What to wear in India on your trip there is a topic that provokes a lot of thought, discussion and debate! And so… we’re here to help 😉 With half of this blog being Indian and a Mumbai-ker, and the other half (me) having travelled around India solo on many an occasion, we’d like to share a few tips for how to dress in India – and dispel a few myths along the way!
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What to Wear while Travelling in India?
It’s no secret that India is (at least one of) our favourite travel destination(s) on the planet. There’s enough to awe, entertain, and inspire you here for months (if not years) – and many a traveller has fallen for India’s charms.
India also seems to suffer from something of a reputation problem, though – particularly when it comes to the topic of female travel. The question of solo female travel in India is hotly debated, and with it a certain emphasis comes on how to carry yourself and how to dress in India.
India is a sub-continent, populated by over a billion people. Times are changing fast and India is firmly set to become one of our world’s economic powerhouses. Although we may see pictures of poverty, tradition and rural India on (social) media, the country is far more than that. Mumbai is reportedly home to the greatest number of billionaires in the world, and you’re just as likely to see beautiful girls in hot pants on a saturday night out as women in sarees.
There is no one answer to the question “what to wear in India”. Rather there are as many answers as there are times of day – such are the nuances of this rapidly changing country and culture.
But fear not. Just before you get really frustrated with us for refusing to answer your question 😉 we aren’t done just yet. This is a mini-guide to clothing for travel in India, what to avoid, myths about what to wear in India, and sensitivities to be aware of. This post is largely intended for the ladies seeing as (frankly) they have a much tougher job of dressing for travel in India – but we do have a section especially for the guys too. Scroll down!
PS seeing as we’re British (or half of us is) we’ll mostly be calling pants trousers in here (or using them interchangably) – so you know what that means!
Dressing for Safe Travel in India
We’re guessing what brought you to this post is your desire to a) be safe travelling in India and b) be culturally appropriate and respectful while travelling in India. Firstly: Thank You! The world needs many more sensitive travellers like you.
Secondly: Despite the warnings and cautionary tales, India is an incredibly rewarding place to travel, and the vast majority of female (and male) travellers who venture here do not experience any trouble. If you follow your common sense, keep an eye on your surroundings, and are aware of how you are perceived then it will increase your safety, too!
How you dress does have a direct impact on how you may be perceived during your trip to India – especially if you’re venturing off the beaten path. Which is why how to dress in India as a tourist is an often debated topic. Whatever you wear in India, if you have a non-Indian skin tone (either lighter or darker) and different colour hair, you will stand out. But wearing revealing clothes on top of that, can add some masala to the attention. Which you probably don’t want! Foreign women are sometimes perceived as “exotic” and naturally attract increased interest in what is still a male dominated society where women are in short supply – so to mitigate that you want to cover up more than you might at home (while staying cool).
Do’s and Don’ts of dressing in India
Based on our experiences, here are a few Do’s and Don’ts:
- Do look around you: Take note of what local women are wearing, what areas of the body they are covering, and take your queue from them (we’re not saying you have to buy a saree but if everyone around you is in shorts, you’re probably fine in the same).
- Do ask if you’re not sure: Ask local friends if you have them, ask other hotel/hostel guests, or ask tour guides for feedback on what you’re wearing if you’re really not sure.
- If you’re at the beach, don’t wear swimwear off the beach, even just to cross the road to get your coconut water. Many of India’s beautiful beaches are actually in more conservative communities (depending where in the country you are) and not dressing properly causes offence. In Goa or at resort beaches, bikinis are fine, but on local beaches it’s better to swim partially clothed (a loose t-shirt over your swimsuit is a good idea).
- Don’t ever sunbathe topless. Even if you think no-one can see you, they probably can. And do you really want your nude top half going viral on WhatsApp?
- Don’t show lots of leg. You’ll see that locals, regardless of where you are very rarely show leg. It’s best to wear long trousers and skirts. An exception is some beach towns (Goa and Varkala being the obvious examples) where shorts can be fine.
