I'm finally in India and so far I'm having a blast and meeting lots of great people, both local and westerner. I was compelled to post a thread on this topic because what you wear in India is so very important. So far I'm finding that travelling around in India is like travelling around in a nation full of Fashion Police. What you wear here affects how you are perceived, how you are treated and even how your day will go.
I assumed that like me, everyone reads up on the customs and etiquette of a country before they go. The majority of westerners I've met over here seem to have done their homework but I've run into quite a few that haven't. One such instance in particular was a group of nice young Swedish girls that I met during my travels who came here for vacation. They owned a Rough Guide but neglected to read the section on what to wear. They chose to wear bikinis and halter tops on a beach in Kerala. The harrassment they received upset them so much they almost cut their trip short. They decided to change the way they dressed and now are having a blast. I've met a few others who have the same experiences and I've even made a couple of mistakes. I once wore a clingy black long-sleeve shirt with a deep v-neck. It didn't show cleavage but I guess it showed a little too much upper chest or something. Another time, I wore one of my nicer Salwar Kameez with a cheap pair of flip-flops. As a westerner, you'll always attract curious stares...they're fleeting and harmless. When you wear the wrong thing the disapproving glares will cut right through you and you'll get them from everybody...young, old, men and women. Sometimes they'll go out of their way to quietly show their disapproval. I don't intimidate easily but I prefer not to spend the whole day deflecting all the negative vibes I receive by wearing the wrong thing. It's exhausting. I feel no need to prove a point or change India's view on what a woman should wear. I've been dressing appropriately and I'm having a blast!
Option A: Wear Your Western Clothes
Leave the bikinis, halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti straps, shorts, mini-skirts and anything over the top at home. Dressing "sexy" here will either offend or attract the wrong kind of attention. Cargo pants, jeans, long sundresses with short sleeves, skirts that fall under the knee or lower, short or long sleeve shirts and blouses that are atleast slightly loose and don't show too much of your chest should all be ok judging by what I've seen westerners and the handful of local women that I've seen who are wearing western wear and going about unharrassed. I'm not sure about beachwear because I haven't been to a beach yet but from what I've been hearing around, bikinis are totally not acceptable. I'd probably wear a t-shirt and a sarong over my bathing suit to be safe. I'd say that if it accentuates or shows off the curves of your bottom or your chest then it's probably not ok. Baring your midriff may or may not be ok but it seems to attract a little unwanted attention too. Yes local women bare their midriffs here too but most of the time it is covered by their saris. As far as shoes go, I'd pack a pair of comfortable walking sandals and/or shoes and a cheap pair of flips flops for lounging and using questionable showers. Leave the high heels at home. The streets and sidewalks are so uneven you'll break your neck trying to get somewhere.
Option B: Wear Local Clothing
This is the option I chose. I brought over 2 days worth of my own clothing and had some additional outfits made by a local tailor soon after I arrived. Tailors are easy to find and for a small price, you'll receive a beautiful and functional reminder of your trip and help a local family at the same time. Most locals are pleased to see westerners wear Indian style clothing as it shows that you are respectful and have an interest in their culture. There are tons of cheap and beautiful ready to wear clothing as well but if you're not petite, good luck finding something that will fit. I am 5 ft 3 inches tall which is average height in America but here in India, I tower above almost everyone. I also have a larger bustline and hips so I've had to have all of my clothes made. For a small price, I got to select the fabrics and the details (cut of the neck, length, sleeves, etc) for 2 beautiful and comfortable salwar kameez ready the next day and 2 flowy Indian-style tunics which were ready in 2 hours. Wearing a sari may not be a good idea if you are a white westerner. It probably won't offend but I've been told by quite a few locals that a westerner wearing a sari would look strange. I've even had one store refuse to sell me one, instead stearing me towards the salwar kameez and long skirts. As far as shoes go, I regret forgetting to pack my sandals. Shoes are cheap here but my 7 1/2 US sized feet are average there but here in India, I am Bigfoot and my size has been a little tough to find.
Another quick odd note...I saw a beautiful flower and picked it to tuck it in the hair above my ear. One of the locals ran up to me and advised me not to do so as wearing a flower in my hair that way signals to men that I am loose and ready to accept their sexual advances.
Well girls, I hope this helps. I hope I didn't scare anyone. Knowing what to wear in India is not hard and most westerners I see here have gotten it right. I want to ensure that everyone derful a time as I am in India. Even with its pitfalls, India is an amazing country. I feel blessed to be here!