What to wear in India
Everyone has an opinion on what women should wear in India. Scratch that, people have an opinion on what women should wear regardless of the continent they happen to be standing on. Even back home, in the United States, this seems to be the never-ending great debate. What’s modest to one person can be judged as completely scandalous by another even within the same country or state so let’s move on.
I’ve been living in India for 2 years now. Prior to moving here, I had visited 3 times with each trip ranging from 3-6 weeks. I have traveled within India both before and after I had kids. Most importantly, I’m a woman. As you are probably aware, female travelers stress (often way too much) about what to wear. Parents also stress about how to dress their kids while traveling. We want to be comfortable but we also want to respect local culture and not stand out more than we have to in a crowd. I’ve been there. I’ll be sharing my personal experiences and observations on what to wear in India. My experience is also based on conversations I have had with my local Indian friends & family members as well as other foreigners living in India on what to wear in India. I am going to disappoint you a bit because I flat out refuse to dictate how other women should dress, that’s your business. I will share with you how I choose to dress and what I commonly see. The rest is up to you.
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India does not live up to its ultra-conservative dress reputation
Two days ago someone asked me if they could wear a capped-sleeve shirt in India, Last week it was “Can I show my calves?” While India may have an ultra-conservative reputation, in reality, it doesn’t live up to all that. That’s not to say it never has, my first trip 11 years ago, yes. I wouldn’t opt to wear some of the things I do know out in public. The thing is, India is changing and growing at unprecedented rates and I promise you, things are very different these days.
What to wear in India: Major Cities and Tourist Sites
Tee-Shirts and Blouses
Any style of tee shirt or blouse is fine. Indian tops are often 3/4 sleeves but because they are made of lightweight cotton they are still a great option for India’s hot summers. Some people are careful not to wear tight shirts, I usually don’t stress too much about that as long as I am comfortable.
Sleeveless tops are very commonly worn but generally, the straps are wide. Spaghetti straps not so much. If you go shopping for Indian tops you’ll find a lot of sleeveless options. I went to dinner the other night and only because someone had just asked me about capped sleeved shirts, I noticed that besides myself, there was literally only one other person in the wearing in short sleeves. Everyone else was in sleeveless tops or dress. I mean it was 8 pm and still 92 degrees out, what did I expect?
Crop tops are popular in India. Since traditional Indian clothing such as the sari involves a crop top and long skirt it’s not considered (generally) to be immodest especially when paired with long bottoms. Saris do have a cover from shoulder to opposite hip though so not everyone will approve with the new modern twist of “wearing it bare” so to speak.
With the exception of event and beachwear, significant cleavage isn’t really seen (barely there cleavage is though, you can leave the turtlenecks at home) so save it for when you have a wedding or party to attend, even then it’s always best to know your audience.
Historically, bare legs are more risque than bare midriffs in India (again think to what a sari shows). Anywhere you go, regardless of the temperature outside, most people will be wearing long bottoms (jeans, linen pants, skirts, wide leg pants, etc.) it’s not necessarily because of their views on what’s modest though. Long bottoms are practical for the climate. Long, loose, cotton pants are great for humid weather, offers sun protection and keeps mosquitos from biting. Winters in the north are chilly, so jeans are obviously great for warmth too.
Mid-thigh to knee length shorts are relatively common I feel very comfortable wearing them on a daily basis. I have never seen anyone out and about in booty shorts though so definitely leave those at home or save them for the beach.
Dresses and Skirts
Dresses and skirts are worn all the time. As commonly as long pants. Most people keep the length to knee length or longer, I’ve seen shorter, it’s just not common.
Leggings & Yoga Pants
I keep hearing people say leggings shouldn’t be worn unless the butt is covered. They say it’s a shape thing like seeing curves makes other people go crazy because they can’t control themselves or something. I really don’t know about all that, but still, leggings as pants seem to be a pretty hot topic everywhere. Leggings are not all created equal though, some are basically less see-through tights. These I personally would never wear them without a long top anywhere in the world, I just don’t like the look. This type you may want to only wear with a long top in India.
Others are thicker performance fabrics that fit about the same as a pair of tight jeans (which you will see everywhere) some people differentiate this type as “yoga pants” while others lump them in with leggings. Like many people in India, I have worn yoga pants (without a long top) out in public while running errands (malls, grocery stores, yoga class, etc) and at many tourists sites and on outdoor hikes. And well, no one cares. If there is going to be enough walking and climbing stairs to equal a workout, I might as well dress like it. I don’t even get a second glance and I have the photos to prove it.
I have paid attention and I get the same amount and type of attention whether I am wearing mid-thigh shorts and a tee shirt or wide legged pants with a long, loose Indian top.
What shoes to wear in India
Streets can be dusty and dirty so when I am wandering about I wear tennis shoes. If I am going to an operating temple I wear a pair of sturdy, supportive sandals that are easy to remove and don’t take up a lot of space in my bag. My all-time favorite brand is OluKai a Hawaiian company that makes sandals with tennis shoe base and are designed to go in and out of the water. Bottom line, bring comfortable shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy.
What to wear in India: Rural Areas – off the beaten tourist path
Many rural areas ARE ultra conservative in their dress. Locals will usually be wearing a skirt that goes to their ankles and a short sleeved top. I follow suit and wear long bottoms (usually pants) and short sleeved or a longer top. Odds are, you will not be visiting rural areas during a short stay anyway so I wouldn’t stress.
