Through the winding back streets of the spice market, my friend led me to a hidden set of stairs she visited the previous day on a walking tour.
“We can see down into the mosque from the roof,” she said as we climbed flight after flight of stairs with large, open windows overlooking a residential area.
“Are you sure we can be up here?” I asked—I asked the same thing when we entered a hotel a few minutes before for the purpose of washing our hands.
She waved me off, “It’s fine, it’s fine. We did it yesterday.”
On the third floor, a man stood peering out the window and halfway turned to watch us as we continued our journey.
Finally on the roof, we were met with a remarkable view over the entire market, the mosque, the people int he distance, and the rows of spices down below. The man followed us.
A few other tourists milled about with large, expensive cameras shooting the concrete landscape.
One’s guide roughly shoved his backpack into his hands. “Don’t leave this lying around,” he said. “Someone could steal it.”
We climbed onto a huge concrete platform to get an even better view of the city as all left but one man and the man who followed us.
I stood on one side of the platform taking pictures until I heard my friend explain, “Hey! Why is your light on?”
Indeed, the man who followed us was boldly trailing after my friend with the flashlight on his phone turned on—to peer through her skirt.
“Hey,” I said, “Leave her alone.”
“Why’s he doing that?” my friend asked as we hurriedly climbed off the platform. The man continued to follow us down the stairs until we paused and told him to go ahead. The light of his phone still blazed as he paused on the next floor and motioned for us to go ahead.
“It’s your skirt.” I sighed. “Go ahead of me, I’ll follow you close behind.”
With that, we rushed out of the building, back into the teeming crowds where if anyone wanted to shine a light through a skirt, they certainly wouldn’t do it with other people to see.
Here’s the thing: her skirt was an appropriate length for Delhi. It hit her right about mid-calf, which while not maxi-length, wouldn’t have been shocking for the city and area we were in. The reason her skirt in particular caught attention was that it was a double skirt: the inside lining was a mini-skirt, while the outward midi-length skirt was semi-sheer. Therefore, her legs were nearly just as visible as if she had just worn the mini-skirt.
This was a scary situation—and one that could be avoided easily with understanding a bit about Indian clothing etiquette.
Clothing is important in India. And if you’re a foreigner, then you are automatically going to get far more attention than you would necessarily like.
1) Keep your legs covered.
Legs are sexy. We all know this. It’s why high heels are a thing. And, yes, legs are still sexy in India. But, India is a highly clothing-conservative culture (despite what you may see in a Bollywood movie).
I recommend, depending on the season, either jeans or loose-fitting, thin trousers if you don’t like skirts. If you choose skinny jeans, it’s often recommended that you wear a shirt that covers the butt with them (another sexy area), although in the larger cities, you could probably get away without this (just note it could draw attention).
Skirts and dresses are incredibly easy to throw on in India. I recommend skirts that hit mid-calf to maxi-length and that aren’t see-through unless you have a very long slip. Various sites will tell you that you can wear shorter things in cities like Delhi, but the story above was from Delhi. The shorter the skirt, the more attention you will get.
Leave shorts, even long Bermuda’s at home.
2) Keep your shoulders covered.
This is a thing, generally, in Asian countries. I have found it to be the same in South Korea and Japan, also, where the shoulders are considered very sexy. I will never forget my first trip to India I wore a tank top with a vest over it that just reached the tip of my shoulders. I still had a motorcyclist drive by yelling, “Hey, sexy!”
This is an easy remedy. Pack t-shirts and blouses. I prefer to wear high-neck shirts because it takes away any room for misunderstanding, although I’ve worn V-neck shirts with just as much ease. If you wear a tank top, take something to cover it. I wore a maxi dress, at one point, that was tank-top style, and I layered a crop-top t-shirt under it. Under a spaghetti-strap jumpsuit, I also layered the same t-shirt.
3) Don’t be afraid to wear white.
…unless it’s as a sari, but even that is very particular. You can wear white shirts if you wish, white pants. If you do choose to purchase/wear a white sari, be aware that it should have a red and green trim to it that differentiates it from a funeral sari. My first visit to India had girls clamoring to get their hands on a white sari. At first, I thought any white sari would do, but they were specific in that it needed to be pristine and have the border.
4) Color is key.
India is a colorful place. So don’t be afraid to wear bright colors. Nearly all of my friends were constantly dressed in the brightest yellows, pinks, greens that they could find and they looked fantastic.
