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!
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’?
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.
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.
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.