Can I Wear Traditional Indian Clothing?
Yes! Absolutely. India does not believe in cultural isolation. They know their culture is amazing and want to share every bit of it with the world – including their latest fashions. I get compliments from locals all the time when I or my kids are in traditional clothing. There isn’t anything you can’t wear but there are things that are not appropriate for the setting, for example, you should wear bright colors for Diwali celebrations (no black, white or cream) while white is preferred for Holi (so the color shows best) but even those rules are pretty soft.
I always say Indian women are geniuses because only they can look that good while feeling that comfortable. I swear, I feel like I’m wearing pajamas but certainly don’t look like it. Also, from jeggings to harem pants, almost every pair that you will find here has pockets – even the dresses and skirts often have pockets! I do feel like Indian pants are less durable than a good pair of jeans though, which I why I usually wear jean pants or shorts at tourists sites. That way I can kneel in the dirt to take photos or play on the grass with my kids.
India is diverse
Just like other countries one state can socially and politically be very different than others. Visiting Jammu and Kashmir is a completely different experience than visiting Goa. In general, you can show more skin in southern states (again we’re talking about major metros) than northern ones. If you’re visiting a beach town in southern India you can dress just like you would in any beach town in the US or Europe but you do have to wear something.
You have to wear something
I’ve had a few European friends complain about how “weird people are about nudity here.” Although nudity is illegal in India there are apparently a handful of small, secluded nude beaches if that’s your thing. (obviously not one is endorsing this because it violates local laws) I like my kids in swimsuits but in southern beach towns, you will see a few kids swimming in their birthday suits from time to time.
What to wear in India when visiting an operating temple
If you are visiting an operating temple, wear long pants or a skirt and bring a stool (wide-scarfs, readily available in India) to cover your head if required – not all temples require this but I prefer to have my own head cover so I don’t have to wear the one they provide. I also recommend you bring a bag large enough to put your shoes in as some spiritual sites require that you remove them. There’s a spot for you to place them outside but there have been instances of theft. Just be sure to double check online to ensure bags are allowed inside a few places have very strict security guidelines – most of the time though, a woman’s purse is not taken from her (male security guards won’t even look inside) so you can place your shoes in there.
Tip: Always carry a stool, scarf or sarong
Always carry a sarong or lightweight stole around in case you get cold, want to cover-up or to easily switch up your outfit for better vacation photos.
What I wear on travel days
For travel days, I usually wear leggings and a kurta or loose cotton shirt – this is in every country because its the most comfortable I can get without looking like a slob.
What to wear to celebrations or weddings In India
It’s really hard to overdress for events, especially in north India. I once almost showed up to a two-year-olds birthday party in jeans and a tee shirt (gasp!) a friend advised me to that I would be way underdressed so I wore a simple skirt and blouse. I was still WAY underdressed. Unless the celebration states that you should wear western wear you should wear traditional Indian clothing. So embrace the experience with beautiful Indian clothing and pile on some gorgeous Indian jewelry!
Where to shop for clothing in India
Pack light so you can buy Indian clothing to wear around and take home. Cotton Kurtas are great because they are comfortable, lightweight and breathable. Indo-western brands are a blend of Indian and western and you can wear these styles anywhere in the world and feel comfortable.
My favorite store is Anokhi. The make Indo-western clothing in colorful prints. They actually have a hand block printing museum in Jaipur you can visit. Most of the clothing they sell is easy to care for (machine washable, etc.). They have adorable kid options as well. Everyone I have gifted a top to has asked for more. My other favorite store is Global Desi. They call their style “boho chic”. Finally, you can’t go wrong at Fabindia. All of these brands are high quality and meant to last they’re also a bit pricey. If you’re looking for more affordable options, be sure to check out some roadside shops or visit a local Mela (craft fair) or bazaar. For tips on how to haggle in India, click here.
If you’re shopping for an event ask a fellow shopper if your choice is appropriate for the event I’m usually told my first choice isn’t fancy enough. Be sure to mention the exact ceremonies you will be attending. The wedding ceremony is the fanciest but you’ll need additional outfits for each event you will attend. Just shopping for event wear in India is a cultural experience not be missed and fellow shoppers will be more than happy to take part in it with you.
Always dress for the weather
Wear what you’re comfortable in and dress for the weather. Summers (in most regions) are VERY hot, so pack summer clothes and breathable fabrics. Winters in Delhi are chilly so bring a sweater and light jacket. In the far north and mountainous regions, you may need snow gear so be sure to check the forecast.
What to wear when the air is polluted in India.
Northern India is home to some of the most polluted cities on the planet. Heavy pollution sets in November and lasts through January (depending on the weather patterns). Pollution can also be experienced during other months as well. For example, this year the second half Jan was great but now into Feb, the levels are back at dangerous levels. So that means the must-have winter accessory in northern India is an anti-pollution face mask. They are very effective at removing 99.9% of pollutants when worn correctly. You can find them in child and toddler sizes as well!
How kids should dress in India
kids can wear anything they want anywhere in India. For advice on exploring India with a baby or toddler in tow, click here.
How Men should dress in India
Haha, just kidding.
How to Dress India: Final Notes
Well, that’s it. In the end, the most important thing is to wear what you are comfortable in and dress for the weather. I really do recommend shopping locally in India because the clothes are just so comfortable. If you have any lingering questions on what to wear in India, hit me up in the comments below!
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