Wondering what to wear in India? India is a country well known throughout the globe for its culture, history and colour. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that visiting India is on the bucket list for many of us. Indian culture spans more than 4500 years into our known history; the Taj Mahal, a relatively modern relic by comparison to the country's vast history, is one of India's most well-renowned sights and is an icon of architectural beauty, as well as a great symbol of love.
Situated in South Asia, India is the 7th largest country in the world and home to approximately 1.3 billion people (it is also the second most populous country worldwide). India is large and diverse; with 7 major faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Jainism, and Christianity) being practised throughout the country. Within these major faiths reside several smaller ones. India, with her vast expanse of land, is most definitely a country worth seeing, but with pursuing this journey it is important to remember to be respectful to all of those that live there. One rather obvious but important way through which a traveller can show respect is by the way they dress.
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As such, when considering travelling to India it comes as no surprise that many a what they should wear, especially seeing as the country is well known for its humid and warm climate.
Before we delve into a series of suggestions of what you should wear whilst visiting India, let's have a quick look at India's history with fabrics. India domesticated the cotton plant in 4000BCE, a textile that then became one of the main fabrics used in Indian clothing. Traditional Indian dress varies in colour and style depending on the climate, faith and region. Particularly popular are draped garments such as saris, for women, and dhoti or lungi for men. In addition, some other popular garments in India are the shalwar kameez (also known as a Punjabi suit) for women (and in some regions men), which combines shalwars (trousers) that are quite wide at the waist but narrow into a cuffed bottom, and kameez (long shirt or tunic) that typically have open side seams below the waistline allowing for a greater freedom of movement.
The shalwar kameez was greatly popularised with the arrival of Muslims in the north of India during the 13th Century, worn initially by Muslim women, the style gradually spread making the shalwar kameez the regional style of Northern India. Similarly, for men, there is the kurta pajama, which also combines loose fitting trousers topped with a long tunic that comes to about knee length.
The main feature that all of these traditional garments share? They are lightweight and breathable. Two very important factors to consider when deciding what to pack for a trip to India. When choosing what to wear in India, your most trusted companions become your clothes made of natural fibres, particularly cotton, linen and silk. These textiles produce clothing that is soft and comfortable to wear, whilst keeping you cool in hot weather and warm in cooler temperatures. Textiles that combine natural fibres with synthetic ones such as polyester and nylon are not advised as they are not as breathable and can lead to much-feared sweaty patches.
When choosing your outfits for your Indian adventures, it is also important to include a list of jewellery and other accessories such as hats and scarves. Traditionally, in India jewellery is delicate and frequently modelled on real flowers. In addition, gemstones are often worn as talismans, carrying various symbolism for the wearer.
The importance of being respectful
India is a vast country with a population of gigantic proportions, and while some things in Indian culture are shared throughout the country, there are many regions that differ from one another, for example in terms of religious or societal beliefs.
Whilst India's economic development is growing, it must not be forgotten that India remains a developing country and thus continues to face social, political, and environmental issues. Additionally, India has more than a 3000 year history with its caste system; a system of rigid social stratification which divides Hindus into hierarchical groups based on their work and duty. Whilst efforts dating back to the 1950s have been made to reduce the influence of caste through a series of legislation focusing on aiding those who have been traditionally disadvantaged, caste identities remain strong particularly in more rural areas, which have yet to be influenced by the spread of secular education and growing urbanisation that has occurred in cities.
As such, with so many different religions and social beliefs remaining respectful may seem like somewhat of a minefield. It is most certainly not. In terms of clothing, the best both men and women can do is to remain modest and to research the area that they are visiting. Some areas, like Goa on the Western coast, are far more liberal and Westernised than others, such as Rajasthan, in North India. Similarly, rural areas are more conservative than large cities. The general rule of thumb is this: modesty is key. Women, in general, should avoid showing their knees, cleavage and shoulders (by wearing, for example, spaghetti strap tops). A little bit of a bare midriff is alright, but if you're unsure, avoid it. For men, it is slightly easier but they should avoid wearing shorts that are shorter than knee length.
Scarves & Shawls to wear in India
Possibly the two most versatile items you could bring, scarves and shawls are a must have when travelling to India, as they double up as many things.
When visiting local temples and religious buildings it is necessary for both men and women to be respectful. This usually means that women and to a certain extent men ought to be covered up. In such occasions, a scarf or a shawl can double up as a headscarf and a shoulder wrap. Note that when visiting religious buildings you will be asked to remove your shoes. India is a hot country, therefore many indoor spaces have strong air-conditioning units to keep spaces and people cool. A scarf and or a shawl can be used in this scenario to protect from the cold air. Though perhaps packing a cardigan or a light jumper is also not a bad idea.
Colour is vital in India. There is an entire festival dedicated to colour. Holi, the festival of spring, colours and love is a Hindu festival that is celebrated in India, Nepal and amongst the diaspora of the Indian subcontinent worldwide. So what better way is there to add a vibrant tone of colour to your outfit other than with a beautiful scarf or shawl?
Clothing to wear in India
As we have already illustrated, modesty and respect should be your priority when considering what clothes to bring along on a trip to India.
For women, some excellent options of what to bring include:
- Lightweight, airy dresses and skirts. Always make sure that these items come to at least knee height, though really what is there more comfortable than a lovely flowing maxi dress or skirt?
