucial to be respectful of people’s cultural and moral beliefs, habits, ideas. And yes, Sari is the most fabulous dress-flattering and gorgeous (albeit a challenge for Western women). Well written column. Namaste,

    • JD Viharini on 31 Jul 2012

      Thanks, Maggie. It always makes me happy when people really get the point.

  17. […] top (again from my Pakistani source). Skinny jeans are fine as long as you cover your butt. This site has good information for women’s dress code in India. I’ll probably buy some […]

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