Last updated on September 25th, 2018.
Wondering how to dress in India to fit into the local culture and respect the social norms? Well, then this post is for you. Though there are numerous questions to consider before coming to India, one of the biggest challenges for me was definitely what to wear in India as a woman and what to pack. Since I was joining an office, I needed to consider both business and casual attire.
Despite reading multiple articles about India, I still ended up bringing half of the suitcase I’ve never used. On the other hand, I wish I had taken some clothes from my home I forgot to pack. In this post, I’m going to write in detail about what clothes to wear in India on different occasions to feel both comfortable and accepted by the society.
If you are a man, you can wear clothes in India you usually wear in your country (of course only decent prints on T-shirts). In your case, if you wear something traditional (e.g. kurta), you will stand out and become a person to take a picture with because “OMG, a foreigner man in a kurta or lungi?”. You don’t see Indian men in a traditional wear too often in daily life.
If you are a woman, you need a bit more information on what to wear in India. To give you a comprehensive understanding of this topic, here are the specific points I will focus on:
- Why do people stare at foreigners in India?
- General tips on how to dress in India
- Introduction to traditional dresses in India
- What to wear in India to office?
- How to dress in India to the wedding and other functions?
- Can I wear western clothes in India? What to pack for India?
- What to wear when traveling to India in different states?
- Should I take heels in India? And other shoe advice
- 5 budget elements of woman’s wardrobe in India
Why do people stare at foreigners in India?
That’s an unusual way to start a discussion on the topic, but I wish someone told me this before my expat experience in India. Most of my pictures in western clothes were taken either in the first months after arrival (before I bought many Indian dresses covering me from the top to bottom) or many months years later once I realized India is not as conservative in dressing style as people tend to think. Moreover, it’s hard to judge the whole country as there are 29 states and they are so diverse.
I was the most conservatively dressed person, despite I lived with Indian girls who wore anything from shorts to party dresses which I didn’t even have in my wardrobe. Nevertheless, people stared, whether I was in the office pants going for the meeting or kurti pajama covering everything but face. Mind you, I was living & working in Delhi, which is THE capital city. It took me a few years to digest everything happening and realize that l am doing the right stuff.
Dear Indians, it is freaking awkward (especially for introverts) to get so much attention (and stares) or even more, to get asked to be photographed with someone. Yet, as one of my Indian friends told: “We stare when we see something uncommon or unusual for us – that’s in our culture.” So if it’s obvious you are not a local, you will get plenty of attention and it doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong!
So before you will start planning an extensive shopping for your trip to India, I’d like to share some practical tips about what to wear in India and some cultural aspects.
Disclaimer: I’ve lived in three major cities in India with local people, have been part of a corporate world (from authoritative companies to open-minded startups) and traveled extensively around the country from cities to villages – North-South-East-West. I tend to believe, I have a comprehensive view on this topic.
What to wear in India – general tips
Despite each state has its own style and Indian outfit (you will be surprised how much saree design differs from North to South, from East to West), there are some general characteristics of Indian dress culture and basic rules you can start with:
Covering your skin is advisable for both health and cultural reasons. In India, it is culturally more acceptable if your shoulders and knees are covered. Pack your dresses accordingly. Some Indian traditional wear has the parts of tummy open, so a combo of a long skirt, top and shawl will work fine.
Beyond cultural aspect, you will see many local people even in big cities wearing long sleeve cotton clothes to protect their skin from sun, heat, and insects. Some people think that lesser clothes feel more comfortable in hot weather. Generally, it is the other way around. Except hill areas temperature tends to remain high in India for the bigger part of the year.
Go extra size
Beyond big cities, you rarely will see girls wearing tight jeans or skinny tops. If you are a foreigner, people will not judge you as long as you respect “shoulder-knee” rule. The further you go from the city, the more people will stare – see above. Moreover, jeans are really not a practical thing to have in the major part of India. Go for loose fitting Indian trousers and other clothes that give an airy feel to your body during the heat.
Make a difference between traditional and conservative
Many foreigners coming for a short stay in India tend to mix these definitions based on how people dress around. The fact that women wear traditional Indian clothing doesn’t signify the state is conservative. For instance Kerala – one of the most progressive states in India. You will see many men wearing white lungi, women wearing sarees and both are proud of it. Kerala is very authentic, people follow many traditions there yet it is one of the most open-thinking states in India.
Another example – Manipur. It’s one of the states where you can often see more women on the streets than men. Women are owning properties, there are ladies entrepreneurs, women work in police, shops and what not. While you will see often younger generation girls in jeans, women mostly wear traditional Indian clothes (even in schools) and they like it.
There are many more examples. The bottom line, if people wear Indian traditional dress that doesn’t mean they will mind you wearing a western outfit as long as you respect shoulder-knee rule.
Respect Religious Wear in India
India is a land of many Gods and different religions. I guess visiting different temples, mosques, churches and gurudwaras will be on your list. Lookout what exactly other people are wearing while coming out of the religious site. Few important things which should be kept in mind: cover your head with a scarf or a handkerchief, remove shoes and dress conservatively. It is all about paying respect to the religious beliefs of the local community while entering their religious sites.
