What to wear in India for female travelers?
If you are traveling to India soon and you wonder what to wear during your trip, this is the post for you. I have traveled in India for a period of two months between March and May 2014. Before going to India I conducted a bit of research on what was considered appropriate to wear. I had heard in the news of stories of foreign women getting harassed by Indian men and that got me a bit worried for my safety in India. From Holland I brought black leggings with a tight, black, long-sleeved, high-closed tunica above the knees and a scarf. I thought that would bring me a long way and it appeared to be pretty close for a first choice, but a little too hot for the time of year (36-40℃) and not concealing enough for my preference.
What are Salwar-Kameez and Saris?
Many women in India wear beautiful saris and three-part suits called Salwar-Kameez. This suit usually consist of a wide or tight legging, a knee-long, non revealing, wide tunic and a scarf that can cover the head. This outfit is combined with leather sandals or beautifully decorated leather sandals with a small heel. A sari is a symbol of Indian and Bangladeshi culture and is worn with a lot of grace. It is a beautiful, long garland that consists of drape varying from two to nine yards in length. It is draped around the body to form a dress. It is combined with a top in similar colors called a choli. Sometimes its draping leaves open a part of the belly to view, which I found peculiar since everything else is covered. In my Dutch culture uncovered bellies can be frowned upon unless you are super lean and find yourself in a gym or close to the beach. Here in India, showing a small part of the belly by wearing a sari is accepted, even if the belly is big and fat. Nevertheless, I would not advise a Western woman to copy the dress.
Why wear an outfit that is appropriate within Indian culture while you are foreign?
My story is this: The first day we landed in a big Indian city, Mumbai, I wore shorts, a spaghetti top and flip flops. As soon as I exited the airport terminal like this, everyone stared at me inappropriately (for my taste). It is not just a stare and people look away, it is full frontal staring that holds seemingly forever. People just stop and turn to look at you as if they never seen a foreigner before and keep looking at you even if you have long passed. I found this very uncomfortable and I felt very aware of my bare skin and large breasts. From women I got stares and frowns of disapproval. From men it was a long, following stare and my dress was interpreted as an invitation to touch me and talk to me in not so appropriate words. Right then I decided I would wear an adapted form of Indian dress for the rest of my travels through the country. As I am not Indian, a full sari would not be appropriate, but a Salwar Kameez would certainly not be frowned upon.
Where to shop for a Salwar Kameez in India?
During our first weeks we stayed at Dunes Holiday Village in Mandrem Beach, Goa. Many foreigners spend long periods of time in Goa and dress in Western style without being frowned upon, stared at or touched inappropriately. Right at the entrance of the hotel, there was a shop called Ambika Concept that sold Salwar Kameez appropriate for Westerners. A smart idea really! To visit their site go here: http://ambikaconcept.com/. If you are not visiting Goa in your trip, you could try Fab India which is a chain store that can be found in all major cities. Here you find Salwar Kameez in timid, natural colors.
How does that outfit look?
One hot afternoon I went shopping and bought three Salwar Kameez outfits for a total of 2,850 INR (± EUR 35). I bought a blue set that included a blue/ white Salwar that can be worn on two sides, two pairs of Kameez (blue and white) and I combined it with a pink scarf I brought from Holland to cover my head. The second outfit was a brightly colored and striped Salwar with beautiful design combined with a loose green Kameez. I combined it with a purple/ golden scarf I brought from Holland. The last outfit was a short black Salwar that is really a kind of short jump suit top. I combined it with the black legging from Holland and a scarf. I use this outfit for traveling in buses and trains. If you’d like to buy an Indian scarf to go with your Salwar Kameez ask for a dupatta. This is a long, light weight scarf and you are supposed to wear it covering your cleavage in front where the two ends lay over your shoulder hanging over your back. You pull it over your head when your path crosses an unfamiliar man.
You might think: what about shoes?
I chose to wear brightly colored open sandals with the Salwar Kameez or plain black flip flops. I brought them from Holland. If you’d like to go all out on the Indian style, there are beautiful leather sandals for sale on the streets everywhere. I would also go for a silver ankle bracelet and some arm bracelets to complete the look.
What is the effect of adapting your dress?
The first time I went out in my blue suit, we were in Udaipur and I immediately could feel the effects. Steven, who always walks behind me when we cruise the streets and who keeps an eye on me, could affirm it. A big change in how both men and women perceive me. I receive many wiggles from men and little appreciative nods from women. Men have said to me: ”You dress as Indian woman, really pretty!” and ”I love your Salwar” from women. Many people would look at me in surprise and give me a smile. Their eye sees something that is unusual for a visiting tourist. As a result I feel safer and less vulnerable. And yes, a Salwar Kameez is warm, but it is made of very light cottons or semi-silks and are surprisingly breezy. I would recommend it to anyone.
Our culture allows for showing a lot of skin and considers it sexy. Indian culture sees it as cheap and inappropriate. For me it was an obvious choice to adapt my dress. I got a lot of appreciation and nice comments back for doing so and I would advise any other female traveler to give it a try!