What To Wear In India: English girl dressing for an Indian wedding
Before I went, I agonised about what to wear in India. I arrived and discovered every train station and pavement in India is a blinding catwalk of colour. After two months exploring this vibrant country, I’ve conceded that my drab Western wardrobe simply can’t compete with the embellished ensembles of Indian women. Each colour-coordinated salwar kameez, ornately embellished silk sari and stack of dazzling bangles makes me wish my own cultural dress was more flamboyant. Who wants to wear jeans and a t-shirt when you can be swathed in tangerine and pink ombré chiffon? Nothing in this country is bland or understated, something which I’ve come to admire and envy in equal measure. But what is a girl to wear in India when you’re invited to formal occasions like weddings? This was the predicament I found myself in…
I’d been itching for the opportunity to play dress-up and adorn myself in a sari and a maang-tika. So when I was invited to Muslim wedding in old Delhi, I could hardly contain my excitement. It felt like I’d found Willie Wonka’s golden ticket and my prize was the privilege of being able to witness the colour and commotion of an India wedding ceremony first-hand.
My imagination ran wild. Instead of rooms full of candy and chocolate, I’d feast on a buffet of Indian delicacies and gawp at the elaborate attire of the elegant guests. But my initial enthusiasm quickly turned to dread when it dawned on me that I had nothing appropriate to wear in my dusty backpack bar some unflattering yoga pants and hippie beach dresses haggled for in a Goan flea market.
It’s hard to know what to wear in India on a day to day basis but the process of buying an Indian wedding outfit is an even more daunting task. I was initially overwhelmed by the vast range of choice – in one shop alone there must have been thousands of neatly folded saris and lehenga choli in a myriad of colours. The shop keepers in the clothing district of Udaipur were quick to jump to our assistance – wrapping us up in sheathes of jewel-coloured silk like origami swans and demonstrating the complicate technique of putting on a sari.
I could have spent days perusing the array of rainbow-like fabrics but finally settled on a raspberry pink sari with hand-sewn, teardrop embellishment. My blouse was custom-made by a local tailor in less than 24 hours and I settled on a pair of beaded slippers to match. In Delhi’s markets, I picked out armfuls of coordinated diamante bangles in bronze and silver and by the end of this epic shopping spree, I was utterly exhausted but my transformation was complete. I decided that the high-maintenance look of Indian women is alluring but not particularly attainable.
The wedding was every bit as grandiose and flamboyant as I had imagined. Hundreds of glamorous guests milled about the open-air venue in which was filled with fresh flowers, mountains of food and hundreds of metres of lights. I looked the part but concluded that my heavy chiffon sari wasn’t best suited to the stifling heat of a balmy evening in Delhi.
My legs felt restricted as I shuffled along awkwardly in my new outfit yet my Indian counterparts seemed to float past effortlessly, having clearly perfected the art of walking in a sari after years of practice. Whilst they looked beautifully put-together in their flawless makeup, I was melting beneath swathes of chiffon – my bindi slowly sliding off my waxy forehead.
Impracticalities aside, I had never felt more elegant. Women paraded past like peacocks and gave approving nods at my bejewelled attire. I felt glad I’d gone to such an effort for a change and relieved that my cerise sari blended in to the mesmerising sea of colour. It was more than a wedding, it was a cultural extravaganza and I was honoured that I’d been able to experience it.
Before I go home, I’ll be stocking up on twinkling bindis, bulk buying silk scarves and bartering for as many bangles as I can get through customs because when I’m back in monochromatic London, I’ll need some reminders of India’s kaleidoscopic culture which has utterly seduced me.
This post was originally featured in Discover India Magazine’s May edition for my bi-monthly column, Expat Diaries. Read more of my blogs on Indian culture here.