What to Wear in India

Shawn FornoMegan Lee

You’re about to go to one of the most historically rich and diverse places on the planet. Make sure you have a few basic pieces of travel gear (lightweight pants, a few long sleeve shirts or wraps, slip-on shoes) and get pumped because you’re about to have one of the best adventures of your life!

So you’re excited about your big trip to India, but you’re not sure what to wear? Welcome to the club. Packing for India can seem overwhelming, and you probably have a lot of questions like:

  • What’s appropriate attire for a temple visit?
  • How hot does it really get in India?
  • Should you pack a light jacket or multiple layers for overnight trains.
  • Can you buy what you need when you land?

Don’t panic. Figuring out what to wear in India is easier than you think.

Yes, India is a massive country—both geographically and culturally—with a variety of climates, tons of potentially confusing norms and local customs, and a dizzying range of accommodation and transportation options for budget and business travelers. But that’s exactly what makes visiting India so much fun.

I’ve been to India three times, including once when I drove a tuk tuk over 2,700 miles from Jaisalmer in the north Kochi in the south, and while it would literally take a lifetime and decades of living there to really understand India, I’ve definitely learned a few things about what to pack, what to wear, and what you should leave at home.

Here’s a complete list of the best clothing and travel gear for India. Hopefully, this list helps you sidestep some of the most common snags and speed bumps that derail first-time travelers to India.

What to Wear in India

Packing for India in a carry on backpack can seem daunting, but you can (and should) try to keep your packing list to one small bag. To do that, you just have to know three simple things about your trip:

  1. What you want to do: Dressing for temple visits and stepwell photoshoots is a lot different than clubbing on the beach in Goa or tea tasting in Kerala
  2. Where you want to go: Getting around India is harder than you think and adding long travel days can require a different wardrobe
  3. When you want to visit: Monsoon season is typically from October to March, but it varies a lot from place to place. Check ahead to prepare for driving rain or deadly heat

Once you know where you’re going, what you’re doing, and the season, packing is a breeze. Here’s what you should pack for India.

You Need a Daypack for India

I’m starting this list off with your everyday carry (EDC) bag instead of clothing items because it’s important to discuss how you’re going to carry your valuables every day.

You’re going to be on-the-go a lot in India. Between taxis, tuk tuks, and trains you’ll be in and out of dozens of vehicles by the time you fly home. That means loading and unloading your precious valuables dozens of times. 

You’ll also likely be walking at popular sites like the Taj Mahal and other temples, which means you’ll want an easy to carry, small daypack or fanny pack to keep all your valuables (passport, wallet, phone, etc) close and readily available.

I loved traveling India with a slim, lightweight carry on backpack (35L or less if possible) that fit under or above my train seat/taxi seat/on my lap in a tuk tuk because it meant my bag was always within my line of sight. And when I did have to “check” my bag under a bus or on a car roof, I knew that my really valuable stuff was safe and sound in my fanny pack on my chest or around my waist. This was also a sweet bonus for overnight trains. It’s easier to sleep when you’re hugging your valuables.

India is a friendly place, but it’s also home to 1.3 billion people which means theft is something you have to prepare for. A fanny pack or small daypack helps alleviate a lot of anxiety in transit.

If you plan to pack a DSLR camera or other large photography equipment, like a drone, keeping your valuables with you can get a little harder. But you should still try to pack everything in a small day bag and make sure you can keep your passport and wallet close at hand in a zippered pants pocket

What to Wear in India for Men

Cover Up with Lightweight Pants

Speaking of pants, it’s time to talk about the travel pants you should wear in India. And the ones you shouldn’t wear.

I have some strong feelings about the “genie” pants (aka harem or parachute pants) that so many Western tourists buy the second they land in India (or Thailand). And while these flowy pants are comfortable (kind of) they’re one of the quickest ways to single yourself out as a clueless tourist.

No, really.

