So you’ve booked your first trip to India! You’re excited, you have your itinerary arranged and now it’s time to pack. But you don’t have a clue on what to pack or wear when you are in India. When I first traveled to India in March 2017, I was really worried about what to wear. It’s a completely different country, and a religious one and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t want to stand out, but I didn’t want to appropriate another cultures dress either. I scoured the Internet and wasn’t sure what to believe and what to wear. It didn’t help that I started shopping for my trip in the middle of winter, where there were no summer-esque, or even spring vibe outfits to be found for the Indian climate in March. But, I figured it out and was very happy with most of my choices while on my trip to India. Here’s my guide of what to wear while you are in India.
Wear loose-fitting clothing in India
Generally speaking, for women, it is best to wear loose-fitting clothing that does not reveal your shape, particularly in more rural areas. You should cover your shoulders, as it is seen as somewhat scandalous in India to bear them. You will notice that many of the locals may wear jeans, have their midriff and backs exposed, even a little cleavage popping out. But they usually are almost always fully covered in terms of their legs and their shoulders. As a tourist and westerner you do not need to be dressed from head to toe. I did make sure my shoulders were covered and I didn’t have cleavage exposed, my clothes were not form fitting or tight and my pants always went past the knee (but were not ankle length).
Color Choices for clothes in India
You would also think wearing lighter colors would be the best bet because of the heat. While this is true and certainly a consideration, you tend to get dirty quickly in India. If you are reusing clothes without the ability to give them a good wash, darker items of clothing may be better. Of course, wearing dark clothes all the time you’re in India is a bit boring, as I ended up feeling. Here you need to decide what’s best for you. If you are visiting the Taj Mahal you should consider a bright colorful outfit, as it makes a beautiful contrast against the white marble. I did not do this…. So this is another example of “Do as I say and not as I did”.
Carry a scarf/shawl when in India
It’s a good idea to carry a scarf or shawl when traveling throughout India. I brought two with me and used them multiple times. You can use them to cover your shoulders if you are wearing a tank top. In some temples, you need to cover your hair. I also used mine to block out the sun on the bus. They can also help you blend in a little more and give you some privacy. You don’t necessarily need to buy a scarf specifally for your trip to India. When you arrive you will find plenty of places to buy beautiful scarves and fabrics, as I did in Udaipur. You can also get super creative with your scarf wear if you just want to wear a tank top. You can cut a hole in the middle and put your head through and let it rest over the rest of your body and shoulders. Or you can wrap it around your shoulders and knot it, or pin it together so your shoulders are always covered scarves can also be used to cover your head when you need to (or want to).
Hats and Sunblock
Take my advice and if you need a hat, don’t forget it. It was not easy to find hats in India – I have no idea why!!!!! I lost my hat on the plane, and spent the rest of my trip without one. I couldn’t find a hat anywhere! Sun block is also important. Instead of carrying a big tube around, you can cover up with light breathable clothing, and put some in a little contact lens box to just apply to your face and arms.
Many people suggest sandals or flip-flops so you can take them off easily with temples. Sure - if you love sandals and flip-flops and don’t mind getting dusty or dirty feet everywhere you go. I regretted not bringing my Asic sneakers because I have silly feet. My feet ached in my normal slip off sketchers, and I regretted taking this advice. There’s plenty of time to take off your shoes and put them back on again no matter where you go and as long as you’re not wearing flashy sneakers, your shoes should be fine waiting for you. Here go for whatever comfort works for you. I do recommend bringing a pair of back up shoes – I had a pair of converse for travel days, a pair of sketchers for walking, and a pair of Sperry’s that were sacrificed to Holi. Your shoes get dirty quickly in India so either take a scrappy pair to wear out, or take two/three pairs if you hate wearing sandals like me. You may want to bring closed shoes just because well, the bathrooms can be a dodgy activity at times!
To each their own. India is hot though – heavy foundation and tons of makeup doesn’t work too well here if you aren’t used to the heat. I used my bb cream foundation every day, mascara, little bit of eye primer, eye shadow, blush and mascara. Some days I just opted for mascara. Most likely, half of your makeup will melt off by the afternoon, so I wouldn't waste time worrying about makeup, when you can spend more time exploring this incredible country!
