HOW TO: Buy Clothes Like An Indian Woman

Emily Strasser
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I walk into a dim shop piled high with brightly colored fabrics. The Indian shopkeeper looks at me expectantly. “Kurta?” I ask tentatively. He nods and gestures for me to sit down on a bench. Then he begins to pull out fabrics, unfolding them for me to see.

Consisting of a knee-length shirt with splits up the sides, loose pants, and a scarf draped over the shoulders, Indian kurta is the traditional casual dress for women in many parts of India. Not only are loose cotton kurtas a lifesaver in summertime heat—just as thick, long-sleeved ones are great in the mountains—but wearing one will help you blend in better with crowds and show your respect for the culture.

Before you can wear one, you’ll have to know how to buy one:

Step 1: Decide between a readymade and tailored kurta

If you will only be somewhere for a couple of days, a readymade kurta is probably your best bet. Indians prefer to have their kurtas tailored, so in some places, you will only find readymade kurtas in shops that cater to tourists. I initially bought a readymade kurta in Delhi, and when I brought it to a tailor to have it altered, she was appalled at the price I had paid and pulled at the stitching to show me the poor quality! If you’re planning on being in India for a while, a tailored kurta will not only fit better, but it will last longer. For instructions on buying a tailored kurta, read on…

Step 2: Find a shop and note placement of shoes

Kurta fabric should come already matched with cloth for a shirt (kameez), pants (salwar) and scarf (dupata). When you find a cloth shop, go in and ask “suit?” Kurta pajama, salwar kameez, and punjabi are all regional words for the same basic dress, but nowadays many people just say “suit.”

Assuming you get a nod, the shopkeeper will invite you to stand at a counter or sit on a bench or on cushions on the floor facing a wall of bright folded cloth. In nice shops, the shopkeeper will want you to remove your shoes before coming anywhere near his wares. Notice where the shopkeeper has put his shoes, and do likewise. 

Step 3: Let the shopkeeper show you his stuff

Americans are used to poking around to find what we want, but Indians expect you to sit while they pull things out to show you. They can get disgruntled or confused if you start walking around and pulling items out for yourself. Despite protests of, “No, no, I’m just looking!” the shopkeeper will follow you around and unfold everything you so much as touch. Relax, and let him show you your options.

Step 4: Request what you want, but don’t point

Don’t get overwhelmed by the mounting pile of fabric before you. You can indicate colors and patterns you like and ask for “more like this?” Whenever indicating a preference, be sure to gesture with your full right hand: Pointing is seen as rude, and the left hand is considered dirty. 

Step 5: Verify the material

You can also ask for types of fabric, such as cotton or silk. Just be sure to touch it for yourself, as sometimes shopkeepers will just tell you what you want to hear.

“Yes madam. Pure cotton.”

“Feels like polyester.”

“Very fine cotton.”

Step 6: Get the price

Though bargaining is common in India, in most cloth shops, prices are fixed. Prices begin around 200 rupees (about four dollars) for simple, unembroidered cloth, and increase with elaborate embroidery, sequins, and/or higher-quality material. You can get the material for a decorative but reasonable kurta for 400 to 700 rupees (eight to 14 dollars).

Step 7: Choose your style

Ask the shopkeeper to recommend a tailor—often cloth shops will have a relationship with a particular tailor. Otherwise, look for shops with men and women hunched over sewing machines and kameez hanging on the walls. 

You can specify to the tailor whether you prefer long (full) or short (half) sleeves, and whether you would like loose, flowy pants (salwar), or tight pants that scrunch up at the ankles (churidar). You will also be able to pick out a neck cut. The tailor will measure you and write down your preferences. Prices range from 60 to 120 rupees (about $1.25 - $2.50) for tailoring a standard suit.

Step 8: Tell the tailor you need it sooner than you do

A week turnaround on a kurta is standard. Yet if you are on any kind of deadline to get your suit, tell the tailor you need it a day or two before that date, just to ensure it is ready. Several times, I have returned on the day specified, much to the tailor’s surprise and his assurances that my kurta will be ready, “Tomorrow, 5 o’clock, madam.”   

Step 9: Seal the deal with chai

Many tailors will offer you tea after you make a deal. It is not rude to refuse, but if you have the time, enjoy a cup of chai with your new Indian friend.

Step 10: Enjoy hassle-free walks

Even if you can’t pass as Indian, it pays to try to blend in. Walking along the street with my friends in Agra, we ignored a man who was calling out to us, thinking he was just another aggressive vendor. It took us a moment to realize he was telling my friend that if she took off her sunglasses and pulled her dupata down to shade her eyes, she would look more Indian. When wearing a kurta, you’ll generally be respected more and hassled less.


Posted on 6/23/2009 by

Nicole Guldin

Nicole Guldin

Thanks for this! I'm leaving for India in less than 20 days to be an exchange student, so this will be really useful (:

Posted on 8/28/2009 by

Sally Walkerman

Sally Walkerman

I'd put in a big, huge plug for the government "khadi" shops in India. There is one in almost every town, and they sell the hand-made, traditional cottons and silks. And other local products! Not only will you get some amazing material, the shops are quiet, calm, and you're supporting the weavers of India. The machine made stuff that's sold in most shops is perhaps more "in", but the khadi is truly wonderful, and one of a kind. It's also possible to get western-style stuff made. But, if you want it done at all close to right, give the tailor something that fits you well that he can pattern. Don't expect a village tailor to do amazing work.

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