How to dress for social success in India

Women in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India

Women in Rajasthan, India

When in Rajasthan do as the Rajasthanis do

India is still largely a traditional country, and knowing how to dress can mean the difference between a pleasant journey and many wonderful moments of contact with some of the warmest people on earth — or a sea of hassles.

In spite of what you see in Bollywood movies, most Indians still favour modest, traditional clothing – and you may find that you enjoy your time in India more if you do too. This is especially true once you leave inner city Delhi and Mumbai, or if you go to any social occasions (such as weddings), festivals (such as Diwali or Holi) or to religious gatherings, temples, gurdwaras and mosques. And it’s true in places frequented by lots of tourists.

Though Rajasthan is the Indian state most visited by tourists, it is still one of the most traditional and conservative – and this is amply evident by the way people dress, work and live. Personally, I think it is wise when in Rajasthan to do as the Rajasthanis do. Read on for tips on how to dress for social success in India and check out Shopping in India: What to buy in India.

Here’s what you need to know to dress for success

In the zenana, Agra, India

In the zenana, Agra, India

1. Wear “suits”

Bring underwear and comfortable shoes and sandals to India, but not a lot of other clothes. Go shopping in India for three-piece salwar kameez sets (also known as suits). These consist of a long or short tunic, tight or loose pants and a long scarf, called a dupatta or chunni. Wear all three pieces together. Buy cotton in summer and silk or cotton in winter. FabIndia is a great store to buy mix-and-match suits.

2. It pays to fit in

Wearing Indian clothes has several advantages. It suits the climate and the need for modesty, plus you will fit in a bit better, and be less of a target for beggars and touts. You can get in touch with your inner hippie or backpacker in India if you like, but you will pay the price with a lot more hassles. If you are wearing Indian clothes, local people tend to respect you more and also treat you with more warmth, honesty and openness. Try it and see what I mean.

Women in saris and Indian clothes in Delhi, India3. Always carry a scarf

In gurdwaras and mosques you have to cover your head, so it’s a good idea to always have a long scarf (such as a dupatta or chunni) with you.

4. Sensible shoes a must

You need good solid, comfortable shoes in India. The infrastructure is not good so pavement is broken, potholes are everywhere and sewage sometimes runs freely in the streets.

5. Watch your feet

Speaking of shoes, feet and shoes are considered “unclean” in India. You may be asked to remove your shoes to enter people’s homes and you definitely have to leave your shoes at the entrance to temples, gurdwaras and mosques. There is usually someone there who will store them for 10 rupees. Also, never point or touch anything with your foot.

6. Cover up

As a general rule, make sure your legs and shoulders are covered, especially in religious or sacred places. Women in India are very modest about their breasts. They wear armour-like bras and then drape their dupattas over their chests. You will probably not feel comfortable in a thin, light bra; or in clothing that reveals your bra. This look is trendy in the west, but a taboo in India.

7. Splash out on jewelery

The modesty rule goes out the window for jewelry. Layer it on and the bigger the better. But be careful it’s valuable. Don’t wander around displaying valuable rings, watches and other jewelry unless you are in an upscale neighbourhood or at a private social event, hotel or nice restaurant.

8. Pack a shawl

Everyone loves Indian shawls – inaccurately called pashminas – and they can really come in handy for both modesty and warmth. Unless it’s meltingly hot, I usually carry one. Real pashminas, by the way, are very expensive: if someone tries to sell you one for the equivalent of $5, $20, $50 or even $100, guaranteed it’s not pure pashmina.

Women in Delhi, India wearing Indian clothes

Women in Delhi don’t skimp on colour

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8 Responses to How to dress for social success in India

  1. Menon December 31, 2010 at 10:15 am #

    Good observation. Very true and well written.

  2. Becky in Atlanta December 31, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    I do wish more American women would try wearing Indian ‘suits’. Such beautiful colors, very comfortable to wear, flattering to a lot of different body types. Love them!

  3. ashok gupta December 31, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    you are a real hindu, merri ellen . you are telling us what is it to be a true hindu.

  4. sofia January 1, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    I love the way the women dress, so colorful!

  5. Kirsten January 3, 2011 at 12:33 am #

    The very first image is truly beautiful, it could be in a travel magazine!

    Also, these tips are so wonderful. Many of them I had never heard so I really find this so incredibly useful.

  6. Alison January 8, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    Great tips which I am certainly taking to heart as my husband and I work through preparation for moving to Kolkata/Calcutta in mid-2011 for a two year assignment there. We plan to do a fair amount of travelling throughout the country, and look forward to any excuse to leave behind the drab, frankly uncomfortable, clothing of North America and engage with the various cultural regions whenever we can. Bravo, Mariellen!

  7. Kiran January 27, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    Becky you summarized it well. Having said that, let me tell you that getting the right “flattering” size is as challenging as it is interesting. But sure, Indian costumes are unique in that sense. There is not shortage of colors when it comes to dressing in India, they vacillate from exuberant to outrageous to magnificent to even romantic and pleasant at times. Anyway, just came across this website which has some great travel deals and also a membership program that lets you get discounts on shopping…thought it would be useful.

  8. Ameli May 31, 2017 at 2:49 am #

    This is really the original tradition among every other Indians. We value our culture and I am happy that so you are.

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