India-proof your wardrobe

8:30 AM

This is one of those now rare "Masala couple" kind of posts I am writing today. If you aren't familiar with the term "Masala Couple", this means an intercultural couple where one partner is Indian and the other is not.

I belong to a few online group of ladies married to Indian guys, and the same questions and concerns tend to come up, one of such questions is "It's my first trip to India, I have nothing to wear, what should I do".
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post called "Expat Guide: What to wear", but it was a more general posts that englobes everything, and isn't specific enough, and certainly does not address the needs of a person who lives outside India and only visit family and relatives occasionally.

If you are planning on visiting India as a tourist, or plan on living in a big Metro, what you wear won't matter as much as when you are going to be spending time with a horde of relatives, that may or may not be on the traditional side.
The big problem, is that you may not be too thrilled collecting a whole bunch of salwaar suits, anarkali, churidars and other dupatta. They take precious wardrobe space and let's face it, once you are back in your home country, how often are you going to even wear them? Especially with trends changing so fast in India, even in ethnic wear.

My advice, is to build a wardrobe that can work in India, as well as back in your home country. The key is to understand what would work as stylish yet modest outside of the realm of the "salwaar kurta" suit.
To pass the "traditional" test, a woman's outfit should consist of any kind of long bottom-wear and a flowing tunic-y top that at least covers the hip and butt area.
Once you understood that key element, building a wardrobe that can tide you over the obligatory family shopping trip in India, you will be good to go.

As far as bottoms go, you can't go wrong getting yourself any of these :

Palazzo pants

If there is one style of pants that is the trend of the hour in India this has to be the Palazzos. I'm not kidding! These have made their way into mainstream fashion for the past 2-3 years, to the point that you can find them ANYWHERE in India including small garment shops and open air bazaars. 

And it's easy to understand why really, it can be dressed up and down super easily, the same pair of palazzo can be paired with a kurta and look ethnic, and paired with a tank top or t-shirt the next day to lounge home. And in the heat of Summer, yes even in our horrid hell that Mumbai inevitably becomes, they are still confy to wear as they are quite airy.

All in all this means you can "indianize" them when you visit India, and then revert to wearing them with your favourite tee shirts, tank tops, and spaghetti straps back home. With the added bonus that while in India you are going to look rather trendy among your relative in-laws.

Not convinced about how trendy they are? Look no further than what typing "Palazzo" on Amazon India yeilds (affiliate link).


These have been in vogue in India for a while and are often called "stretch churidars", and as the name suggest, they pretty much replaced the tailored cotton churidars, which were annoying as hell to be frank. Anybody in India who hasn't suffered a case of "calf tightness" in Churidars, please raise your hand!

Leggings are usually paired with a kurta in India, though the recent trend has it being paired with flowing long shirt-tunic as well now. 
The big pro of stocking up on these before you visit India is that, once back home, you can use them pairing them with a more western looking tunic, a long sweater or a winter wool dress and you are good to go. 
The con, at least in India, is that they are not really confortable on a hot Summer day, in Mumbai, this is the kind of stuff you usually wear in the Winter, and I am pretty much sure it applies to all the regions of India where you either steam or roast from April to July. 

Well cut Western style pants

You didn't see that one coming? Believe it or not, these are often paired with shorter kurti in India, especially among the office going ladies. Who need something that looks smart, elegant and still conservative in the office, and still look the part when going out for dinner after long work day. 
They also look good and quite ethnic with longer kurti.

I don't think I need to explain how you can put them back to good use once you left India. 

Maxi skirts

They usually scream "hippie" or "Boho" in the West, but in India they once upon a time were called "lehengas" and paired with wither a choli or a short kurta and are no making a fashion comeback close to the proportion of the Palazzo. 
They are usually paired with t-shirts in metros, but the trend to pair them with short kurti is on the rise, and there are even certain brand of  ethnic wear that have showcased the trend of pairing them with almost ankle length kurti, ESPECIALLY as a formal party look. 

Searching for them on Amazon got me 68 pages of results, you clearly can't go wrong with these. 

Ok so now you know what you can wear on your legs, but what about the tops? Since buying kurti before that crucial first visit to India could prove really hard.

