Wherever I go, I aim to maintain my personal style. I look at each of our travels as a fashion challenge, a way to stretch my wardrobe, create new outfits, but most importantly see, experience and photograph as much as I can, and as a photographer, that often means blending in as much as possible.
It’s true I’ll never completely fit in in most places, but not standing out can work greatly in my favor. In fact, I never want to stand out when exploring, I don’t know if I ever really want to stand out in general. I like to be as invisible as possible to capture people in their element. I’m also always walking a fine line of being completely immersed in my work, searching for photographs and remaining aware of the things that are happening around me.
The same rules should apply to all travelers who’d like to quietly study a foreign place in lieu of having it study you.
The very first thing you should know about South India is that it is not North India. Not in a good or bad way, just in a completely different, unique and beautiful way. Where safety was concerned, I learned to not be concerned, but instead to be smart. I learned to be conservative, not for my safety, but as a measure of respect in a reserved culture, in which I was a guest. I learned to stay cool at all costs. I’m not the sort of traveler to stay inside and wait for the world to come to me, so I had to adapt and that often means taking fashion cues from the women of the culture you are visiting.
There is also a fine line to walk in regards to cultural appropriation. We could talk about this forever, but as with all things there are two schools of thought, do and don’t. Life isn’t black and white, though. It just is not. I did not arrive in India and begin to wear a sari every day. I did however, live in India for two years and wear them to special events. I occasionally wore a bindi and I did adopt two toe rings in lieu of a wedding ring during our two years there. Were people offended by it, no. I mean I can’t speak for the majority, but having delved into educating myself about the culture in the way that I did, I got a good read for what was appropriate, what ticked people off and what was deemed a sign of respect. Because I wasn’t just passing through and because I aim to immerse myself in the culture of each country we live in, my role is different than the everyday traveler. Expat life is complicated, lines are blurred and in the years you spend in your host country you learn native language, don native wear and sometimes forget to which country you actually belong. A blog post in and of itself. Or many. I digress.
It took me a little while to figure India out, fashionably speaking, but after two years of intense study, I reworked my closet and began to view some of my favorite pieces in different ways. Eventually I worked out a way to stay fashionable, cool and safe in India.
Whether you’re going to travel to South India for a short holiday or to call India home, like I did, I thought I’d share my short “Guide to Style” in the South.
1. You have a lot of things in your closet that already work, you just have to start calling them by different names. For instance, all dresses other than a maxi will now be called a “tunic” or “kurta.” They should be worn with long pants, leggings or coverage of the like beneath them and will now be perfectly acceptable day-to-day wear. This includes: midi, mini, hi-lo and lest we forget, micro mini dresses.
2. Anything you used to think of as a shirt or blouse is now still a shirt or blouse, but it is probably either too short, too nice, too sleeveless, too tight, too low-cut, too synthetic, or will make you look too much like a toddler with the new cotton pants or leggings you now desperately need to survive. From now on you may now call a shirt, “something you wear around the house or leave at home.”
3. Anything you used to think of as a tank-top, you may now think of as a bra, or something not to be worn outside the confines of your bedroom. As a base-layer? There is no such thing here, unless you truly want to die of a heat stroke.
4. Bras, we don’t discuss undergarments publicly in India, out of respect and modesty. Though they can be commonly found drying on the front stoops of homes everywhere.
5. Underwear is ok when worn discreetly, we don’t talk about those either (see number 4). Cotton is your friend. Anything with a Brazilian cut is not. Hint: Chaffing, and I’m not talking about the hot dish. My friend and fellow world traveler Michaela Cisney just introduced me to Thinx and I think they’d have been brilliant for long days spent walking the streets with no ladies restroom in sight on your lady’s holiday, ahem. Michaela and I have also decided we want them for all the women in India and the world. A company I stand whole heartedly behind.
6. Things labeled “Global” in the United States, or styles that seem perfect for “Exploring India!” and “Exploring exotic places!” are in fact quite the opposite of perfect when worn in exotic places. For instance, the sequined, embroidered, sleeveless, plunging neckline, paisley print, cotton/polyester, hi-lo, tank-dress from Free People that I love (and is $350) is a no. (I made up this item, but you know what I’m talking about. Their lovely shop is full of them.) Reasons this beautiful “Global” garment will kill you in India:
a. It is polyester and you will die in the heat and humidity. Die.
b. If you needed a reason “b” or somehow survived to read on, you may garner a little bit of unwanted attention. Remember you’re not visiting for attention, you’re visiting to learn and explore.
c. Sequins are plastic. Plastic is not considered a breathable fabric. In fact, it isn’t a fabric at all, it’s a packaging material and it’s not even really recommended for that.
d. Mosquitoes. “Dengue Don’t Care.”
e. Yes, we are still talking about that “Global” dress. It is ok to show your stomach in India, but not your shoulders, or your sexy, sexy kneecaps. Put those voluptuous things away, they are turning people on.
d. The paisley fabric was likely made in India and you will surely regret that you bought it for 300% more than you could have there.
7. Scarves. Always scarves. To wear, to dab sweat, to dry your hands with after you wash your hands. To cover your head when it is hot, your nose when you are walking around in the exhaust of rush hour traffic, your baby when you’re nursing, to put in your car window when it’s sunny, to use as a blanket or pillow, you get the idea. In fact, it was only yesterday I made a sling out of my scarf to hang my clutch while I used the ladies room. Boom! Scarves.
8. Shoes! Glorious Shoes! Do not under any circumstances bring more than one pair of shoes. Two max. I mean, it depends on what you are doing in India, but if you are doing India right, you are walking the streets, you are avoiding the things you don’t want to step in, and it’s true sometimes you are not so lucky. Don’t be “not so lucky” in your pearly white sneakers. OK? I arrived in India with a closet with no less than 40 pairs of shoes, 38 of which never saw the light of day and several of which I wore only from my house to a hotel, two of which I wore daily. Pair one: Simple sandals. Pair two: Sneakers that slip and off easily before entering temples, homes and some shops.
9. Jewelry. Do, but also don’t. Gold is more abundant in India than fresh water, but diamonds are something else altogether and while we find it normal and acceptable to wear diamond wedding rings, you just don’t see that in daily South India-wear. People wear gold chains or “ropes” in lieu of wedding rings and silver toe rings, too. I did not wear my wedding rings in South India. Not because I thought I’d attract attention (see also number 1), but because those tiny diamonds I insisted on having set in my wedding band, could a feed a family in India for a year. Some things don’t feel right, and when they don’t feel right, listen to your gut. Wearing your bling is never worth feeling uncomfortable in a place that is so amazing.
10. Perfume. Yes, by all means, if it happens to be called Deep Woods Off.
This is a little humorous I know, but in all seriousness, I spent a great deal of time navigating the streets as a guest and learned that a little bit of respect and a thirst for knowledge about this city will take you a very long way toward knowing its people and loving it like I did. I hope this helps you to minimize the stress of wondering what to pack for your trip to South India and gives you the confidence to spend more time traversing the color-washed streets of the city.