What to Wear in India: 5 Tips for Travelers

Featured, India, Packing & Wardrobe — By on February 10, 2011 at 6:00 am

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As I packed for India, I had no idea what to bring for clothing. Do I need nice shoes? Can I wear shorts when it’s unbearably hot? What kind of clothes do the locals wear? I had packed a little bit of everything just to be safe, but now I have only worn about half of the clothes I brought. If you’re off to India and have the same uncertainties I had about what to wear, here are 5 tips to make outfitting your wardrobe a little easier:

1. Above all, dress modestly. It’s considered to be indecent to show very much leg or to wear an open neckline. I was surprised to learn firsthand how modest the standards are here, when my friend was asked to cover up even though her pants were rolled up only to mid-calf. Leave your shorts, skimpy tank tops, and short skirts/dresses at home, and opt for conservative, lightweight clothing that covers you up. Look for fabrics like cotton and linen that are lightweight and breathable in the heat. You’ll feel more comfortable and won’t risk offending someone or attracting leering stares.

2. Bring comfortable shoes – a pair of sandals and a pair of close-toed shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. The sandals are nice for hot weather and look better with Indian-style clothing. Close-toed shoes are a necessity if you are going anywhere with colder weather, and are good to wear on the streets to protect your feet from the dust. Bring a pair of flip-flops or slippers to wear specifically indoors, since your outdoor shoes become very dirty from dust and debris on the roads.

3. Western clothes are worn as often as Indian clothes. It’s easy to find people wearing jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, and most other Western clothes. Just make sure that what you’re wearing fits the local standards of modesty. I wear Western clothes as often as I do Indian clothes, but I make sure to cover up my legs and chest.

4. If you want to dress more like a local, try these Indian clothes:
Kurta or kurti – a long tunic, which you can buy in varying lengths and fabrics. You can buy them knee-length, mid-thigh length, or “Western cut,” which falls by the hips. This top is extremely versatile since it can be worn with leggings, salwar, or jeans. They vary in style, from casual everyday wear to flashy party wear. Kurtas are my favorite Indian clothing purchase since the length keeps me modest and the light fabric keeps me cool.
Churidar – leggings that bunch up at your ankle. They are usually worn with kurtas.
Salwar – pants with the leg loose at the top and tighter around the ankle. When you wear a long tunic with a salwar, it’s called a salwar kameez. Women often wear a long scarf around their neck, called a dupatta, with the salwar kameez.
Harem pants – loose flowing pants. The lower part of the leg is more fitted than the top, where the crotch is very baggy. My group has affectionately nicknamed them “Jasmine pants,” since they remind us of the pants that Disney’s Princess Jasmine wears.
Sari (or saree) – the traditional dress for women. It is several meters of unstitched cloth that is draped and tucked around the body. Most of the younger women I’ve encountered do not wear saris very often. The easy-to-wear kurta and churidar are a hassle-free alternative to the sari, which is complicated to wrap and wear unless you have someone to teach you.

5. Shop at markets for bargain prices. It’s easy to find clothing for 100-200 rupees ($5 or less), but it comes at the cost of low quality fabric, stray threads, and one-size-fits-all. If you have an extended stay in India or plan to wear non-Western clothes often, shop at department stores like Pantaloons or Fab India for better quality clothes that will last longer. However, don’t expect to find bargains as cheap as the markets. The department store prices will be comparable to clothing prices at home.

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  • Totally agree with the dress modestly comment, especially in the north. No bare shoulders, or even bare legs. I find Cotton T’s and linen pants are a godsend, and scarves to cover any collarbones etc are worthwhile.
    I didn’t realise how important this advice was, as I kept thinking how can I dress modestly in the heat, but it really is necessary.
    Thanks for a great article 🙂

  • Amit says:

    Good advice, if you do not want to try the traditional Indian attire, any western dress not exposing your shoulders or legs should qualify you to a hassle free journey.
    Agree with your 5 points totally!

  • Great tips and information on clothing, thank you 🙂 This will come in very helpful for my trip to India in two weeks!

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