What To Wear in India

by | May 7, 2017

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Last updated on November 19th, 2023

Remember this hint. Skirts are so much easier than pants if you have to use squatting Indian toilets!

Megan, Vancouver, USA

Buy a ‘Salwar Kameez’. It’s a dress-with-pants-and-shawl type of thing, worn by Muslim women, but also by Hindu women. The shawl can be draped around you shoulders and across your chest, saves you some stares, or used as a headdress if you go into temples or mosques. As almost all women in India wear either a Saree or a Salwar Kameez you will be regarded well as you are dressing appropriately. Wearing jeans and a shirt is okay for travelling, but only for that. You can buy a Salwar almost anywhere but the best way to have one that suits you is to buy some cloth at a store and then go to a tailor and have it made for you.

Bloem, Huizen, Netherlands

When travelling in Bangladesh it is important to cover up. Showing your legs, upper arms, or any cleavage is frowned upon and you may have unwanted attentions from the local men. Your clothing should also be loose. Not only is it important to be modest there, but loose clothing is more comfortable in the tropical heat. Wear sandals or slip-on shoes when you visit a local’s house because most Bangladeshis take off their shoes when entering a home. When I went out in public I often wore sunglasses. Not only were they good for eye protection, but they also stopped me from meeting men’s eyes, an action that can be interpreted as in invitation in Bangladesh.

Becky, Grand Rapids, USA

Wear black because no matter how posh your accommodation, you will get covered in dust. Wearing black requires fewer trips to the laundromat. I’d recommend a long skirt …ankle or calf length in a cool fabric with a loose fitting long-sleeved top… that seems to please everyone. Not very exciting but certainly handy. I also found a long piece of dark viscose fabric very helpful – this was wound around my head and shoulders. Even where it’s not necessary to do this for cultural reasons, it really is one of the best ways of keeping the sun off.

Katelyn, Auckland, New Zealand

When you’re in India, please don’t wear shorts. Wear ankle length skirts and cotton blouses that can be washed out and quickly dried. No tight tee shirts — they are trashy and dry slowly. Wear sandals that you can slip out of easily when visiting temples. If you are trekking, a blue jean skirt and camp shirt is ideal. Bring running shoes for around camp at night or in case you get a blister from your boots. While in India carry a large scarf to make your own hood and personal space while in crowds or on buses.

Margaret, Evanston, USA

My day-dress was a light khaki shirtwaist with plenty of pockets from a popular travel outlet; worn for years when traveling in Asia. In India, however, it seemed to attract unusual attention. Finally someone explained that it was like the dress worn by Candice Bergen when she portrayed a photojournalist in the movie “Gandhi” which all Indians have practically memorized!

Eleanor, Sandwich, USA

I bring groups of American students to India every year, and always ask my students to be respectful of local custom and dress modestly. Several girls last year saw other foreign tourist women wearing tank tops and/or shorts and followed suit. The difference in how they were treated was dramatic. Wearing tank tops and shorts invited countless more lewd comments and attempts to look down the girls’ shirts. While it won’t entirely eliminate stares and cat calls, wearing modest clothing, particularly wearing Indian clothing, almost always brings you more respect and courtesy, anywhere in the country. I have people commenting to me all the time how much they appreciate that I wear so much Indian clothing and that they automatically treated me differently.

Mary, Burlington, USA

Be culturally correct and know what you’re wearing. Many western women wear sari petticoats and blouses without the sari. This is the equivalent to walking on the street with your underwear on and is considered in very poor taste.

Anita, Toronto, Canada

One nice thing about travelling in India is that you don’t have to worry about looking ultra-fashionable. In fact, the only way to fit in with fashion in India is to wear a sari or a punjabi suit. My favorite travelling item was a long, olive green skirt made from a polyester micro-fiber. It looked like silk and wore like steel. It also dried in about 1 hour in the sun, and did not need ironing. Also good for travelling in India are very loose fitting light cotton pants. If you are going to India, you need very few clothes because if you need something along the way, a tailor can make it for you in a few hours. Also make sure you take clothes that hide the dirt well, it is very dusty there.

Krista, Vancouver, Canada

I traveled in Southern India. My family is originally from a state called Kerala in the southern part of India. We went for a short visit two years ago. The South tends to be a bit more conservative than other parts of India. I would advise women to leave their shorts and halter tops at home. If you take skirts make sure they are at least knee length. Not advisable to wear super clingy fabrics (loose cotton and other natural fibers are best).