My outfits FOR TRAVELING IN INDIA
While I am writing a post on what I packed for India, here are just the clothing items I took. In hindsight, I do wish I was just a little more adventurous with colors, though it was difficult to find this kind of clothing before my trip. Now, a few months later, I see perfect outfits everywhere I go and am half tempted to buy them for my next trip to India - which I am sure there will be one one day! These are the outfits I packed for India:
Three pairs of loose fitting cropped pants
- Old Navy linen beige pants
- Loft Factory Store grey loose fitting cropped pants
- Nordstrom Rack Linen Denim loose fitting cropped pants
- Old Navy Various loose fitting tops that covers the butt
- Old Navy Half-length sleeve tops covering the butt quit excessively
- Target long length shaped T-shirts
Other outfit ideas
- Long or knee length dresses (make sure they aren’t see-through)
- Leggings with tunics that go past your bum
- T-shirts and tank tops, with a scarf to cover your shoulders or skin
- Sarong used as a skirt (maybe with legging underneath) make sure that it isn’t too see-through
- Light cotton tops/ shirts to wear over tank tops
- Harem/gypsy/elephant pants – you can buy hundreds of these for cheap in India. Of course the quality isn’t great either, but if you’re just using it for your trip why not? I’m personally not a fan of them but many people buy these and use them when traveling.
Why you need to consider your clothing choices in India
India has a certain reputation when it comes to the treatment of women. You will see it everywhere in the news about the horrific things that have happened to some women tourists. Women in India experience this as daily life as well. Numerous women travelers to India will warn you about the harassment that comes with traveling to India as a woman. Truthfully this did not happen to me at all. I was never groped or touched inappropriately. I was stared at, suggestively, and men photographed me sneakily. However, I was also one of the few on my trip that wasn’t groped. I genuinely do believe that part of this is in part related to my RBF (resting b#tch face) and in part because I was dressed in a particular way. I never wore a short dress or short shorts, I always wore loose fitting clothing, and I never wore any clothing that cut above the knee nor did I expose my shoulders. I by no means am speaking ill of my fellow travelers, and I also believe strongly that you should wear what you want to, but I do think you need to consider the environment, culture, and country you are in. I do believe that some of the clothes they were wearing made some contribution to the type of harassment they had. I by NO MEANS think this is ok, and I think India has a lot of progression to do in terms of its relationship with women and gender roles in society (perhaps another topic for another day), but it is an unfortunate fact that in patriarchal societies (even my own one like South Africa, and the one I live in now, the US), the way you dress tends to influence the way you are treated by men. I was also informed by other travelers from India, who have lived there for a few months, that your clothes can invite the wrong kind of attention. Time after time I was told: you will receive attention regardless of what you wear because you are a westerner. The type of attention you receive will be dictated by what you wear. Cover up and don’t wear tight clothes was always their advice. Women who are wearing clothes that reveal a lot of skin, either cutting above the knee like a short dress or skirt, or exposing the shoulders, will receive bad attention. The girls that were wearing these outfits did get groped, or had the aunties give them dirty looks and shook their fingers (so its not just men!). As a traveler, I also firmly believe that you should be respectful and mindful of the culture you are traveling to, and aim to blend in, not stick out and shock!
If you are traveling to cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai, you don’t really need to be too concerned about what you are wearing. Many of the women there are wearing skinny jeans and it is much more relaxed. In more rural areas, and smaller towns and villages, it is wise to be respectful of the customs in those palaces, and more appropriate in your attire.
India is an incredible country and is filled with adventure. Don't let what people have said, or what you see in the news deter you. I hope this guide to what to wear in India as a women has helped you - please let me know in the comments! If you are looking for more posts on India and my travels there, see below!
India Travel Tips and Guides
- Tips and advice for the Taj Mahal
- Going on safari in Ranthambore National Park
- My first day in India
- Cooking Indian food
- Where to stay in Agra, near the Taj Mahal