What to wear in India

Right now I’m on my way to London. Long time no see! While I travel, please enjoy this appropriately timed post about the last time I travelled.

Before my trip, I was freaking out. I spent countless hours on travel blogs, stalking what people who know better than I do had worn to India, and I researched probably everything you can about what to wear for this hugely conservative country. No kidding, I googled what kind of pyjamas you need in India (it doesn’t matter), and then what kinds of clothes you need for monsoon season and freaked out again when someone somewhere said that ‘long skirts get soggy, mini skirts are OK’. I did think about this for a bit before running headfirst into planning a new packing list and decided to just go with the same long skirts I had prepared with in the first place. People, if someone tells you that short skirts are OK in India, just unfriend the holy heck out of them. Or educate them or whatever.

Sunnies, sandals and skirts in Jaisalmer

I visited India during the monsoon season but, surprisingly, my rain poncho was the most useless thing in my backpack. I wore it once in the mountains when I thought it was going to rain and it didn’t. I got caught in the rain twice without it during five weeks, so you shouldn’t stress about it too much. One tip I heard was to wear dark-hued clothes so when they would get soaked they wouldn’t turn see-through, but then again light-coloured clothing is more pleasant to wear in the heat, and apparently also attracts less mosquitoes.

Anyway, since posts like this helped me hugely before my trip, I hope my take on the thing will help someone as well. And I also like posting pictures of myself, she says in a joking tone so that no one will ever know if she’s serious or not.

Where to start?

Local women and children in Jodhpur

First and foremost, India is one of the fastest developing nations in the world, but it is still widely conservative, so you should dress accordingly. Otherwise you might be denied access to certain attractions, and speaking of attractions, that’s what you become rocking those micro shorts. And not in a good way.

Interesting enough, traditional sari blouses are extremely cropped, so you will see a sea of brown bellies everywhere you go. Blouses also reveal some of the back so showing some skin there isn’t too much of a problem either. However, watch out for your legs, shoulders and cleavage – and this goes for you men, too. (Well, maybe everything else but the cleavage thing because apparently a big part of Indian men can’t afford freaking top buttons on their shirts or they just like airing out their chest hair.)

In biggest tourist destinations you can get away with shorts and tops, but the question is, do you really want to? Just because some French family at the Taj is dressed like they think they’ve flown to the Canary Islands, doesn’t mean it would be appropriate for the culture. I hear in Goa anything goes. But anywhere else, please cover up.

And on a brighter note – literally – indulge in loads and loads of colours and patterns, because India is the holy destination of all that. Mix and match. Don’t mind if your art teacher told you when you were ten that purple and yellow don’t mix. In India they do. Just go crazy!

Agra Fort

Long skirts

Hands down my favourite thing to wear was long skirts. They were moderately cool but still covered up. I wish I could wear more maxi skirts at home but if it isn’t summer, they just look funny. Damn you, Finland and four seasons.

Sarnath near Varanasi
I also find that skirts resembled closely to the type of clothes women in India wore. I didn’t notice many of them in same kind of maxi skirts that I wore, but some kinds of skirt-like garments were very common, and saris form a sort of a dress-type of thing, so yeah. I even got a few compliments for my skirts so they were never a problem. Well, if you exclude the goat that thought my green skirt looked like grass and tried to constantly chew it while I was talking to a group of school kids.

Observatory in Jaipur

Light trousers

Another great thing to wrap your legs around is long, lightweight trousers. Even though most young women in India seem to be happy in skinny jeans, you can always question if that is the most comfortable choice (or if you could get them off at the hostel after the day). Harem pants also make good souvenirs. I’ve never been a big fan until I walked into a store in Varanasi and they just had elephant-patterned EVERYTHING. I could’ve bought five pairs but had to be content with one. Stupid carry-on bag only. In general only tourists wear this type of loose, colourfully patterned trousers, but wearing them is not a sin. (I hope.)

