Uncomfortable train rides, crowded buses, unwanted stares and countless locals asking for selfies — while India can be a difficult place to travel, one of the first dilemmas faced by women before their trip is deciding what to wear in India.
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Bollywood aside, India remains a conservative society. A lot of women, and even men, still wear traditional clothes. While wearing a saree seems like a good idea it’s not something most female tourists will wear everyday in India. It’s very pretty but walking along tiny streets or taking public transport may cause a little concern with this kind of outfit. It seems too hard to carry around. I noticed that most younger locals also wore western style clothes (ie jeans, long skirts and dresses) so there shouldn’t be much issue if you want to wear something from your usual wardrobe.
Cotton trousers and a loose t-shirt seem like a safe backpacker get-up for a trip in India. While it sounds very comfortable, it’s not something every female traveller will want to wear all the time. India is a very colourful and charismatic place. While most people think travelling in India meant restriction in clothing, in my head, I thought, let’s be creative.
Deciding what to wear in India was a little challenging for me since I wanted to find outfits that I actually liked to wear not ones that I felt like I have to wear.
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I’m no fashion blogger but wouldn’t you agree that most women would like to look good during their holiday? India shouldn’t be any different and with a few rules to play with, I found that deciding what to wear in India wasn’t so difficult after all. Somewhere in between the traditional Indian clothes and the casual travel clothes will work well for India. Here are some fashion tips for female tourists travelling to India:
Colorful, patterned maxi skirts are awesome. Indian women wear bright colored sarees and these clothes really stand out in photographs. With this in mind, I got two colorful maxi skirts from H&M and they worked fabulously for my visit to the opulent palaces in Rajasthan. If you can’t find a skirt you like at home, there are plenty of markets in India to add pieces to your wardrobe. I found a reversible silk skirt from Udaipur and I received many compliments for it.
Cropped tops are totally acceptable. It was very hot during our visit in Rajasthan (mid June to July) so breathable clothes were great for the hot weather. When I was there, I saw a lot of local women in their sarees with exposed stomachs or bare backs (not to look hot but to keep cool). As long as your cleavage is covered, you can pull off wearing cropped tops. The ones with short sleeves worked best for me so I didn’t have to worry about covering my shoulders when visiting temples.
Long dresses are perfect. A cotton fabric maxi dress is a great piece for your India wardrobe. I have two in black and grey and they worked well for the trip. I do suggest getting more colorful pieces if you want to stand out in your photos.
You can never be overdressed in India. I wore a blue asymmetrical dress for our visit to the Taj Mahal and Jon thought it was too “dressy.” When we went to the wonder of the world, local women and even little girls wore their fancy sarees. I wasn’t overdressed after all. In India, it’s hard not to admire their evidently rich culture.
Wear comfortable trousers for train rides or bus rides. What to wear in India is not as difficult as you think. The traveller pants that are quite common in Southeast Asia will certainly fit well in India’s conservative society. I have never bought travelling pants in Southeast Asia (they are everywhere in markets in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) so I took a long shot and looked for one at the mall before my trip. It’s not hard to find one after all. Shops like H&M, Cotton On and Forever 21 have a lot of these albeit they are more expensive. I tried a few but went with a pair colorful silk trousers which I received from my cousin as gift. She got them from Terranova. In the markets in India, these kind of trousers are sold for 100 INR (around 1.5 USD) and up, depending on the material. So if you don’t end up finding one before your trip, just buy a pair or two while in India.
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Never wear a skirt or a dress on the bus or train. Make sure you can move easily among crowds when you take public transportation. In Fatehpur Sikri, I learnt the hard way that a skirt is the worst thing you can wear for a bus ride. It was the first time I did this thinking it was only a short ride. Unfortunately the bus broke down and we had to switch buses a few times. As I struggled to get on the bus alongside a group of Indian men, someone groped my bum. I couldn’t even react properly because there was too much commotion. It was a horrifying experience!
Jeans can be quite uncomfortable. As long as they are not too skimpy, jeans are totally acceptable as even locals wear them. However, other than during flights, I found these were too thick and can be quite uncomfortable for the hot weather in Rajasthan. Cotton or silk trousers seem to be the best options.
Sleeveless shirts are fine. While T-shirts or long sleeve shirts are an easy way to go. I don’t usually wear T-shirts so I paired my pants with a tank top a few times. I found that this was okay and received the same kid of stares as I did wearing clothes with sleeves. I think they just generally stare at foreigners (not just women), just try to stay away from their gaze and avoid eye contact at all costs. If you feel quite bare (I felt this a lot during overnight trains), add a layer to your clothes with a scarf or a cardigan. I did this a lot when travelling by train as I always felt the proximity of other people was way to close for my personal space.
Steer clear of shorts. You can wear this inside the hotel (some staff will still tend to stare) but never wear this in the streets. We got talking to the owner of a guest house in Bundi and she mentioned how she didn’t like certain tourists because of how they behave and their revealing clothing. She said something like, this is India, even Lonely Planet tells you about dressing conservatively.
Always carry a scarf with you. Either for the sun or to cover up your shoulders or chest when needed, a scarf is a great accessory to have not just in India but for most places. I used the pashminas I bought from Vietnam and Morocco a few years back. There are plenty of these scarves in India so it’s a great idea to buy the scarves while travelling (they are great souvenirs too). Also, some places apparently require the head to be covered with a scarf. I never encountered this during my trip but it’s another good reason to bring a scarf along.
Stay flexible.While some people think it’s a good idea to buy clothes specifically for a certain trip, I think flexibility with your wardrobe is important. I rarely buy clothes that I can’t use anywhere else (this is the reason I let go of the idea of getting a saree since it would be a bulky souvenir during my trip.) It is best to bring clothes that you can mix and match. Also, don’t overpack as there are plenty of chances to buy clothes while travelling in India.
Note that I only travelled around Northern India (Rajasthan, Agra, Orchha, Khajuraho and Kolkata) around mid June to mid July. So these fashion tips may not necessarily apply for other parts India (ie in the south like Goa, Kerala or further north in Himachal Pradesh).
Are you planning your trip to India? What clothes do you plan to wear for your trip to India? Do you have anything to add to these tips? Let me know.
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