What to Wear in Northern India
I was traveling with the aid of a Lonely Planet guidebook on a recent trip to northern India (Spring 2004) and began to notice that the text was lacking some important information that would be useful to everyone. As I traveled through the many diverse cultural areas of India, I noticed that there are very different rules in the various geo-cultural regions regarding proper appearance, and it made a real difference if one was slow to pick them up, or just didn’t care. Specific information regarding dress will be helpful to any traveler in this region, and likely increase the quality of their trip.
While I met many foreign women in India who disregarded the local customs of public dress, from my own experience it was usually better to respectfully comply. I heard one girl tell a story of being seriously sexually harassed on a train, and noticed she was wearing a midriff bearing tank top. Duh! If a woman traveling in India (and many other parts of the world) wants to be as safe as possible and treated respectfully, they should be aware of and consider local dress codes. One should also realize that different places within an area may have different standards of appearance; for example, on the train or other very public place, an unaccompanied female would be wise to go to greater lengths to cover herself (such as a head scarf and long sleeves) than she need bother back at the hotel or strolling though a park.
Here is a brief and general list of some dress expectations in northern India:
This is the style of dress emphasized in the Lonely Planet, comprising most of the middle portion of the subcontinent, including the areas surrounding Kolkata all the way to Delhi. One should take greater consideration of these norms in holy cities such as Varanasi. Typical standards of dress for men include pants and a shirt, but short sleeves and shorts are often fine in the cities or more touristed areas. Women should wear long pants and cover their shoulders and chests completely; as for men, in some cities and tourist hot spots short pants (“capri” style) and short sleeved shirts are ok, otherwise long sleeves are best. In this typical part of India, a woman is suddenly a credible human being if she dons a scarf, so consider it. Scarves are great for lots of things anyway and make it easy to cover your head if you begin to attract attention or wish to enter a temple. A woman in this area would be wise to buy a punjabi outfit, as the Lonely Planet was right to suggest, and generally one should always wear long pants under a skirt or dress. Failing to accommodate these standards of dress could get your entry denied at a temple or a vendor might be less apt to barter, but for the most part you will just be the brunt of many rude stares and dirty looks. Women will notice that other Indian women will be much kinder and actually make eye-contact and smile at you if you adopt proper attire. As noted earlier, pay particular attention to your dress on the train, despite the oppressive heat.
Tibetan Exile Areas
Mostly along the border with Nepal and centralized around Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh. This is one area were it is good to know the dress standards because they are generally more relaxed than in other parts of India. The most significant difference is that in these areas it is acceptable for a woman to wear a tank top or other sleeveless shirt (a godsend in hot weather). Short pants (below the knee) are fine for women here, and they do not need to wear pants under a dress or skirt, but these should go below the knee at least. Women should note that while tank tops are typical, a bare midriff is not as appropriate and will attract attention. Tibetan men in India, particularly the younger men, often wear western style clothes, and even shorts and toplessness is suitable for men in this area on warm days. The usual extra respect should be paid at temples and monasteries, where shorts should not be worn and women should wear a scarf. This area of India is heavily touristed so most people are accustomed to western styles, but care should still be taken not to show too much skin at inappropriate times.
This culture area exists in pockets all over India and overwhelmingly dominates the very northern part of India in Kashmir and Jammu. In these areas the cultural norms include very strict attitudes toward public dress. Men should wear pants at all times and consider sticking to long sleeve shirts. Women need to go even further to display modesty by wearing long pants (hemmed long, fully covering ankles), long sleeve shirts with high necklines, mind their midriffs, and always wear a scarf over their head or at least around their necks in the presence of strangers. This is also an area where the dress worn at home or in casual situations (i.e. in camp on a trek or on a boat ride) can be much more relaxed and not be frowned on. In public though, especially when seeking a place to stay or other services, travelers would be smart to dress conservatively. This is the type of area that it is most important to adhere to the standards; not doing so leaves one open not only to the usual rude treatment, but also to being denied goods and services including bus rides and accommodations, receive poor service at restaurants, and women can expect to attract crowds of onlookers.
This large and mountainous area between Kashmir and Tibet has cultural patterns most similar to that of Tibetans, however different in some ways. Like in the Tibetan exile areas, it is ok for women to wear tank tops and short pants, again being careful not to expose the belly. The main difference here is that it is considered prudent for women to cover their hair. This is different than the Muslim areas though, because it is not the neck you must cover, just the hair; a scarf tied around the head is the most common and practical device. Men can enjoy the looser standards as described for the Tibetan areas, but in general pants are better than shorts, and a shirt should always be worn when interacting with strangers.
These are the main areas that I traveled in on my short three month journey, but surely each local has unique norms. I picked up on these standards of dress by being observant to what local women were wearing, and for the most part, by trial and error. It is this trial and error approach that could be avoided if the guide book addressed the subject more thoroughly. The change in dress code happens abruptly for a traveler who hops on a train in one area and gets off in another, and it would be ideal to know what to expect. I recall my first day in a mountain town in Kashmir, when I thought I was being prudent by covering my head and neck with a shawl and wearing long sleeves. As I walked through the village with a male companion, I realized that I was causing quite a commotion among the local men, and as we sat for a snack of samosas, a crowd of onlookers grew around us, all of the men staring straight at my ankles. You see, while I had taken caution to cover my head, I was wearing a calf-length skirt and it turns out that a bare ankle in this area is like a bare breast in others: totally inappropriate. This is about the time I realized that the Lonely Planet could have prepared me better, and I could have avoided the spectacle I caused in Kashmir if I had been better informed. Please consider my suggestion to pay close attention to standards of dress in India as it can make a real difference in a traveler’s experience, especially for women.