A fashion post? Well, not really. Every country has its own cultural norms that include customary dress for locals. I believe when one travels you are a guest in someone’s country, and as such, you should try your best to respect local customs. It’s the nice thing to do, and it’s about being a conscious global citizen.
When I was planning for India, one of my biggest concerns was how I going to dress particularly as a woman traveling alone at certain points in my trip. As I mentioned before, late April and May are some of the hottest months of the year in India. I also know that style of dress for women in India is rather conservative. I read many stories of women, both nationals and travelers alike, encountering harassment due to dress. This is not an indictment of India or its culture, but it definitely reminded me that I needed to be careful about I presented myself while there.
Okay, so I will admit here that this was one moment where I didn’t ask for my usual permission to take a picture (I can be honest). I just had to get a pic of the fabulousness that is this sari. I feel bad, but I made sure that I told this woman “thank you.”
I looked online for tips but a lot of the advice I got just didn’t resonate with me. Everything was either super extreme like you can’t wear anything that exposes absolutely anything OR wait until you get to India and then commission a tailor to make local Indian women’s clothing like a salwar kameez or sari.
Yeah, I wasn’t really feeling any of that. The rationale for the latter suggestion was that Indians will appreciate your attempt to dress like locals and adapt. Yet that just didn’t feel like me. I’m not Indian, and I felt like it would be akin to me wearing a costume. I think Indian local style is beautiful, but I wasn’t really interested in dressing like a local woman because that’s not who I am. Besides, Indian women often look so elegant and wonderfully accesorized, and I don’t think I could hold a candle to them (see above and below).
Here’s an example of a salwar kameez via C Bazaar.com
I didn’t really feel too secure with any of these sets of advice, and so I consulted Ms. K. from the blog, Chronicled, aka the blog formerly known as From India with Love, about what to wear. She had just come back from spending a year in Delhi, and her blog was really an important resource for me to prepare mentally for my trip to India. Her advice was to err on the side of conservative but that I didn’t need to worry about attracting attention with my clothes. Just being me was going to be attention grabbing enough. Between my own conversation with K., my own research, my own analysis of what it’s like for me personally to walk around in 100+ Farenheit heat and some observations of women after I arrived, I think I’ve come up with my own ideas about what women tourists can wear in India while still holding true to their own style aesthetic.
Again, please remember that I traveled to India during its hottest period, and I was in both small towns and some North Indian cities, so my perspective is skewed that way. Here it goes:
-Long, loose pants made of light, breathable fabrics – Indian heat and the sun are just so strong. There was no way that I could get by in jeans. I never saw any Indian women in shorts or skirts that were not to the ground. Skirts were relatively rare. Usually the skirts were a part of a sari outfit. Most women wore loose pants or jeans (jeans were mostly worn by younger women that I saw in Delhi). Here’s an example of a pair of pants that I wore during my trip.
In Udaipur. The pants I’m wearing in this picture are these cute, loose, linen pants that I got from Old Navy.
Another pair of linen pants. I wore these alot. They were long, light and exactly what I needed.
-Cover your shoulders – This is true in India, and I would also extend this advice for women traveling to many Muslim countries, too. I think I only saw one Indian woman in a spaghetti strap shirt the entire three weeks I was there. In many cultures, particularly Muslim ones, women should not show their shoulders.
By the way, I saw many women wear saris, and their stomachs were exposed. I found that ironic considering that in the U.S. and many other cultures exposing your stomach is considered a touch racy. Aren’t cultural differences fascinating?
At first, I was concerned about wearing shirts that didn’t cover my arms, but that seemed to be fine. This shirt below (and one other) was probably the shortest sleeve I wore the entire time.
I brought lots of loose, light shirts that covered my arms and weren’t particularly tight. I only saw tighter shirts on women and girls in Delhi. Most women didn’t wear close fitting clothing. Local Indian fashion is very much about draping.
At Agra Fort. A shirt that I had in my closet. You can’t see it, but there are lots of sparkles on it.
So let’s review:
1. Jeans or long pants are fine. If it’s a hot time of year, I would suggest long, loose bottoms made of cotton or linen.
2. If you do want to wear a skirt, wear one that is a maxi skirt, i.e., long and to the ground.
3. Make sure to cover your shoulders. Short sleeves are okay, and you don’t need to cover all of your arms. If it’s very hot, lighter fabrics and looser shirts tend to keep you from feeling too sticky.
4. I would advise against shorts. Capris or pants not to the ground are okay. Bottoms should reach past your knees at the very least. I would advise against showing a lot of leg.
5. In general, I would not show lots of cleavage.*
6. The farther you go away from cities, the more conservative women’s dress will be. It will be rare to see women not in salwar kameez, sari or other traditional dress in smaller towns. Make sure to dress accordingly.
I love hot weather, and when the mercury rises I shed clothes. India was a travel fashion challenge for me, but I think i still found a way to look the way I wanted to and still feel like I was respecting local custom.
Have you ever dressed differently than you usually would in order to fit into local custom or styles of dress? How did you feel about it?
* At the end of our tour in our last city, Team Ozzie and I saw a few female tourists wearing low cut shirts. It was so completely jarring after not seeing people dress that way for a few weeks. It’s amazing how you can get acclimated to seeing certain things so quickly.