While it can be fun to dress like a pirate, locals simply don’t wear these pants. Instead, you’ll see more slacks or lightweight linen pants on most men (many women still opt for traditional Indian dress like a sari).

Lightweight linen pants or even thin joggers are great for India. They breathe, dry easily, and just about everyone wears them. They’re also modest, which is a big deal here—for both men and women. I’m all for wearing what makes you comfortable, but short shorts are going to cause more problems than you think. Wear long, lightweight pants or a long skirt in India for temple visits and bright sunny days

 And if you absolutely have to wear harem pants, go for something a little less obnoxious to separate yourself from the madding hordes.

If you’re not into linen pants, I love the Olivers Passage Pants (here’s my full review). They’ve got tons of stretch built-in, great pockets, a slim profile, and they’ve performed beautifully in hot and humid weather all over Southeast Asia. Two thumbs up. 

Jeans are Fine

If lightweight linen pants or baggy hippie trousers are your worst nightmare, relax. You can wear jeans in India. 

Jeans are super popular in India, and many men and women wear them all the time in the bigger cities. Try to avoid super skinny jeans as they’ll just be hot and uncomfortable. Also, don’t wear anything too baggy since that’s not the style in India either (sorry JNCO).

Honestly, for men, jeans and a nice t-shirt or even a polo shirt is a great, comfortable look that won’t get you a second glance in India. 

Bring Slip-On Shoes

Like many places in Asia, you’re going to have to take your shoes on and off a lot in India. Leave the trendy sneakers and bulky hiking boots at home and embrace the pace of local life with easy to remove slip-on shoes. I prefer a pair of nice, stylish, lightweight espadrilles (like Toms), but anything that you can kick on and off works.

I’m also a big fan of just wearing sandals every day. Dollar store flip flops do the trick, but you might want to opt for something a little more sturdy like a good pair of broken-in Birkenstocks. Seriously, they’re great. Either way, make sure you can kick your shoes on and off and you’ll save a lot of hassle.

Rock that Scarf

Yup. It’s time to embrace the scarf. Wear it. Own it. Drape your Instagram feed with saffron-colored windblown majesty as you and your scarf (you’ve already named it, Esmerelda) travel India together.

In all seriousness, a good scarf is an absolute go-to item for men and women in India. It’s great for covering up on sunny days (or dusty tuk tuk rides) and it’s a great accessory for the rest of your capsule wardrobe.

I wore my scarf pretty much all the time, and I’m honestly kind of bummed that scarves aren’t as popular back in the States. They rule. And guys, if a scarf isn’t your thing try a lightweight hiking Buff or even a bandana to help keep the sweat and dust at bay.

Buy a bright, awesome scarf (or five of them) when you land to support local businesses, and snag a few for friends and family while you’re at it to show them that life is better when you’re rocking a dope scarf.

Adjust to Temperature Swings With a Long Sleeve Button-Up Shirt

The sun, sand, and wind can be punishing in India, and while it may seem counterintuitive to pack a long sleeve shirt for such a hot destination, a long sleeve shirt is actually a great way to keep you cool in India.

I wore a long sleeve chambray button-up that was great at hiding the inevitable sweat, dirt, and stains that come from traveling India for weeks at a time. The collar gave me shade for my neck during the day, the sleeves kept me from getting sunburned, and I could button it up or down as the wind and weather changed. Plus, a button-up shirt is a great thing to have for a temple visit.

Lightweight cotton button-up shirts or blouses are comfy during the day when you’re at the market, but they also provide you with a little versatility for more modest or formal occasions. I honestly loved having a little more cover for those blasting sunny days on the road that also doubled as something “nice” when we went out at night.

And it never hurts to have a shirt you can unbutton when you need to get a little airflow on the occasional sweaty train ride. Pack at least two button-up long sleeve shirts you can wear over a tank top to add an extra light layer. You’ll be glad you did.

