Before I left for India, before I knew about travel blogging, I asked around: “Does anyone know someone who backpacked India? I have so many questions! I don’t know how to dress in India.”
India is conservative, but there are so many different style icons and types of fashion here just like anywhere else, and not all popular styles keep the woman covered up like you would imagine as a traditional dress in India.
Some sari’s 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 hot woman who does it; it’s their great grandma. 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 see a Bollywood film?
The younger (and sometimes more privileged) kids here in India are the ones dressing more “westernized” but it’s not because of Bollywood, it’s because of Hollywood, Victoria’s Secret models, and Vogue India showing ads of westernized fashion. It was bound to happen as Western life became intriguing to India’s young women. Lots of more wealthy kids go abroad for University, so they obviously are blended lifestyles.
In Bombay and Delhi, girls are wearing club dresses at night and clothes they get abroad from Urban Outfitters or even Indian designers that are not at all conventional.
With H&M, Forever 21, Fossil, and more Western stores opening, the fashion here is changing and evolving. I’ve met loads of designers like Tia (beachy, European style), FARA (boho-chic) and Doe Designs (modern Indian). Even in the far Northeast of India, the girls there were in skinny jeans.
As a westerner, you have a fine line to straddle. You don’t want to dress like a “backpacker” with cargo pants, or a tourist in Ali Baba pants (although let’s be real, they are awesome and I totally did a few years ago), or dress in a way that would offend. You also may not necessarily want to “play dress up” in full on Indian clothes.
I find that because I don’t dress in tourist clothes, people assume I live in India, and I am not ripped off or left dealing with negotiations.
What I thought everyone was going to dress like- the very traditional modest sari (that I NEVER see) or traditional dresses of India.
I can say my first night out in Mumbai when I put on a past-the-knee skirt, t-shirt, and Chaco’s, and the other Indian girls put on high heels and short tight dresses, I sighed thinking, “Crap, I did NOT pack right for this trip”.
There is this idea that Indians all dress traditional all the time and only a small percentage don’t- but the reason it seems that way is because India has such a MASS population. Most working city girls dress just like you or I do.
Some Brands I LOVE for India and Middle East Travel
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.
Chacos – As far as shoes go, these the best if you’re traveling and doing a lot of different activities.
How to Dress in India
(Not counting Goa because you can wear what you want here- and keep in mind this is my opinion based on my last 4 years traveling around the country and having many Indian girlfriends who help me with what’s “okay”.)
Don’t 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 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
Do wear stylish harem pants.
They hang low on the butt and are really comfortable. After a couple times wearing them, they feel normal instead of like a strangers’ clothes. Go for solids like black, khaki, and green then maybe throw in one pair of crazy ones.
DO 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 a problem of having giant knockers, but if you do, don’t pop them up higher.
Don’t 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.
DO 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 collection, my favorite online shop.
DO wear jeans.
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, but 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 that in bustling Delhi or in rural Arunachal Pradesh. 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 wear my black high waisted “Jamie” skinny jeans constantly now. They are from Topshop and they are the bomb!
Don’t 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.
Don’t 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 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.
Do 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. The TopShop one I’m linking in black is the one I have and it’s perfect. I also found a gray one for $5 at Kohls! 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.
Do wear tank tops.
There are traditional Indian tops that are shoulder-less but girls wear a scarf with them… the thing is the scarf drapes 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.
Don’t combine all the “barely appropriate” items into one outfit.
Now you’ve gone too far.
DO 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.
Do 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!”
Do 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. 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!
Do realize that this is based on visiting tourist cities in India.
From Udaipur to Bombay, 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!
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 garuntee you have the best time in Goa, meet other travels, and chill at all the coolest places. Click here to purchase.
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