Save Bollywood looks for the movie halls
This is another extreme when people take Indian movies and magazines as a guidance for dressing style. If you start googling about Indian fashion, there are plenty of celebrities coming in the search results in various style dresses. Remember, that common people in the US or Europe don’t dress up like on a red carpet. Same works for India – people dress quite differently in daily life than you see on the TV or in fashion magazines.
Pack light & fill the suitcase in India
Most probably you will still need to buy some clothes in India and it’s easy. India is one of the best destinations for shopping whether you buy branded or local stuff. There are plenty of local markets filled with clothes according to the latest trends.
Introduction to traditional wear in India for women
Once in India, give it a try to Indian ethnic wear. Beyond Instagram scope, there is a huge variety of local clothes for women. Unlike many foreigners imagine, Indian fashion offers plenty of stylish options: from sarees to churidar and kurtis, you can find clothes from finest material at a very reasonable price. It takes time to get used to Indian suit names and differentiate them. For your convenience, I’ve commented on Indian wear in the pictures.
My friend (Ayushi) also asked to tell you more about different materials. Green Saree on the first picture is called Gotta Patti Saree as it contains gotta patti work in golden yellow color. This saree is an Indian party wear destined for festive occasions. Green suit is a casual outlook that can be used for day outings in the city and events. Churidar, Anarkali and Salwar Kameez are all types of Indian dress with pants for different purposes. There is a thin difference between them. You can remember Churidar by the specific shape of pants. Churi in Hindi are bangles that women wear with traditional wear. The pants near the ankles are gathered in rings like churis.
There are many more options for traditional Indian outfits (let’s talk about local clothes in 29 states), but the ones mentioned above are more common and popular. Maybe saris and churidar will be tough to adapt, but kurtis with leggings or jeans can be your daily Indian wear. Later in the post will be other traditional clothes too.
What to wear in India in the office?
Planning some business meetings or corporate experience in India and don’t know what to take? I’ve got you covered. If you work for a big company or MNC, they usually have their dress code and it’s usually business casual. There are two types of office dress for ladies In India: western-business casual style (pants, skirts, shirts, dresses) and traditional office clothes (salwar kameez, kurtis, etc).
If you work in India in any marketing/management role be ready for an active experience on the go. There were so many meetings I’ve attended and every now and then there was a business event/fair/gathering on the weekends.
Most of the startups and small companies are more liberal in dressing styles and allow more casual elements – t-shirts, classy jeans, etc. Also, since India is mostly a 6-day work/a week country, many companies allow casuals on Saturdays.
What to wear in India to the wedding and other functions?
Beyond weddings, there are plenty of other local functions you can be invited for Dandiya, Diwali, Lohri and numerous others (29 states argument). Weddings include several functions for which you need different dresses. A festive kurti will do for the reception, though for bigger events, you need an Anarkali or another suit.
I recommend to rent-out or borrow from local friends if you have any. Indian wedding clothes are usually expensive and you need them only for one day. An Indian girl will have several in her wardrobe for different occasions and girls usually exchange between friends/family members in order not to repeat their clothes.
Make-up: the more – the better. When I applied pencil and lipstick for my friend’s wedding the first question from my roomie was where my make-up was. I would trust this question to Indian girlfriends if you have any. They are inherently good in this! Don’t forget about accessories – these are must at the weddings!
Read also: where to buy Indian clothes?
You might be thinking the info is good so far, but what you really care to know is:
Can I wear western clothes in India?
The short answer is YES, but you need to plan according to your itinerary. India is a moderately conservative country in terms of dressing style. The bigger cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and holiday destinations like Goa, Pondicherry have more liberal rules in terms of clothing. If you visit the shopping districts you will see plenty of boutiques selling western wear for women in India. If it exists, people buy it;) Nevertheless, the farther you go from the big cities, more conservative your clothing style should be.
“Western-style” wardrobe: what to pack when traveling to India?
- Jeans – if you are traveling to hilly areas or North India in winters. I don’t find jeans a practical choice for South India or for the hot weather or monsoons. Cotton (or other natural material) pants will be a better choice.
- T-shirts – as long as they have decent prints – do bring them.
- Shirts – they are a great solution to cover shoulders and are generally comfy.
- Sunhat – unless you are habitual to a strong sun, I recommend taking a hat with you to protect your head from heat. You can buy one also in Indian big cities, though you need to know specific places. It’s not vastly available anywhere the way daily use clothes are.
Western clothes you can wear in India as long as you respect “shoulder-knee” rule:
- Shorts – personally, I wouldn’t recommend wearing shorts in India. They can work in big cities but still will attract attention to you. You can find women shorts in India in different models and prints in both local markets and branded shops, though girls wear them in specific areas of big cities. In other parts of the country go for capris or knee-length shorts.
- Tops – you can wear skinny and tank tops under V-type T-shirts or under the shirts with deep cleavage. There is also a great variety of Indian tops for long skirts you can buy on spot.
