When I left for India, long before I knew about travel blogging, I had to ask “Does anyone know someone who backpacked India?” around a lot. I had so many questions! I didn’t know how to dress in India at all.
Whether it was doing yoga, going hiking, walking around markets, I wanted to know what to wear in India. Fast forward five years later, and I’ve traveled the jungles, cities, mountains, beaches, and more – all while trying to do it in in style. Here’s all that I’ve learned on what to wear in India to be most respectful and stylish.
Is India Conservative?
Yes, India is conservative. However, there are so many different style icons and types of fashion here just like anywhere else. Not all popular styles keep the woman covered up as you would imagine as a traditional dress in India.
Some saris cover everything up nice and neat while some let it hang out. Some are super sexy, and some more conservative.
You might see the lower half of a bunch of women’s boobs. Truly. In Rajasthan, I saw plenty. I’ve been told it’s just normal to air out and keep cool. And no, it’s not the young women who do it; it’s their great grandmas. No one stared or thought it was strange.
You’re definitely going to see some big ol’ round bellies sticking out from saris, as well as open backs due to tiny blouses under the sari. The wrap part of the sari actually shows off quite a lot. I mean, have you seen a Bollywood film?
Do women just wear saris all day?
Definitely not! The younger (and sometimes more privileged) kids here in India are the ones dressing more “westernized. It’s not because of Bollywood either. It’s Hollywood, Victoria’s Secret models, and Vogue India showing ads of westernized fashion. It was bound to happen as Western life has become intriguing to India’s young women. Lots of more wealthy kids go abroad for university, so they obviously blend their lifestyles.
In Mumbai and Delhi, girls are wearing club dresses at night and clothes they get abroad from Urban Outfitters or even unconventional, more modern Indian designers. Even in the far Northeast of India, the girls there were in skinny jeans. (Try some Levi’s!)
There is this idea that Indians all dress traditionally all the time. Only a small percentage don’t- but the reason it seems that way is because India has such a MASSIVE population. Most working city girls dress just like you or I do.
What’s the dress code in India for tourists?
As a westerner, you have a fine line to straddle. You don’t want to dress like a “backpacker” with cargo pants or a stereotypical Ali Baba pants (although let’s be real, they are awesome and I totally did a few years ago).
On my first night out in Mumbai, I put on a past-the-knee skirt, a t-shirt, and Chacos. Meanwhile, the other Indian girls put on high heels and short tight dresses! I sighed thinking, “Crap, I did NOT pack right for this trip”.
You also don’t want to dress in a way that would offend. While short, tight dresses are fine for going out at night in the city, they’re not appropriate for places like the Taj Mahal or even walking around the markets during the day.
Overall, dress like you’d normally do, while erring on the side of conservative. I find that because I don’t dress in typical tourist clothes, people assume I live in India, and I am not ripped off or left dealing with negotiations. The list of dos and don’ts below will help you pick out what to pack.
If you want to know where I shop for my travel clothes, I have a post on that you can read here. If you want to see sample outfits to wear in India, here are the 13 exact outfits that I wore on my last trip to Rajasthan. In the meantime, here are some brands I’ve worn all the time in India and more conservative countries!
Clothes to Wear in India: My Favorite Brands
Urban Outfitters – Over all they have a really great selection! I often browse their pants, maxi dresses, tops, and jumpsuits sections since a lot of the styles work perfectly for India. (Here’s another jumpsuit I love)
Free People – Free People is my favorite brand, but, of course, they can be kind of pricey! I always keep an eye on them for sales and such since their clothes are so beautiful. If you’re not familiar with US department stores, Free People is stocked in many of them as well, and they often have their own, separate sales. Check out Nordstrom, REVOLVE, and Shopbop if you have specific pieces in mind.
How to Dress in India: the Dos and the Don’ts
Keep in mind, most of this won’t apply to Goa. There’s a reason I think of Goa as its own little island! You can wear what you want here.
Also, this list is my opinion based on 5 years of traveling around the country. Plus I have plenty of Indian girlfriends who have helped me with what’s “okay” and what’s not!
Wear your yoga pants out in public unless you are wearing a long shirt to cover your bum.
That’s just too much curve. It’s the LEGS that Indian women traditionally cover, so this will really put men into a tizzy and make women give you disapproving looks. I have to say I do this now in Goa and at airports- but do as I say, not as I do haha
This is from my Bali trip, but you get the idea with the stylish pants!
Wear stylish harem pants.
They hang low on the butt and are really comfortable. After a couple of times wearing them, they feel normal instead of odd. Go for solids like black, khaki, and green then maybe throw in one pair of crazy ones.
Allow barely-there cleavage.
As in barely ANY because if you show too much you’ll be stared at and offend other women. But keep in mind that Indian women ARE showing cleavage. Many saris bring attention to the boobs and are low cut. I don’t have the problem of having giant knockers, but if you do, don’t pop them up higher.
Be afraid of a shirt that swoops down in the back or has an open back.
Women in India often show their backs in saris, so an open back shirt won’t draw you any attention and can add to your packing options.