Try Out a Kurta Top 

One of the easiest (and best ways) to embrace local Indian dress is with a kurta. These simple classic Indian shirts can either be slightly longer than a t-shirt or a full-on knee-length poncho—it varies by region and of course your preferences.

I wore an over the top kurta (full length to my knees) during an Indian wedding, but you don’t have to go nearly that far. Kurtas come in all shapes, colors, lengths, and sizes, and I highly recommend trying one out for yourself. They’re comfortable, traditional, and great for hot days just about anywhere in India.

Ask a local for help finding the right kurta and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying a more authentic side of India.

Shorts are for the Beach

Here’s the thing about shorts in India—no one really wears them. At least, not unless they’re at the beach. And honestly, not really then either.

If you’re heading to Goa (and you probably are), go ahead and pack a pair of shorts and a swimsuit. Enjoy the beach. Obviously try not to go too short (this goes for guys too), as India is still a conservative country, even in Goa, but if you’re planning to spend any significant time at the beach it’s completely normal to wear shorts day in and day out. You are “allowed” to wear shorts in India.

However, you’ll want to cover up with a sarong or wrap if you’re wearing your swimsuit off the sand. That’s still a bit much for most Indians. You also shouldn’t wear short shorts or a swimsuit to a restaurant or on a hike.

Shorts just aren’t nearly as popular in larger cities in India as they are in Western countries, especially for women (sorry, ladies). Bottom line, wear what makes you comfortable, just know that wearing short shorts will get you some funny looks in India. Don’t pack too many pairs unless you don’t mind the stares.

Layer up with V-neck T-shirts and Merino Tank Tops

Packing for India isn’t all scarves and saris and harem pants. You can—and should—wear a few t-shirts and even a tank top, especially if you’re layering them with lightweight long sleeve shirts or a kurta.

Merino wool t-shirts are my hands-down favorite item to pack for just about every destination because they’re just fantastic for travel. Merino wicks away sweat, fits like a dream, dries quickly, stretches to move with you, and just plain looks sharp.

A nice v-neck merino shirt is a great addition to your India packing list, and a merino tank top makes an incredible base layer for long travel days. Unbound pocket tank tops have been my go-to for a few years now. They’re an affordable way to add a little merino to your packing list (just $40) and they’re perfect for India.

Again, you’re going to look like a foreigner no matter what you wear, so if you like wearing t-shirts, pack a few for India. It’s fine.

What to Wear in India for Women

What Local Women Wear

Visitors to India need to remember that this is a very conservative and deeply religious country. Many Indian women wear traditional outfits, like saris and salwar kameez, a look made up of a long tunic (called a kurta), matching scarf, and tapered pants. Indian women’s wardrobes are typically comprised of loose-fitting shirts, tunics, and blouses with high necklines and short or long sleeves. Typical pants are likewise loose-fitting, not to mention ankle length and made with lightweight fabrics like cotton. 

In general, exposed shoulders and/or knees are seen as disrespectful in India and will make it nearly impossible for you to visit ancient ruins, temples, or UNESCO World Heritage sites. Note that most women keep their legs fully covered rather than wearing knee-length skirts or shorts.

In modern cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, it is not uncommon to see young Indian women wearing Western-style jeans with modest, Eastern-style tops. However, the same jeans might invite unwanted attention and harassment anywhere else.

What Women Should Pack for Traveling in India

You don’t need to buy a brand new travel wardrobe when packing for India, but you should definitely leave your behind your tank tops, shorts, and miniskirts. Once you arrive, plan to observe local women and follow their leads; leave a bit of room in your backpack to buy clothing once you arrive. 

When packing for India as a female traveler, the best practice is to take into account where you are headed. Will you be traveling in major cities, primarily, like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, or Kolkata? Wear your normal clothes, but err on the side of conservative. If you’re planning to travel through small villages or other areas where tourists are few, kick it up a notch and dress very modestly.

