Packing for India was unlike any style challenge I've ever encountered. I knew it would come with some unique modesty guidelines, based on my travels to other parts of the world. And after doing some research about India online, and asking two in-person sources, I determined that head-to-toe modesty would be very important, but was also surprised to learn there's quite the focus on covering your ankles. With only 3 days to pack (our visas didn't go through initially) and no time to shop, I was limited to what was already in my closet. A trove of wide leg, long pants would've certainly made things easier, but ultimately I was happy with how this style challenge turned out.
The first three photos (above) show the outfits I wore for the India International Garment Fair and IFJAS (Indian Fashion Jewellery & Accessories Show). I was told for these shows to "wear whatever you would wear here in the U.S." and it was certainly a very modern experience compared to the rest of our trip (big, air conditioned convention centers). I took that advice with a grain of salt, and made sure to be totally covered up in mostly loose clothing. I skipped my usual short shorts, for example, which definitely would've made me feel awkward. I dared to show my ankles in the striped pants, and felt totally fine wearing that outfit in the trade show environment (ankles abounded there).
These next two outfits I wore for meetings and shopping in New Delhi and Old Delhi - what would be considered "city" areas. In the city you will see some locals wearing western clothes like jeans, and women were even occasionally rocking spaghetti straps and shorts, although I wouldn't go that far as a tourist. Mostly, women wear traditional saris. As a tourist, you will completely stand out no matter what you are wearing, and in Indian culture it's not rude to stare. I felt totally comfortable in both of these outfits style-wise, and while I melted from the heat that's to be expected in India in July! (Temps were around 100 F.)
This next outfit I wore for our trek into the much smaller village of Sarai Tarin, a three hour drive from the capital of New Delhi. The farther you travel outside of the bigger cities, the more traditional the dress becomes. A denim dress worn over white jeans is a similar shape to what Indian women wear (tunics over pants or leggings), and sufficiently covered my chest, butt, and ankles. I had not felt the need to cover my head/hair with a scarf in the city, but in the villages it was a different story. My scarf was originally there for decoration, but I was very glad to have it so I could cover my head at times. Also interesting to note: sunglasses are a dead giveaway that you are a tourist! I hardly saw anyone wearing them, even in the city but definitely not in the villages.
Last but not least, these were my two travel outfits. It took a day and a half to both arrive and depart India (we experienced 8-9 hour delays on both sides), so comfort was key. For the plane ride there, I wore a white shirt dress, and started adding layers as we approached the Middle East. Leggings and the long cardigan were both a good call for modesty, as well as super comfy to sleep in (you can use the cardigan as a blanket). And the black wide-leg jumpsuit feels like pajamas, so it was the perfect outfit for the plane ride home.
Some general packing and travel pointers for India:
- Scarves and kimono cardigans are perfect to throw on for extra modesty. I recommend packing a few!
- Try wearing a casual dress or a swim coverup over a pair of jeans, like I did with the denim dress and white jeans above. It was surprisingly cute and a similar shape to traditional Indian dress.
- Your feet will likely get very dirty, so only pack shoes that you don't mind soiling, or will wash easily.
- Pack some travel detergent, especially if you're planning to wear a lot of white pants like I did. Or don't plan to re-wear any of your clothes. I repeated one pair of white jeans, which was okay, but packing more so I could wear a fresh pair probably would've been even better!
- I didn't wear a ton of costume bracelets or rings (metal jewelry) because with the amount of sweating you do, it will tarnish and ruin them.
- For a long, overnight flight pack yourself an "overnight bag" with travel toothpaste, makeup remover wipe, deodorant, moisturizer, etc. Also consider packing warm socks, ear plugs and a night mask. Whatever will help you get a good night sleep on a plane!
- Most international flights allow two free checked suitcases. I packed a suitcase inside of a suitcase, and only checked one going to India, and two coming back. The extra bag was for the company I was traveling with, to bring back samples and other things they bought during the trip, but you could easily fill up your second bag with souvenirs!
- Play it safe and consider getting vaccinations and malaria pills before you travel.
- Exchange some money when you arrive at the airport. It's largely a cash culture and you won't be able to use your credit card most of the time.
- Food poisoning and indigestion is common when traveling to India. Stick to hot meals from trustworthy restaurants whenever possible. Pack Pepto Bismol and your own snacks so you're not tempted to eat something on a whim. (I got brutally sick and couldn't eat solid foods for 5 days - it's no joke!)
- Don't forget a converter for the outlets. Even in the American hotel chain we stayed at, we needed them.
India is magical. I've never experienced warmer hospitality or a more vibrant culture. The way they decorate ordinary trucks with colorful tassels slays me, and women working in rice fields wearing head-to-toe hot pink completely spoke to my soul. India, I dig you on so many levels, and I hope to be back someday soon!
Do you have more India travel tips? Please share them in the comment section!