Go ahead and wear v-neck shirts.
Indian men are not animals, regardless of what the media says, and a v-neck usually isn’t much lower than another shirt! I love the v neck’s from ASOS, my favorite online shop.
There was an Indian politician that basically said that girls who wear jeans are “asking for it”, so yes there is this mentality with old traditional people. However, all my girlfriends and even my housekeeper wear jeans all the time. Girls here DO wear skinny jeans (the young ones), and I have seen this in bustling Delhi or in rural Arunachal Pradesh. Here’s the 411 on Levis.
I go for high-waisted and usually wear something that has a long back to it to cover my bum if the jeans are really tight, like a baggy sweater or hi-lo t-shirt. I either wear my black high waisted “Jamie” skinny jeans or my Levis constantly.
Wear mini-skirts (but it doesn’t have to be to the ankle either).
You can wear skirts that go to the knee, as long as they aren’t tight pencil skirts paired with a tiny top too. That’s a little much. If you want to wear a skirt that goes to the knee, keep it loose, and wear a decent top with it.
Wear shorts unless you’re in Goa.
I’ll be the first to admit my Indian girlfriends do wear them all the time whenever they want even in Delhi but off the main streets. They are Indian and get fewer stares in general, and can also tell someone in Hindi to eff off for bothering them. I wear shorts in Goa just like everyone else, but nowhere else in India.
Wear shoes with platforms.
This will help keep your outfits cleaner at the bottom.
These are from James Smith
Wear maxi skirts!
They work so well here. I always travel with one cotton one (you know the cheap ones from H&M that come in every color) that is thick and not at all see-through. Places like Kohls and Topshop should also have some affordable options.
They are comfortable for travel but can be dressed up with gladiator sandals and a crop top is need be. I also take a few adorable Free People style maxi skirts. Although dresses are easier to travel with, I like that with skirts you can mix and match and wear little tops you buy on your travels paired with them. I love this Sabo skirt!
Wear tank tops.
There are traditional Indian tops that are shoulder-less but girls wear a scarf with them… the thing is the scarf draped around their neck, still leaving shoulders bare. I don’t find this to be a problem. Indian friends assure me that traditional salwar or churidar’s can be sleeveless and it’s the all the same in their eyes.
Combine all the “barely appropriate” items into one outfit.
Now you’ve gone too far.
Take a scarf.
If you wear a tank top and you realize maybe it is showing more than you thought, cover up. Even better, always cover up until you get to your destination then take off your scarf.
Realize crop tops are totally ok!
That belly of yours? It can be shown to anyone! I see 100 Indian bellies every day in every city in India. Fat ones, skinny ones, in between. Doesn’t matter; they’re showing them off! Keep in mind, all the big bellies will make you feel skinny. They’ll make you think you can eat way more than you should. When you get back to your home country, you’ll realize “shit, I’ve put on some weight!”
Layer on the jewelry!
Gold is your new best friend and gemstones are abundant. Unlike the US or UK, you don’t really pose any risk of looking gaudy. Here are some of my fave gold earrings! Did you know Indian Housewives own 11% of the world’s gold!?
I love to buy travel jewelry on Etsy. It’s one of my favorite online shops & I search for things like coordinate jewelry, travel quote jewelry, etc and layer on leather bracelets and anklets!
Realize that this is based on visiting tourist cities in India.
From Udaipur to Mumbai, and Bangalore, to Calcutta. You can dress how you wish. In Goa, anything goes. BUT in tiny villages where they NEVER see a westerner, even Indian city girls would never go in dressed showing skin. Most likely, you won’t go to these places. These are the kind of places that wouldn’t even have a hotel or restaurant, not typical “off the tourist trail places”.
I hope this can help you plan to pack a little bit and prepare for your trip to India!
If you are gearing up for your big trip, please check out my ebook which is 100,000 words long (basically a novel) about the A to Z’s of traveling India. It’s 6 years of experience traveling here all wrapped up – with itineraries, maps, and tips on where to shop, eat, and chill in all the coolest towns in India.
Best, it has an FAQ section for everything from Uber to Visas where you can see around 50 reader questions, answered. You can buy it here or you can click here to read more about the book and a breakdown of the chapters.
DO NOT FORGET the two most important things to prepare for India which are 1. Travel Insurance and 2. Visas. I prefer World Nomads insurance (cheapest and Lonely Planet supports them) and for visas check ivisa.com to see what you need to do. If you are looking for a group tour to take I recommend the India tours on G Adventures.
For more on preparing and packing for India please check out these articles:
- 15 pieces of paperwork to take when you travel
- ultimate packing list for India
- shopping online for clothes in India
- the one thing you can’t forget & tips on wearing dresses in India
- why you MUST have travel insurance for India
If you will be spending a week or more in Goa (which I highly suggest) then do check out my $25 e-book. The Insider’s Guide to Goa is 170-pages long and will guarantee you have the best time in Goa, meet other travelers, and chill at all the coolest places. Click here to purchase.
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