Expat Guide: What to wear

1:02 PM

So you are about to move to India, or just moved and you are just wondering what to wear, are shorts ok to wear if you are a woman? Should you stick to ultra conservative clothing and possibly ethnic wear? Are there fashion trends in ethnic wear? What do I pack to go there? Where do I start?

First you need to know where you are going, some smaller cities are more conservative than bigger ones like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, and eve teasing is a much much bigger problem in Delhi than in Bangalore and Mumbai, as a woman you want to play it safe so it pays out to know the key note of the place you are going to stay, also be mindful of the climate, a city like Delhi gets blistering hot in the Summer, and freezing cold in the winter a trend you’ll find in most of North India, so if you are bound for North India, pack up some comfy jeans and sweaters, you’ll need them and be glad to have them. the South has a milder winter but after hot months you’ll still be happy to have socks, light sweaters and jeans in the cooler month, December do get quite cold in Bangalore at night and homes don’t have central heating. I have a few of my friends back home and in the US who laugh when I start announcing it is getting cold, because my cold back in Bangalore was starting when the thermometer would hit about 20-22 degrees Celsius, but cold like many thing is all relative, when you had a whole Summer above 30 degrees  you can imagine what 20 degrees do start to feel like.
In Mumbai the climate is hot and humid most of the year, winters are very mild, and last year I ended up wearing track pants and a long sleeved t-shirt in the morning for a 2-3 weeks starting in late December. The first thing you notice here with the coming winter is the air getting dryer and your skin pulling a little, in all truth I love that weather, I don’t soak a t-shirt or kurta in 5 minutes, and can go through the day without feeling iky-sticky 3 hours after a shower.

In Summer in most part of the country you’ll be submitted to various degrees of hot and humid, so it is important to have light clothes in which you feel comfortable, and no you don’t have to stick to ethnic if you don’t want to, most cities are getting more liberal about clothing, and women, yes even Indian women go through the day wearing western wear, or Indo-western. But all in all you need to know which dress codes applies to which outing. If you are going to a traditional place such as in a family, or you significant other’s family, dressing conservatively and possibly ethnic is best, no need to go all out and wear a saree, the new generation reserve it for weddings and special occasion, but a nice salwaar suit or a nicely cut kurta with churridars will be extremely appropriate. If you go to a pub, mall, the multiplex or go shopping in big places, western wear is the way to go, in fact try going into a pub wearing a cotton salwaar suit and you are guaranteed to get stared at even more than in a local market. Capris and shorts are starting to be worn more and more even by older women no longer being the attire of the rebellious college girl, and in fact the no-nonsense cargo pair of pants or denim shorts stopping at the knee paired with a t-shirt or a short kurta is slowly becoming the upper middle class urban desi-mom uniform judging by all the ones I’m hanging out with nowadays. That’s because ethnic wear need to be ironed, in some case starched and barely keeps neat through the day, when you are chasing kids around, and still want to look graceful and feminine comes 4pm you need something a bit less fussy, not to mention something that doesn't require you to or buy all your wardrobe in one colour or hand wash every pieces separately, we all have 24 hours in a day.

But wait, as an expat you might not even be familiar with ethnic wear…so let me go back to that and give you a crash course on it. Like any outfits the ethnic range speaks volume about your social status, and the occasion you plan to wear it. It might not seem obvious to the trained eye, but there is a casual, semi-form and formal wear category for both the saree and the salwaar suit.
The saree is more of a south Indian garment, and you are more likely to see even middle class ladies wearing one, though the new generation has moved to the salwaar suit, and western wear out of practicality. So much so that for you and I the saree is a fancy outfit to wear at a big party, a wedding or Diwali. And because you are more likely to wear it then, you can move to the formal category when picking one, in South India formal pretty much always mean silk, in the North while donning a Kancheepuram silk saree speaks of elegance, you will find a lot of ladies wearing synthetic chiffon saree heavily embroided with sequins and metallic thread, the North Indian party saree is generally more flamboyant in style than a South Indian one, I got to notice that first hand at a distant cousin’s wedding in Bangalore, he is like DH north Indian, and his bride was South Indian and it was very easy to know who was part of the bride’s family and who was not.
The working class in both North and South wears a cheap print synthetic chiffon saree, cotton and silk being noble materials, they keep it for fancy use.
A saree is tailored made, when you buy one you can’t just walk out of the shop wearing it, the choli (tight fitted blouse) has to be sewn to fit you and you only by a tailor, there are some places where you can get stretch choli and ready made blouses, but they aren’t the norm, the fabric destined to become the saree needs to be fitted with a “fall” a big piece of cotton fabric sewn to the bottom hem in order to make the part that will act as the “skirt” heavier at the bottom and protect the fabric from your kicking it while walking.

