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I like to believe the majority of the time I have got my packing down, but packing for India was a game changer. Like many women, I really stressed about what to wear in India. I spent ages researching what was deemed as respectable and then trying to find clothes to match this which would also be comfortable for the heat of November in India.
Our two week India itinerary saw us travelling to both the North and South of India, and while I found the South (Kerala) to be more relaxed than the North, I knew we would be visiting many temples and historical places, and it is important to me to respect local cultures. Safety can also be another concern when deciding on what to wear in India, I personally had no safety issues at all while there, but even when ‘fully covered’ I did still notice starring from men on various occasions, who knows the reasoning behind this, and it is completely unfair to speculate, but I was glad I choose not to draw additional attention to myself by baring my legs or chest.
What to wear in India for female travellers
Loose cotton trousers
If you have visited South East Asia you will know what I mean. They are essentially loose fitted, cotton parachute trousers, and while my backpack elephant cliché trousers are strictly reserved for lounging at home, you can now buy more fashionable pairs from high street stores such as Fatface. Having bare legs are not seen as respectable in many parts of India, therefore these trousers are a great compromise with the Indian heat.
Short sleeved tops and vest tops
These style tops go great with the trousers mentioned above and they also take up minimal room when packing. As much as possible avoid too low-cut tops and where possible go for cotton jersey style or other thin material to help with heat control. The H&M and Primark basic ranges are great for these style tops, usually priced around £2, there is no need to spend a lot of money on these items.
Oversized cotton scarves
You may have noticed I mentioned vest tops above even though baring your shoulders is considered disrespectful in the majority of places in India. Oversized cotton scarves are a great compromise to this as they can be easily wrapped around shoulders without causing you to overheat. Try to purchase neutral coloured tops but then buy bright coloured scarves to liven up outfits and add some colour to your Indian outfits. I have many which I have picked up at markets over the years but also a beautiful Tiger print one I purchased from ZSL London Zoo a few years ago, it is no longer available but they do currently have a bright coloured flamingo scarf.
You can also purchase scarves with hidden pockets inside for money and passports, these make a great alternative to money belts for keeping your valuables safe.
Playsuits are my go-to when in the heat, however as these were not suitable in India, I opted to purchase one or two jumpsuits. These were just a nice alternative to the trouser and top combo which when accessorised with a scarf become a suitable outfit for all occasions. I am a big fan of Superdry and Fatface for good quality, comfortable jumpsuits.
Another alternative but one which can also be used for more dressier events such as going out to dinner, or in my case visiting the Taj Mahal. I saw a lot of advice regarding wearing bright outfits to the Taj Mahal to contrast the white building, however, I opted for a black maxi dress. The reason I chose a neutral colour when visiting the Taj Mahal was that I wanted photos I could look back on years down the line and not question what I was wearing, vain but true. Black is classic and will not go out of style, in my opinion I would advise you to go with a neutral classic outfit.
Many temples and even stores will request you leave your shoes outside before entering, therefore it makes sense to have shoes you can easily slip on and off. Many guides will recommend you pack flip-flops for this very reason, however, if you do make sure they have good quality soles and are sturdy. In many cities, especially Delhi, it can be really dirty on the floor, the last thing you will want to worry about is having thin, cheap flip-flops and in return having filthy feet. You will also most likely be doing a lot of walking, so think comfort. I personally recommend a pair of good quality Birkenstock sandals, they have a sturdy, thick sole so therefore you will be more raised than in flip-flops plus they are extremely comfortable.
Take a pair of trainers as well, mainly for comfort reasons but also, if you do get to certain areas and do not feel happy walking in flip-flops or sandals at least you have an alternative.
Loose long cardigans
A good cover up if you do not feel like wearing a scarf over your top, again due to the heat opt for a thin cotton cardigan. Kimonos are also a great alternative and can be bought in bright colours to liven up neutral outfits
I did take one pair of shorts to India with me, however, the only place I wore them was on a houseboat in Alleppey, Kerala. We were on a private boat (just us and the two members of the crew) for 24 hours and I opted to wear shorts than for comfort reasons. As soon as we got off the boat at any point I slipped a pair of cotton trousers over the top.
Cities like Delhi can be really busy and at times over-crowded, carry on over the shoulder back with you which you can easily pull around to your front in these situations. You can also cross it over your body for added security. Shoulder bags can easily transition from day-to-night bags so are great again for saving space when packing, however, if you are not a fan, I also took my Kanken backpack, which also has a top loop so it can be carried by hand as well. Kanken backpacks are my go to as I often suffer from a bad back, they are designed to evenly share the weight of the bag and help with this issue
What not to wear in India
Female travellers are advised to dress in a specific way to avoid untoward male attention, an unfortunate Indian reality. Indian women generally wear loose-fitting garments that cover their shoulders and legs below the knees, a tactic that has proved to significantly reduce the problem.
Avoid shorter dresses, shorts and skirts, as well as tight outfits that highlight your curves. We noticed travellers who followed this dress code attracted significantly less unwanted attention, although a few long creepy stares are inevitable.
What do local women wear in India
Traditional Indian clothing is synonymous with beautifully bright colourful colours and flowing fabrics draped to fall off the body. These themes still shine through today, although modern Indian dress is also influenced by Western fashion.
This has been the case since around the 1970s, when the West and India seemingly met for a wardrobe swap. While many European designers integrated Indian fabrics and traditional techniques into their garments, the Indian high streets started to look slightly more like the West.
Despite slight globalisation Indian streetwear, traditional influences remain strong, creating a distinct modern style in urban India. This style combines age-old traditional garments such as a kurti with jeans. This combines the comfort and practicality of Western attire with traditional Indian elegance.
Tops tips for clothing in India
- Remember covered shoulders and below the knee for outfits. This is not a law, and I did see tourists in Delhi wearing above knee shorts, but it is respectful and helps to not draw additional attention to yourself. It is also important to know many temples will not let you in if you are not dressed how they see appropriately.
- Places such as Mumbai and Goa can be more relaxed than areas such as Delhi and Jaipur, however, assess this when you get there, rather than arriving and realising you do not have suitable clothes.
- I would personally avoid jeans, especially if you are western, India is hot, humid and stuffy, I would find jeans far too hot.
- If taking swimwear with you, go for a one piece of over a bikini, Figleaves having some wonderful one-piece swimming costume options.
- People in India stare (Just like people can do all over the world), particularly in smaller cities and towns they are not always used to seeing western people. Quickly learn to ignore it and carry on as normal, however, if you do feel unsafe at any point, take yourself out of the situation.
- Stressing about packing? I love using packing cubes to help. Follow my packing tricks guide with a review of my favourite Ikea packing cubes.
If you have yet to apply for your Indian visa, make you do this at the right time, I have written about the process of applying for an Indian Tourist Visa as it was something I found confusing at first.
India is an incredible country and the people are some of the nicest I have met in the world. Just like in any country, it is important to respect their cultures by dressing and acting appropriately as a tourist, however, you do not need to stress too much about it. Follow the advice in this guide and you will find it is easy to dress in India when visiting as a female traveller.