Here’s what to wear in India:

A Pashmina or Sarong

A classic staple for travelers in conservation Asian nations, this versatile piece of clothing is a must-add item to your travel backpack. It’s useful for covering up in the sun or staying warm on the go, plus it can be a quick solution to cover your shoulders, neck, or legs when necessary.

A Rain Jacket

Summers are hot, muggy, and rainy in India. Carry a lightweight, windproof, and compact rain jacket that fits snuggly in the bottom of your daypack. This will be a great piece of gear if you’re doing any hiking or trekking while traveling in India, not to mention incredibly useful when that afternoon storm rolls in.

All the Wool

When thinking through which tops and base layers to pack for India, I can’t recommend predominantly wool items enough. Wool is the perfect fabric to wear against your skin because it naturally helps regulate your body temperature, keeping you warm in the cold and wicking away moisture when it’s hot.

Plus, clothes made with wool rarely retain odors, even after multiple wears. Travel win!

A Swimsuit with Cover-Up

Women travelers in India can pack bikinis or any type of swimsuit for their trip, especially if they’re headed to touristy beach locales like Goa. If you’re planning to visit more off-the-beaten path beaches with fewer tourists, you’ll want to modify your swimwear to be more conservative (maybe even going so far as swimming with a t-shirt and shorts on, too).

In general, you should take the time to change into your more modest clothing before leaving the beachfront and heading back to town.

Loose-Fitting Pants

Don’t plan to wear your classic yoga pants and top look here, unless your top covers your bum. You can pick up a few pairs of brightly colored, cheap harem pants here, but I’d also recommend bringing some baggy yet stylish bottoms like Athleta’s Camden Joggers.

You can pack jeans, but they’re very heavy and not at all common for women outside of the cities. Denim is not the most comfortable fabric for hot weather, either, so swap your staple for something lighter weight and cooler.

A Knee-Length Skirt (or longer)

Skirts can be a godsend on hot days or when you want to dress up your typical look. Keep your skirt flowy, long, and made with breathable fabric to set yourself up for success. Just be sure it’s not see through!

Jewelry

I know most travel experts recommend that you leave expensive jewelry behind when traveling, and I agree. Don’t bring your wedding ring or the diamonds you inherited from your grandma. But, I do recommend that you spare some room in your backpack for cheap necklaces, bangles, and dangly earrings that you can easily layer and brighten your outfit. Indian women love wearing jewelry, especially gold jewelry, and it’s fun for female travelers in India join in on the sparkly fun, too. Or, buy some bling when you get there and take it home as a souvenir!

Shop Locally

The final (and probably biggest) packing tip I can give for India is simple—leave room in your bag for Indian clothing.

India has some of the most beautiful and brilliant patterns, colors, and fabrics you’ll ever see, not to mention cuts and styles you just can’t find anywhere else. If you’re really not sure about what to pack, bring a few of your favorite travel pieces and pick up the rest when you get there. You’ll probably even save a few bucks.

There’s no better way to “dress like a local” than to buy your clothing from local retailers and shop owners once you land. I promise you’ll find a few great pieces that you’ll wear for years. And who knows, the right scarf, pants, or kurta might just inspire you to come back again. It did for me.

Just be respectful and try not to go overboard with the local styles and you’ll be just fine. And if in doubt, just ask if an item is a good fit for you. The locals will be more than happy to help you find something awesome that actually suits you. Trust me. You’re in good hands.

A Few Quick Fashion Don’ts for India 

As far as fashion don’ts, the list is shorter than you think. Avoid anything too tight, too revealing, or obviously offensive, and try not to appropriate too much (maybe you don’t need a bindi).

Here’s a quick list of some of the biggest things to avoid wearing in India:

Don’t Wear

  • Short shorts
  • Tight leggings
  • Hiking boots
  • A bathing suit as a top/bottom
  • Mini skirts
  • Muscle shirts (cut off sleeves)
  • Cut-offs (shorts)
  • And ask a local to help you pick out the saris, kurtas, or other “traditional” Indian clothing you wear
 

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