- Don’t show cleavage or wear strappy tops. In more liberal parts of the country sleeveless shirts or tunics are fine, whereas in other places you’ll feel more comfortable in sleeves.
- Do avoid overly tight, figure hugging clothes. Protect that booty by covering it with a long / loose top or loose pants/trousers!
- Do wear bright colours: Not only will they make your feel more cheerful, you’ll blend in to India’s rainbow of colour!
Dispelling a Few Myths
Given that India has been portrayed in a certain light in the media, travel advice tends so err on the cautious and a limited view of what it is like to live and travel in India has developed. Let’s be clear on a few things.
- It’s not always hot in India. Depending on when and where you travel, you may need warmer layers too.
- You don’t need to cover your hair in India (unless you’re entering a Sikh or Muslim religious shrine/temple/mosque)
- You don’t need to wear Indian clothing – see more below!
- Younger Indians are just as likely to be sporting t-shirts and skinny jeans than traditional Indian dress. It all depends on where you are!
- You don’t have to wear elephant pants. India is loved as a hippy, backpacking destination but it is perfectly possible to travel here and look smart, too!
- You can wear jewellery – just maybe leave your diamond collection / family jewels at home. Many Indians wear a lot of jewellery, so don’t be afraid to get some local jewellery for yourself, too (negotiate!).
Should you Dress Local?
For my first solo trip to India, I followed the advice that wearing local clothing would earn me more respect and be safer as a solo female traveller. I headed out shopping and got myself a few kurtas (tunic style long tops with splits below the waist – they vary in length from just below the bum to below the knee), as well as a custom made salwaar kameez.
All of this was great fun and very inexpensive, but I found myself attracting plenty of attention and comments for my Indian-style attire, particularly in the big cities. I found myself wondering: Would I just have blended in better if I had been wearing western clothes?
- The answer is probably yes, in some situations. Clearly we’re not advocating wandering around India in a backpack and saree (hardly the most comfortable combination). Here are a few guidelines, based on our experiences:
- In cities or touristy areas (think Goa, Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Rishikesh Ladakh etc) you’re fine in western clothes, or a Kurta and leggings / jeans.
- In rural areas and villages, you’ll need to dress more conservatively and local clothing can help here for women. We suggest wearing Kurta + Leggings or a Punjabi Suit / Salwar Kameez (baggy trousers + kurta top).
- Some parts of India are more conservative than others – e.g. Uttar Pradesh & Rajasthan are more traditional than Maharashtra, so local clothing as above for rural India can be helpful.
- If in doubt: Look at what the local women of your age around you are wearing and use that as a barometer. In general, Sarees are the preserve of married, Indian women, and we don’t recommend wearing them out and about on your travels for visitors unless you are invited to wear one to a special occasion or event (such as a wedding). Buying one as a souvenir is of course fine!
What to Wear in India: The Essentials
Here are our recommended essential items for dressing in India for Women. Go for natural fibres / fabrics whereever you can as these keep you cooler and are more comfortable (plus they are better for the environment).
- Sunglasses – not only for keeping the sun out, but great for avoiding any stares or would be Romeo’s. We love ethical brand Pala Eyewear.
- A secure handbag / purse. We love crossbody bags as you can keep them in front of you and on your person at all times (i’ve always used crossbody bags when travelling in India). A basic leather one is good, or for added security you can use a Travelon one which has additional security measures built in!