Or just be a total tourist and buy everything that has elephants on it. New favourite trousers!
Lotus Temple, Delhi
Salwar kameez in Jaisalmer
Almost Victoria’s Secret in Rishikesh

Blouses

More traditional Indian ladies sport saris or loose trousers with long tunics that cover the bum. I have to admit this is where I cut corners because my body is weird and I end up looking like a German sausage if I don’t tuck shirts under the waistband. But in general covering the bum might be a nice idea. Even women who dressed up in more modern clothes wore, in general, long shirts. However, a lot of those shirts reveal shoulders and even some cleavage. As a tourist I would avoid all the borderline-okay choices and just go with the conservative pieces.

A mum and a very fab kid in Jaisalmer
I only wore lightweigh blouses throughout the trip, but t-shirts are absolutely okay, too. As long as they cover your shoulders. If blouses are not your thing, get a tunic-type shirt and loose trousers to match – according to Wikipedia this outfit called salwar kameez is the most popular dress for ladies in India. If I had stayed longer, I would’ve definitely worn this, but seeing back at home it’s that sort of a thing my mum would wear, I didn’t see a reason to put my money on something that would become useless after the trip.
Agra Fort

Scarves

I know, +30 degrees and I’m telling you to put on scarves? I haven’t lost my mind – or maybe I have, but on this I am right. Many women in India cover their head even on the streets, and in temples and mosques doing this is absolutely necessary. I’ve heard people say that covering your head can also draw less attention to your obvious tourist-ness. Personally I felt I was so blatantly not-Indian that even covering up didn’t help much, but I felt I got respected for wearing a scarf. If you cover your shoulders with a scarf you could also try wearing tank tops, but because my scarf was very unco-operative, for me this failed greatly. And then there’s the obvious reason for wearing a scarf – to protect you from the blasting sun.

Indian ladies tend to wear their scarves so that the closed bit hangs off on their chest and the ends are behind their back and I never found out the reason why. I need answers.

Hemkund Sahib
Best thing I have ever packed was a bandanna scarf. That thing is seriously coming with me to every single trip from now on. I had never been a big fan of bandannas (unless you count that phase when I was like 10 when I wore one on my neck and thought I looked like a cool cowgirl. I’m so happy that only lasted for about a week) but I’d been rocking work with one on my head all summer because it kept hair out of my face nicely. After going around like Rosie the Riveter for weeks, I felt it might come in handy, and since it didn’t take any space I just shrugged and shoved it in the backpack. But that thing is bloody magic! I wore it on my head when my hair was dirty. I tied it around my leg to stop my thighs from rubbing each other. On trains I used it to block out light. If you don’t already travel with one, you should either get one or eat poop. This is unofficial bandanna propaganda brought to you by me.
Jodhpur
Buy your scarves in India because they are beautiful and colourful and, well, great souvenirs to take home. I had to constantly remind myself not to buy more scarves since I already had a residue of unused, forgotten ones at home. One thing to pay attention to, though, is the material. I had one red cotton one (I think?) that just had ridiculously lot of cloth in it, and a lot of times it felt too heavy to wear normally, especially when it kept slipping around and never stayed in place. Same thing with my blue silk scarf that I am still head over heels in love for (because I’m a sucker for anything with elephants on it). It was way too light-weight and kept getting blown away. The only perfect scarf I had was the plain one that I brought from Finland and which I hated to wear because it was boring. Get all the colours!

Shoes that I wore for like one day when they fell apart after an hour of walking and which kind Indian ladies don’t really even wear  and which I will probably never wear again but which I just had to have because shiny! Sparkles! Pretty!
Jaipur

Shoes

If your feet don’t get dirty in India, you’re probably doing something wrong. I hesitated putting on open sandals because of dirt and possible diseases it could infect me with, or some rabid mouse biting my toe off. Majority of the shoes I saw Indian women wear, though, were sandals, and they are bloody more comfortable than anything with a closed toe.