- Skirts – it’s hard to spot lots of girls wearing skirts beyond big cities. Even if they do, they wear maxi skirts till the ankles. Give a try to Indian traditional skirts – they come in many interesting prints.
- Tunics – YES, Please! You can also buy on spot Indian tunics to wear with leggings or jeans.
- Dresses – I find it comfortable to wear all Indian dresses with leggings, though I’ve seen many girls in big cities wearing them without covering legs.
Clothes to wear in India according to your itinerary
Feeling confused about what to wear on holiday in India? Well, there are different Indian dressing styles in 29 states. For instance, if you travel to the Himalaya area or North-East, you will see many girls wearing jeans and pants there because it is just practical in the cold climate.
Also, in hilly areas, you need woolens, especially in the winter season and early spring. If you can easily buy summer clothes in India for any taste, I would definitely recommend bringing warm clothes from abroad. I’ve spent a few winters in India and even in Delhi, that gets super uncomfortable on January nights, it’s hard to find GOOD quality winter clothes.
If you go to a beach destination like Goa, you will see many girls in dresses there (though I would still not recommend wearing shorts and mini skirt dress in India beyond the beach area). Nevertheless, central and east India tends to be more conservative in the dressing style.
Should I take heels? What shoes to wear in India?
From my experience, the most practical shoe options for India are sandals, bellies, sneakers, flip-flops. Give preference to darker color shoes that are easy to wash. India is a dusty country, thus so you will need to clean your shoes daily.
Take heels only if you plan to attend many parties and events. You will not wear heels on daily basis, because roads the infrastructure, lack of pedestrian zones, dust and other local factors don’t make them a practical decision. Flats are a practical choice.
Bonus tip for monsoons: Unless you come from a monsoon climate, your shoes most probably will not work if you come in a rainy season. In India, there are special rubber shoes/bellies. You can get them from a local market starting with 150 INR, though I recommend checking up BATA brand. They charge a bit more, though their bellies made it through several rainy seasons.
Clothing choices in India: 5 budget elements of woman’s wardrobe
Are you on a budget and are not planning to change your wardrobe clothes for India trip? I got you – here are five items that are affordable, yet will allow you to wear almost anything you already have with you.
- Scarf/Shawl – it is a multi-purpose accessory: cover your shoulders, protect yourself from the sun, put around the neck – you name it. If you don’t have one at your home, never fear! You will find tons of scarf shops in India from cotton to pashminas costing anywhere between one and 100 USD depending on material and brand. Commonly, you will find a good light scarf within 200 INR (~3 USD)
- Leggings – this is the item that allowed me to wear the dresses I brought from Europe. Even all of them are at least knee length, adding leggings give me a certain level of comfort. Plus, you can see young girls wearing leggings as part of traditional wear, with tunics and other mix and match options. Simple cotton leggings will cost you around 150 INR (~2.2 USD) in the local market and somewhat 300 (~4.5 USD) INR in a shop. The price can go up depending on design, brand, and material.
- Pajama (harem/Alladin) pants – there are plenty of options of loose-fitting pants in India. If you take a classy one-color thing, you can wear them with all your T-shirts and tops you already have. Pajama pants cost starts at 150 INR at the local market and reaches around 600 INR (~9.5 USD) in the branded shop. There are more expensive options depending on brand and design. I know you might think all pajamas are bulky, but there are many stylish Indian trousers for ladies.
- Flip-flops /chappal – this is one of the most practical shoes you get for India. It’s very convenient to take them off if you visit temples, go around your neighborhood and beyond. In India, you can get traditional or western type flip-flops starting with 200 INR (~3 USD). Many offices accept them even as a footwear during monsoons.
- Spaghetti/top which doesn’t reveal cleavage – I have two (neutral and black color) and I use them under shirts and tops with V necks. You can get them in local markets, starting with 50 INR (~80 cents), though I prefer Jockey brand. They cost more expensive (~250-300 INR), though my last top lasted 4 years and I wore it just with everything.
Basically within 1000 – 1200 INR (~15-18 USD) you can get the five items above and make the bigger part of the western wardrobe culturally acceptable in India.
Bonus tip: Indian women wear plenty of jewelry, especially gold (let’s talk about Indian household statistics). I usually don’t wear any jewelry (unless I’m going for functions or weddings), because I don’t like, though the prices for artificial jewelry are quite attractive. I highly recommend bringing a ring with you. It’s good to look married if you are a solo woman traveler and don’t like attention.
I hope this post gives you an idea about the dressing style in India and helps you to pack accordingly. In the end, I want to leave you with one idea: Don’t lose your individuality just because you are in India. The goal of this post was to show that this country is diverse and people wear both traditional attire and western clothes in India. Wear your style just with a tad of conservatism, and you will do just fine 🙂
I know it might be tough initially to change some part of your wardrobe and follow some limitations, especially if you intend to stay for a long time. For me the hardest thing was to give away skirts, however, I discovered and adapted many beautiful Indian outfits for ladies that I totally like. And you will also find yours.
I’m always keen to know about your experience! Do you have any other dressing tips and advice on suitable clothing for India?