- Scarves, Scarves, Scarves. Drape them across your chest, backwards like a dupatta (Indian Style), wrap them over your head in the heat, or around your shoulders to keep warm in AC. You will find so many uses for your scarf! We recommend 1 x Thin / light Linen, Cotton or Hemp Scarf and 1 x Thicker Shawl (which you can also use a blanket on AC trains etc)
- Tunic tops / loose shirts or blouses – we love this one and this one
- T-shirts – preferably made from organic cotton, hemp or bamboo such as these ones
- Kurta tops – you can buy them online if you just can’t wait until you get to India 😉
- Warmer Layer such as a fleece or hoodie (always take one warmer layer for air conditioned transport and winter in North India)
- High quality organic cotton/bamboo vest tops are useful for wearing under a blouse / kurta if it’s really hot and you don’t want to wear a bra – (personally I find they really dig in in the heat). Cotton layers actually help to keep you cool 🙂
- Loose fitting harem pants or Linen trousers like these
- Leggings (only wear under a long top that covers your bottom)
- Jeans – skinny or regular (we suggest 1 pair is enough)
- Modest shorts for the beach (not ones that expose your ‘cheeks!)
- A long, loose skirt or Linen trousers like these – skirts are great for bus travel in case you have to go to the bathroom in nature! Make sure your long skirt is not too tight and doesn’t have tall slits in the side. (I saw a girl wearing a long skirt with thigh-high slits in at the Taj Mahal – and every man in sight was gaping at her.)
Swimwear for India
- A loose fitting kaftan or maxi dress can be handy if you’ll be hitting the beach
- A bikini or swimsuit is fine for resorts or the touristy beaches of Goa. On local beaches or in the countryside we suggest swimming with a t-shirt & shorts on as locals swim fully clothed.
- Don’t ever walk around off the beach in your swimwear
- We suggest taking a pair of sandals / flip flops for chilling out in (we love Reef who contribute to cleaning up beaches around the world). These are also super useful for visiting temples where you need to remove shoes.
- A pair of covered pumps / canvas shoes such as Toms for travel and walking around cities (you don’t want step in something nasty)
- Hiking shoes if you’re going to be trekking (breathable ones are recommended and make sure you wear them in beforehand)
- You can buy cheap “chuppels” in India (pretty decorated sandals) so leave plenty of space in your bag!
What to Wear for Yoga in India
- Leave your tight leggings, racerbacks and spandex at home!
- A loose fitting t-shirt
- Baggy yoga trousers / harem pants
Yoga in India is a modest affair and you won’t see the tight yoga clothes that have become a staple of “western” yoga. Try to bring tops you can tuck into your trousers to avoid flashing during your downward dogs!
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Knowing What to Wear and When
As you’ll see in our “should I dress in local clothing” section – we recommend adapting what you wear depending on where you are in India. The easiest way to judge this is to look at what people your age are wearing around you. In general, in cities and touristy areas you are fine in western clothing (but do stick to the rules of not showing your shoulders, chest or legs above the shin).
Even in some more touristic areas – notably Agra, Varanasi and other parts of central India, these regions are more conservative and you will want to cover more than you’d need to on the beaches of Goa. In other specific situations such as going on Tiger or other Wildlife Safaris in India you’ll want to be covered and wearing neutral tones – leave that beautiful bright red top at home.
What to Wear in India for Men
Ah, guys, you have it so easy! Much of the debate around how to dress as a traveller to India is related to women because of the traditional society that exists there. As a man you can wear pretty much what you would at home, although a few things to bear in mind:
- Shorts are not popular in India except on the beach. You can wear them, but you won’t see many Indian men wearing them in towns and cities. If you’re going to any formal type of event, don’t wear shorts.
- Don’t go topless (again unless you’re on the beach)
- You don’t need to wear local clothing – even in villages. You’ll get a few odd looks if you wander India in a Salwar Kameez!
- The best bet? Jeans / Chinos and t-shirts / shirts. We recommend light jeans and cotton t-shirts or polo shirts for a slightly smarter look.
Final Words of Advice
If you research in advance (like reading this post!) and do your packing right, you won’t have to worry about what to wear in India when you’re there! Job done!
We recommend not packing too much (flexibility and items you can mix/match are the key) – not least because there are so many beautiful clothes, scarves and accessories you’ll want to buy once you’re there!
Next step: Have an amazing time in India!
Read more about Travel in India on Soul Travel:
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