Oh yeah, speaking of comfortableness… Make sure you’ve got comfortable shoes. By day two my feet were covered in cuts and blisters because my super quality 5/5 H&M sandals decided to fall apart five minutes away from the hostel. Also, even though there are more snack stalls in one block than in probably the whole of Finland, you shouldn’t trust the vague hope that you miiiiiight find a shoe salesman on accident. If you do, you might end up walking around for ten hours in sandals that are literally trying to escape your feet.

Oh, and hey! Most temples won’t let you in with your shoes on. When you visit Taj Mahal they give you shoe covers (so don’t worry, Slumdog Millionaire had it all wrong), but otherwise you’ll have to give them up. Take some socks with you. Those floors are HOT.

Mum picture: a picture where some part of you is without any reason and in a ridiculous way framed out of the photo.
Valley of Flowers

Hiking

I will try and post about my trek to the Himalayas in the future, but just a few quick words: the path was pretty rough with loads of steep climbs, crossing streams and walking on paths that only consisted of rocks strewn across in a path-like shape. I was fine wearing my normal trainers that i use for running back at home. Partly I packed them because they were like half smaller than my actual hiking boots and also fit my tiny feet better. A Dutch girl that was hiking with us was wearing cheap Primark sneakers. She survived, but her shoes fell apart, so I’d recommend some sort of walking gear. Then again some of the pilgrims complete the route in flip flops or bare feet so what do I know.

A pair of leggings was fine for trekking although I did catch a few more stares than usual in the skin-hugging clothing even though my shirt covered my butt. However, there was no one around in the valley to stare so I felt all right in them, besides, they were much more comfortable than my sticky flowy trousers. Although, again, Indian ladies just trekked in their normal saris and stuff. A lot of women in the fields work in that kind of clothes, too.

Take a hat or anything to cover your head with because, you know, sun. Also long sleeves/massive layers of sun screen are essential unless you plan on coming back looking like a lobster (and like it when wearing a shirt hurts you). Oh, and buy a walking stick. They only cost like 50 cents (30 rupees). I didn’t get one because I have enough trouble with two feet, but Ben loved his. (So much that I got jealous and got rid of it in a train later. I mean, he totally forgot it.)

Leggings – also great for the desert. Grumpy face – not cool, photographer, not cool
Thar desert

Flash guide for guys travelling to India:
No one in India wears shorts. Except for Ben, apparently, and all the other tourists. And that’s OK because you want to be comfortable too. Just remember that some temples or mosques won’t let you in if you’re sporting your pretty knees. Some will provide a scarf to wrap around your waist – for an extra charge, naturally – but some won’t. In general, Indian guys tend to wear jeans.

Indian men seemed to be weird and wore long-sleeved shirts, you know those with the collars on them. It’s like everything was a smart casual event. There’s no way that’s comfortable, but if you really want to blend in, don one up. Or just go with t-shirts since a lot of people wear those, too. If you really want to go for it, a lot of Indian guys can be seen wearing long shirts and jackets for a more traditional look.

And yes, you should wear a scarf as well. And sandals, since most of the people go around sporting flip-flops. Of course closed shoes are fine too, but unless you want your toes to bake, get rid of that ‘only boys who look good in sandals are 10-year-olds and Jesus’ attitude and put on a pair. Umm, sandals, I mean.

Delhi

The way I dressed up in India was in no way Indian but rather Indian-inspired and my wardrobe was put together thinking of conservativeness, comfortableness, and yes, cuteness. I got my initial clothes cheaply from a flea market and once I got to the dazzlingly colourful markets in the country, started replacing my boring clothes with Indian ones. My wardrobe goals for my next trip in India (which, hopefully, will happen!) is to get a sari and dress up in more colours. A part of me is almost afraid of colours. Part of it is the Finnish national mindset that only allows us to wear dark and neutral colours, part of it is my red hair that makes every brightly coloured piece of clothing look like a piece of clown’s outfit. Damn you blondes who look great in everything.

Did you find this list helpful? Have you ever had trouble picking clothes for a trip?

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