if you end up wearing ethnic, you are more likely to spend time in a salwaar suit, which is a generic name for a 3 piece set consisting in a tunic called kurta, a pair of matching cotton loose fitting drawstring pants and a matching dupatta (cotton shawl or scarf). This one of the most popular and versatile outfit India has to offer, you will find it in various style, material, and cut, ready made or in dress material for you to send to the tailor for  a perfect fit, and yes there are fashion trends.
First the salwaar is actually the name of the pants, the loose fitting baggy type, but nowadays what is hugely popular among women is the churidar, a cotton drawstring pant that is fitted on the whole leg, making it look like a cotton slim cut pant or legging, they are always longer than your leg and the extra fabric creates a ruffle at the ankle. It gives a slimmer silhouette to the wearer than the salwaar, and is the prime chose of the young generation, the good old salwaar actually makes you look like an Aunty or a villager. And while we are at the churidar, the new IT thing is the stretch churidar, it’s exactly like a pair of leggings in the west except that to keep to the churidar look they have that extra length to give some pleats at the ankle. They are the new thing to have in your wardrobe, and while they are a bit too thick to wear in Summer they are perfect for the monsoon, they are fuss free when it comes to maintenance because they don’t need any ironing, rarely loose colour when you wash them, and it’s a straight from the drying line to the wardrobe piece of outfit, perfect for the modern day busy bee.
The Kurta is the most visible part of the outfit, the most comfortable ones are made of cotton, silk ones are for parties, synthetic ones are more of a working class outfit again. Be very mindful of the cut and style of your kurta, pretty much like the salwaar pants scream Aunty, busy old fashioned floral patterns will do the same, long ankle length tunic do it too, the new generation will prefer a more fitted shorter kurta in solid colours embellished with embroideries and mirror work, and they look better sleeveless, though when you buy a readymade kurta displayed without sleeves, you can bet you have two sleeve pieces
attached to the label inside for you to have them fit you should you want them, and all will do the fitting of the sleeves for free if you request them.
The dupatta is a very traditional piece, less and less worn in cities, and non-traditional environment, but still used to go to the temple, or in local popular markets, it’s a big long piece of fabric that looks like a long wide scarf or stole, it is draped on each shoulder with the ends dangling in the back.
Interestingly even in my in-law family when once upon a time my MIL wanted us to wear the dupatta at all time even inside the house, the concept has gone out of the window, and even my SIL who is of a conservative background has moved to not even like wearing it outside, at least not in the uber traditional way preferring to just toss it on one shoulder, so yes even in more traditional families and towns things do change.

You will find ethnic wear everywhere, in the beginning I would recommend sticking to big stores such as Lifestyle, Fabindia, Westside and Shoppers Stop, because they have fixed prices and you won’t get ripped off, and then because they cater to the social class you are going to be in, carrying trendy ones rather than shapeless sloppy ones that will make you look underdressed. You can or find them in “set” which is a matched outfit having the whole 3 pieces at one price, saving you the hassle of figuring what colour kurta matches what colour of pants. I say get a few of these as a starter kit, or in a more formal style, but don’t buy your whole wardrobe in a matchy matchy style. The other option which is getting far more popular nowadays then it used to be 8 years ago is to buy in the “mix & match” area of the store, you buy all pieces separately, so that if you like that cute orange and red kurta but absolutely want to pair it with black elastic churidar you can, and you aren’t stuck with a mountain of dupatta you’ll seldom wear since you don’t have to buy what you don’t need when you go the mix and match way.
The other advantage of mix and match is that you aren’t stuck with loose bits of a once full set, I found out over the years that the kurta tend to wear off faster, or that I gained weight and rendered the top unwearable, and got stuck with lots of bottoms with no tops, the option of buying just the top is a good one.
Short and mid-length kurti also look wonderful with jeans, cargo, and capris, and yes even shorts! So you get the option to go indo-western with these too.
One thing to be strongly aware of with ethnic wear though: they are a pain in the butt to wash, most are died in colours that will wash out as soon as they are dipped in water, you can do some damage control by washing them in vinegar and salt water first to slow the colour bleeding, but they will still fade fast, so always remember to hand wash for at least 5-6 washes, or machine wash with similar colour. This colour bleeding issue is one of the reason why most Indian ladies I know are moving away from traditional wear on a daily basis, it is high maintenance, and even with a maid, you still end up wearing it less time than it spends in the wash or being pressed (ironed) and the constant washing and pressing does shortens the life span of your outfit considerably, I don’t think I kept a favourite kurta look presentable more than a year them being in the wash every week and being worn once or twice at the max in the course of the said week.

Another thing to be mindful of when buying ready made, is that Indian sizes be it for ethnic or western wear are Asian size, and as a westerner you might need to wear one or two sizes bigger than back home, the XL available here is often a M or L back home, and you don’t always find anything beyond XL or XXL, it becomes a bigger problem with western wear than it does for ethnic wear though, so it pays up to pack your t-shirts and pants from home to take with you, and ask family to bring you clothes when they come visiting, or go shopping for clothes when you go back home, even big brands such as Levi’s do keep smaller sizes in India.

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