In more religious parts of the country, Hindus may take offense if you are wearing clothing made out of leather (shoes are often excusable).As a foreign woman you will undoubtedly fall victim to catcalls, stares, physical advances etc. regardless of how you dress. For this reason it is advisable to travel with one or more people.

Bindu, New York, USA

Blondes and Red Heads take note!
Indian men love to stare. As an Indian woman I find that foreign travellers can lessen curious on-lookers by avoiding shorts, short skirts and sleeveless shirts.

Archana, Seattle, USA

Blondes and Red Heads take note!
In India, if you have a fair complexion and have blonde or red hair, you will be an object of great curiosity regardless of what you wear (especially if you travel outside of the major cities where tourists are a more familiar sight). Simply ignore the stares and go about your business. Also travel as lightly as possible–both clothing and laundry service are very inexpensive in India

Teresa, Annapolis, USA

Go to the local bazaar and buy a Selwar Kameez – that’s a long, dress-like top with pants. They are also known as “Punjabi Suits”. You can get really inexpensive ones or very fancy and elaborate ones too with gold embroidery etc. Prices vary from $10 Can. to more than $500 Can. These are traditional dresses and cover a woman’s body from head to toe. They are also very feminine and elegant. Pants are accepted in the big cities in India but the smaller towns are not accustomed to anything more than these beautiful clothes.

Sheila, Scarborough, India

I have found the Kurta or Salwarkameez — a pair of baggy pants and a long top to be the best dress for women traveling in India. It’s cool, it’s comfortable to wear, and fits with Indian standards of modesty and western ideas of modern design. You can buy them ready made, or have them custom designed. Next to the Hotel Imperial in Delhi there is a shop to get you started, or try along the tourist streets and markets. Also, if you have a favorite dress at home, Indian materials are beautiful, their tailors superb and inexpensive. Bring your dress along, and see how many ways you can adapt your favorite pattern!

Dr. Antonia Neubauer, Myths and Mountains, California

Dress conservatively in India. Foreign women who dress in a sari seem to experience less harassment. Tempting as it is to defy custom and to dress in sleeveless shirts and shorts, it’s not worth the hassle. I found a T-shirt (with sleeves) and light, cotton pants kept me cool and respected Indian custom.

Also, avoid eye contact, because in their culture, contact signals to Indian men that you are both available and approachable. A useful Indian phrase to add to your armory is chale jao, pronounced chelo, which means “go away”. Match this with a cool, sharp look and you’ve got yourself a lethal weapon. I also began to allude to a husband who was close by or who I was meeting shortly. (One woman I met even wore a fake wedding ring to keep men at bay). In India, the fact that you are connected to a man commands respect for a woman.

Mei-Yin Teo, Toronto, Canada

Women are encouraged to cover their heads with a scarf when visiting a Sihk temple. Slip- on shoes and sandals are handy when visiting religious sites. But, take note! Don’t go out in your underwear! Indian style skirts, available in plenty of ethnic shops, are actually sari petticoats. So, wearing one in India is akin to going out in your underwear in the West.

Lee Ronald, Tiger Travel, England

On a recent visit to Kerala I saw tourists in all manner of dress. Along the beaches, anything goes, really, but during a home visit I recommend having upper arms and most of the leg covered. I wore very loose pants that I could zip into shorts when I was in my hotel or on the beach. I’m tall for a woman, 5’10” and blond, so I didn’t blend in well, but I still had no trouble with inappropriate attention. I followed another woman’s advice on this page about always wearing sunglasses in public and I think that was a big help, also walking with my eyes down in crowded areas helped.

Heidi, Kenosha, USA

Have some salwar kameezes made up at a local shop as soon as you get to India. I’d taken long shirt dresses with long sleeves to wear over pants but they were too fitted and the silk they were made of was too thin and therefore you could see the outline of my legs underneath — totally unacceptable. Drape the dupatta (scarf)– usually comes with the salwar kameez — over your chest to hide your curves. Wear sunglasses to avoid making eye contact with men. Always wear a bra.

Brigid, Toronto, Canada

I went bike riding in India recently. I packed some loose fitting (mens actually!) zip off trousers. When zipped off, they came to about my knees. While bike riding, I got a bit warm so I risked taking the bottom part off and revealing my knees. BAD MOVE. We were riding through rural villages that don’t get to see white folk too often (about 2 or 3 times a year I was told) let alone white female knees. I had cars driving really close to me, almost knocking me off, just to cop an eyeful of my lily white legs!!! I found it better to be a little warm than risk being knocked over! I found as soon as I had them full length again, they left me alone.

Annie, Adelaide, Australia

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