Here it goes: 


Technically, the Indian kurta IS a tunic, but the one I am talking about, like this pretty navy blue one in the picture would be considered an "Indo-western" tunic in india. 
They can pair well with jeans, tailored pants, and palazzos, and if the tunic is long enough, even leggings. They will totally do the trick on your Indian visits and still be 100% wearable at home. 

Long shirts

Look for the kind of long button down tunic or oversized shirts and pair it with either jeans, trousers, or leggings, with the right accessories, (aka bangles and ethnic looking necklaces like I featured on this blog post).


The good old jeans and t-shirt works well in India and it will not attract a lot of attention even in smaller cities in India, the problem is that it's terribly casual, and I know that in some families, it doesn't really do, especially if you are going to see a parade of relatives dropping at the family home at any odd hours. 
The solution? Shrugs! Those are the best way to add style to a super simple and casual western wear outfit. 
Look for Kimono type shrugs like the one in the above picture. If you can't find them anywhere near you, they are pretty easy to make using an old over sized scarf as explained in this tutorial

Shift dresses

Those might not really strike you as appropriate for a visit to India, but trust me, it's the closest to a kurta you'll find at an affordable price in the West. 
To make it work, wear your shift dress with leggings, and you have an instant modern looking Indian outfit. 
These give you 67 pages of results on Amazon, safe to say that the trend has caught up in India, and yes in a city like Mumbai, women wear them as they are supposed to be worn too (just not around elders)


These are pretty much replacing the "dupatta" in India and many women in metros and big cities use them to accessorise a casual jeans and t-shirt look, or their western style office wear.
The advantage they have over the more traditional dupatta is that they are usually a bit shorter and far less bulkier, and can be draped in a bigger variety of styles.

In the West, a light scarf, or stole is always seen as a trendy accessory, so go ahead and buy a few of these before your Indian trip to jazz up some of your outfits. Look out for bright happy colours, we love wearing colours in India, things like this cute pink stole are one of your many options.

What to buy in India?

If you are a big fan of all the above options, you can obviously all find them in India, for cheaper and in probably a bigger variety of colours and prints.
But there are certain things like kurti that you will want to stock up on while you are visiting India. First because, the medium length and short kurti really look great with jeans and are options for your Western wardrobes. 

A word of advice though, try to go shopping with a younger relative in your partner's family. They will know better than let's say your MIL what is in fashion. 
One of the classic example of out of style ethnic wear has to be the "matchy matchy" Salwaar suit set. The one where the kurta, pants and dupatta are all came from the same roll of fabric. I think it is safe to say that no other Indian style outfit screams "old lady" any louder. I myself call them "auntie suits". Yes it's THAT bad.

Salwaars aren't much in vogue with women under 50 these days, as stated earlier, Palazzos and leggings have replaced them. 
The trend is also to mix and match, and all department stores and even smaller garment stores will offer the option of buying your kurta and choice of pants separately. 
Usually if the kurta is ornate, the pants are a solid colour, and if the pants have prints on them, the kurta is colour blocked. 

When it comes to ethnic wear, I have one favourite brand : Global Desi

The brand offers Western style, Indo-western and Ethnic options in a variety of styles and colors. This asymmetrical kurta worn with palazzo pants is pretty much what's in fashion right now. 

Another brand that has been a favourite with a lot of people is Fabindia they usually sell a bit more conventional looking ethnic wear, and some shorter kurti and tops. The only issue I now have with the brand, is that it has become expensive for what it is. It used to be more affordable in the past. But if you are looking for beautiful handloom cottons, more natural dyes and traditional block printing designs, they are one to look for. The sell in most cities with stand alone stores, and you can by them online either on their own site, or on other sites like Amazon, Myntra and the like. 

Apart from stocking up on kurti you can pair with your western outfits. India is great for all those awesome accessories, like shoes, jewellery, stoles, shawls, and bangles. 
Women in India love their accessories! 

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  1. Anonymous10:45 AM

    A very comprehensive and useful list on the prevailing fashion trends. Fantastic information.

    The fashion for Indian woman has changed drastically over the decades. In our times it was sari for woman and salwar kurtas for girls. Western dresses just made an appearance with an occasional jeans or skirt. Commuting everyday from home to office and back, I often marveled at the range of fabric, apparel and accessories that woman have these days, not to mention hairstyles. There is something new everyday. Compared to them, men are still going on with their shirts, trousers and black shoes. I wish men had the choice of matching their clothes with their footwear.