I personally think that wearing more color makes photos in India look better. Because it’s such a vibrant place, dressing completely in black or white can look a bit stark.
5) Wear crop tops. But layer them.
I took two crop tops with me to India. But I had no intention of wearing them with my stomach hanging out. While it’s okay to reveal more skin in a sari, it’s different because it’s a sari. There is a difference between Indian traditional clothes and Western wear, however subtle.
However, I took one red cropped t-shirt, and one cropped button-down. The t-shirt was perfect for layering under things with spaghetti straps, or over them. The button-down I wore with high-waisted pants but it could have been worn under or over anything with a tank top. They were versatile pieces for me, too, because they replaced the role of a scarf or vest to cover my shoulders.
6) Take a jacket.
But only if it’s winter. And only in the north. India is still delightfully warm, except maybe in December, so there’s no need for a full-on fleece most of the time (unless you head into Darjeeling or the mountains). However, mornings in the winter season can be chilly and I really appreciated having a light jacket.
7) Feel free to wear Indian clothes.
Saris are a bit difficult to put on (as hundreds of videos on youtube would show you), but there are many women who would be willing to help you drape the long fabric. I really enjoyed wearing a sari at the wedding I went to, but my friend did not so much, which is understandable. To move in a sari, it’s important to subtly lift the front of the skirt as you walk so that you don’t trip on it.
For a visitor, it might be too much to tour around in a sari for an entire day. However, there are many other articles of clothing that you could purchase, such as a kurta (an Indian style blouse) you could wear over jeans or trousers) or a salwar kameez, which is a long blouse with tight leggings underneath.
The skirt below is a bit too dramatic for everyday wear (despite what that couple who travels around holding hands might show you). Instead, the second picture would be more appropriate.
8) Footwear. Shoes.
Really, you can wear what shoes you are comfortable in. Beware that summer is the rainy season so either you will have soaked tennis shoes or in sandals your feet are bare to the grossness that is the streets (avoid puddles at all costs). But, really, you can wear whatever type of footwear you deem acceptable. I wouldn’t recommend high heels, though, for the streets are traitorous and the crowds are huge.
9) Really don’t be afraid of Western wear.
This time in India, I basically wore all of my own clothes. For a long sleeve, loose-fitting blouse, I just tucked a flowy dress into a pair of pants. If a neckline was slightly too gaping, I used a sewing kit to stitch it up to an appropriate level. The shirt I’m wearing in the Taj Mahal photo is actually a dress–and it had quite a dramatic plunge, so I stitched it up a bit before I left. Indian girls do wear western clothing, so it’s not particularly uncommon. In small villages, however, it would be best to be as modest as possible, and often that means wearing Indian-style clothing.
My Summer Packing List (2 months)
-1 pair of cropped blue jeans
-1 pair of gray cargo pants
-2 maxi skirts (one purple, the other multi-colored)
-2 maxi dresses (one black and white, the other the multi-colored that I took in the winter)
-3 blouses (one orange, one purple)
-a handful of black and white t-shirts
-a handful of college-logo t-shirts
-a handful of workout shorts
-1 turquoise vest
-1 pair of tennis shoes
-1 pair of sandals
My Winter Packing List (10 days)
-1 pair of thin black and white trousers
-1 pair of blue mom jeans
-1 colorful maxi dress
-1 black jumpsuit
-1 button-up, white crop-top
-1 red crop-top t-shirt
-1 white v-neck t-shirt
-1 black t-shirt
-1 colorful dress worn as a blouse
-1 graphic-printed t-shirt
-1 light kimono-style cardigan
-1 jean jacket
-1 pair of white tennis shoes
-1 pair of black sandals
-1 fun printed purse
-1 pair of pajamas (light pants and a t-shirt)
Many people go to India with as little as possible and choose to buy clothes there, which is a great idea, too. Clothes are really cheap in India so it’s possible to outfit yourself with an entirely new wardrobe while you’re there. When I went during the summer, I bought several pairs of harem pants to wear. In the winter, though, I concentrated more on layering pieces I already had in my wardrobe.
Something I’d think about before packing your bag is think of how you want to look in pictures. Looking back on pictures I took on trips when I was younger, I have found myself wishing that I took more time to think of what I wanted to look like when I was there. And really, it’s not dressing any differently than I normally do except in how I choose what colors and materials to bring.
*Note: Sari is spelled differently depending on where you are. Usually on the web, you’ll find sari with an i, but in India the spelling tends to be saree with ee in Delhi and Jaipur. I use them interchangeably.