I am always amazed that foreign women of my age group dare walk around in India wearing strappy tops or shorts. I usually go by the rule that I will avoid wearing anything that an Indian women of my age and “status” would not wear – in terms of “sexiness”.
The most revealing dress that young Indian women in the city will commonly wear are a pair of tight jeans and a fitting t-shirt or blouse. I daresay strappy tops and naked legs are out of bounds – and so they are for me too, even if I am happy to wear such clothing at home.
I think it is important to follow this line of conduct for two main reasons. Firstly, I don’t want to shock people. How would we feel if people who are used to living naked came and walked our streets with no clothes on? This is what I call “intercultural awareness”.
The second reason has to do with the image that a lot of Indian men (sadly) have of western women: sexual objects. I would rather avoid clothing (or attitudes, for that matter) which would seem to encourage this way of thinking: things are bad enough as they are.
There is also a third reason for being careful about one’s clothing: foreigners who neglect the “dress code” tend to be either “freshly arrived”, hence full of illusions, gullible, and with no sense of what things are worth, or “hippies” – people who come to India because it is “cool”, has “real spirituality”, or is a great place for drugs.
These rough categories are of course just what they are—a tool for thought—but they are close enough to the representations many Indians (especially those dealing with “tourists”) have of foreigners. And personally, I try to avoid classification in either of these categories as much as possible.
I would rather be stared at because I am wearing a pretty sari or salwaar kameez suit than because I am showing too much of my body. In my experience, wearing a sari can only have a positive influence on my interaction with people: I am bothered less, complimented more (by women), and it opens the door to genuine interest about my position as a (“non-standard”) foreigner in India.
Last but not least, saris and salwaar kameez are pretty and feminine. During my first months in India, I wore exclusively the pants & t-shirt uniform, and got really sick of it. It was nice to be able to feel like a woman again. All that in a dress considered modest and respectable by everyone – in a country where this is important.