    What we see today is a comeback of the 1960s and 1970s fashion, especially the palazzos and tight fitting salwar suits. The Anarkali is definitely from 1990s with certain modifications.

    I know this post is not about salwar suits, but I find the baggy salwars called Patialas very stylish. I think that it is fantastically feminine apparel. They especially look good with short kurtis. The shrugs are good, but sometimes they look very odd, too much of a fabric on one person. No offence meant, just the observations of a man.


    1. Palazzos did make a modest comeback in the 90's in Europe, I think for a few Summer seasons, before vanishing again.

      Shrugs are meant to be worn with something form fitting underneath , otherwise, as you said, it becomes too much fabric for one person.
      I have one, that I pair with either my fitted t-shirts to jazz them up especially in the cooler months during which playing with a layered look is possible or I pair it with a tank top or spaghetti strap top whenever I don't feel like showing that much skin or want my super casual tops to look a bit more dressy :-)

    2. Anonymous9:52 PM

      I think the basics of woman's fashion these days is a thin material on top with or without intercate designs if it a suit and a layer underneath. Be it suit or top they all more or less follow the same pattern.

      There are plazzos with two layers of cloth the thin layer on top with intricate designs like lucknow chikankari. So creative. I long for the day when such creativity is shown in men's fadhion.

      Shrugs are fantastic but I find them kind of cumbersome with all that fabric swirling around but then I guess it is upto the wearer.

      As an onlooker this creativity does fascinate members


  2. Fabindia is usually the first place I take visitors to shop because their clothing is natural fibers (linen, silk, cotton) & their sizes are equivalent to western sizes. I've seen a lot more Indians shopping at Fabindia in recent years too.

    In addition to the 'matchy matchy' salwar suits I'd add anything made out of that gawdawful hot, scratchy, 'sand silk' or crepe polyester.

    1. Oh yes! That crepe polyester needs to die! It looks flattering on absolutely no one.

      We had a big Fabindia store in a pretty house in Bangalore, it was mostly frequented by well travelled upper middle class Indians back then, which is funny considering that the prices were much lower in those days and you really got quality for your money compared to all the small shops selling cheap looking suits at often the same price.

      Nowadays, the quality is still great, the organic feel is definitely still there, but the prices have really gone up, yet funnily there is more middle class Indians shopping there than before.

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  4. I don't go as far as getting salwars or suits but I do bring maxi dresses and shawls. I like clothes that I can wear in the US and India! As long as it's not revealing, it passes my test because us foreigners (LOL!) are going to stand out no matter what :) Thanks for the post!

    1. That's what I tell people who are afraid to stand out in the crowd : you'll stand out no matter what you wear, you might as well have clothes that makes you feel comfortable.

      I haven't worn a full on salwaar suit in ages, I think I still have one left in my wardrobe, and I never wear it. I haven't worn dupattas in even longer time. And the rare occasions I do wear something that would pass as conservative ethnic, it's stretch churidars and a cotton kurta.

      Living in Mumbai, I dress super casual and most of the time I wear cropped pants, capri leggings, palazzos and yup shorts.
      I don't even really bother dressing up for my in-laws unless I know we are going to be doing the round of relatives when we visit around Diwali.

      They came to visit us here in Mumbai at the start of the month, and I wore what I always wear. Including my old shapeless tees and jockey shorts which are my nightwear of choice :-)

  5. I love palazzo pants! I've kept several in my wardrobe at all times for far too long lol. They really can be worn anywhere for just about any look. I'm not crazy about palazzo's with long kurta's though. I'm completely out of fashion and don't care much for fashion though. I live for comfort. Maybe that's how I survived India as long as I did lol.

    1. Yes, this is exactly what I love with palazzos, they can be worn with anything, anywhere. I have an old black pair that is now too old to wear outside, but in their prime I wore them with a casual t-shirt during the day, with a kurta to look more ethnic and formal and even had a black tank top that once paired with it made it look like a nice jumpsuit to go to casual parties.

      You really can't go wrong owning a few of these.


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