- Tops that are lightweight and breathable such as tunics, cotton or linen shirts and cotton t-shirts. Make sure that these items cover your shoulders and don't show cleavage.
- Formal Dress. For formal occasions do bring something colourful and glittery, just make sure that it adheres to how much and what should be covered up.
- Trousers, we can all agree are very comfortable, especially if you plan on walking or exploring certain other attractions such as safaris. Again make sure these are lightweight breathable fabrics. Jeans are alright, but perhaps in crowded and warmer areas, you may get too hot in them. Make sure to respect the knee rule if opting for shorts, and absolutely do not wear short shorts.
- Warmer garments. If you plan on travelling to the mountains the climate can be significantly colder than in cities or more coastal regions. As such, make sure to bring items that you can layer to keep yourself warm. Similarly, if you plan on going on a safari whilst in India, these tend to take place in the early hours of dawn where the temperatures are often cooler. As the day progresses and the temperature rises, you want to be wearing layers that yes keep you warm during the cooler hours, but that you can also remove without being immodest as it gets warmer in the day.
Men, whilst not as confined as women in terms of covering up, modesty is also something that you must adhere to. Some options of what clothing to bring on a trip to India include:
- Lightweight shirts, particularly linen and cotton are good options.
- Lightweight trousers, also the linen and cotton options are likely going to be more suitable than anything else. On average Indian men usually, just wear a shirt and trousers, think the kind of smart casual you would wear going to a day event in a nice part of your town, where you should look effortless, but also groomed.
- A summer suit is also an important combination item to bring as some places in India have very strict dress codes. Don't bring too many of these however as you can also get some custom made in India if that is indeed your cup of tea.
- Jeans, much like for women they are alright, however, you must consider that you may get too hot in them, and if you are bringing shorts make sure they are knee length.
- A lightweight jumper or two, and perhaps a jacket, for when you are in air-conditioned spaces or want to dress an outfit of yours up for a more formal event.
- Layers. As with the advice for women, make sure you pack layers for you will be thanking yourself later.
As far as clothing is concerned, do not overpack! This goes for both women and men. Leave space in your suitcase for all the beautiful garments you will find, and trust us, you will want to buy, whilst travelling to India.
Footwear to wear in India
Few things are more important than a comfortable pair of shoes, especially when travelling where the aim is to walk and see as much as possible.
When thinking of what shoes to pack, primarily pick something comfortable. Sandals and espadrilles are good contenders for easy footwear, particularly in warm climates. Avoid heels for everyday wear as they can become uncomfortable, though you may want to pack a pair for more formal occasions. Similarly avoid heavy things such as hiking boots, unless of course, you are planning on going hiking.
During the rainy season, you guessed it, it can be very wet, so if you are travelling during this time make sure to have packed waterproof shoes, your feet and socks will thank you.
Remember that in many areas where Hinduism is the primary religion, Delhi for example, cows are a sacred animal. In those regions leather is highly frowned upon, and we know of people whose shoes have been spat on because they were wearing leather moccasins. Whilst you can't necessarily be expected to not have any leather footwear that is comfortable and that you want to bring with you, just be wary that in some areas this may be highly offensive and do your research prior to visiting. The same applies to leather accessories such as belts - though these are easier to hide.
Accessories to wear in India
In thinking about accessories we are referring to hats, sunglasses and jewellery. India gets hot and the sun is particularly strong, so most definitely bring a hat to protect yourself from the heat of the sun beating down onto your head. Particularly those of you with brown or black hair we are sure you know how uncomfortably hot your head can get in the sun.
Other ways to protect your head from the sun is your trusty scarf or shawl, or perhaps a bandana. Sunglasses are excellent protection for your eyes and always add a smidge of extra style to your chosen outfit, so bring some.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, jewellery has a long history of importance in Indian culture and it is a beautiful way by which to bring out your natural characteristics as well as the charm of whatever it is you've decided to wear on the day. As ever, exercise caution with what jewellery you decide to bring onto your journey, as some more valuable items may be a little bit more at risk when travelling.
Fun fact for men reading this
For all men thinking of travelling to India, here is an interesting little fact for you (especially those of you that take a certain amount of pride in your facial hair). India has an interesting history with moustaches; they are considered a symbol of power, and status.
In fact, it was reported in 2004 that police in one of India's Madhya Pradesh districts are indeed being funded to grow their moustaches because their superiors believe that this hairy addition makes them command more respect from the public.
A quick Google search of this has indeed yielded many a report on how moustaches in India are laden with cultural importance, and how the moustache as a facial feature has a long tradition of societal importance throughout many cultures worldwide. The more you know!
To surmise, travelling to India may be your lifelong dream, a much-looked-forward-to task to check off your bucket list. Perhaps you are drawn in by the idea of colour, cuisine and culture that have the potential to overload your senses in the most titillating of ways.
Whatever your reason for travelling to India, what you choose to wear is one of the most important decisions you will make (probably). The garments and accessories that you choose to adorn yourself with can be a direct reflection of your personality and character, they are after all the aspects of your taste that you choose to display to the world.
With this in mind, remember that when travelling to countries, such as India, with rich histories and diverse cultures, that respect is of utmost importance. Being respectful in the way you dress will to a large extent determine the experience you have, as by exuding consideration for local customs usually also makes locals more interested in sharing their knowledge of their place with you. Modesty is key, and definitely, leave ample space in your suitcase for all the treasures that you are sure to find upon your travels.