The first thing to remember is that you're not Indian. You should never try to be Indian through your dress style. Any Indian woman would tell you that even they don't wear clothes that don't suit them. I know women that won't wear churidar because it doesn't flatter their figure and I know married women who only wear salwar to hide their bodies from onlooking men.
Furthermore, the dress styles will be different in each area of India. So primarily this dress code applies to most of Punjab. Fashion in Delhi and Mumbai is completely different. Still, this may help you when determining what you want to wear.
While most of what I'm posting here might seem obvious, it's not something you would normally have to do in an American store. Picking clothes in Amritsar is quite different and you will likely be bombarded with suits you don't want in colors you don't like in an attempt to make you happy quickly. Don't let it overwhelm you and be firm in what you want and what you're willing to pay for. Not every suit shop wants to sell you their best quality. Some will take advantage of you not knowing the language, etc. and will give you the crap no one else would dare buy. Just think about it, you're visiting a man's store who has spent his whole life learning how to sell to customers. He knows you and how to sell to you before you ever walk through the door and he knows you don't understand local fashion, etc. He can see determine that by your indecisiveness and inability to quickly answer his questions about what you want.
****The wealthiest women in Amritsar are starting to wear more jeans and kurtas or western shirts as everyday fashion. Do not expect to put on a simple cotton suit and fit in with the elite. This tutorial applies to everyday around the house clothing, party wear and wedding attire.
It is imperative you find a good tailor. This is not easy. So to start out with use the one your family uses already. Be very clear and concise with what you tell her you want. Don't ask her to make your suit into a western-style, she most likely won't understand. Keep it simple for her by asking for something she should already be familiar with. Then be prepared for her to mess up. So DO NOT...I repeat...DO NOT go out and buy an expensive suit as the first thing she ever makes for you. Get a cheap cotton suit to wear around the house. One you don't intend to wear out anywhere.
Regardless of how good she is, she is not familiar with your body. Not only that but many westerners tend to have a larger bone structure than Indian women and she will not likely be aware of this. Expect the tailor to make mistakes on the first suit and you'll either have to have it adjusted or possibly pass it on to the maid depending on how bad the mistakes are. Trust me, you don't want to waste a 15,000 Rs suit or have ripped out stitch lines in it if she had to let it out for you.
After you've gotten all the kinks worked out with your tailor and she's making your suits just like you like them then you can get a party wear suit or sari and ask her to make more complicated designs. You'll have a relationship established, she will know what you want and how to make the clothes for you.
Picking Cotton and Every Day Suits
The best thing you can do for yourself and your body is to wear cotton. This lets your body breathe and helps keep you cool on hot days. Before picking, it's good to know a little about cotton fabrics.
- The first thing to do is pick up the whole suit (preferably before the seller unfolds it) and mentally note whether it is heavy or light. Heavier weights mean better fabric (or a higher weave). In the summer you will want the lighter weights and in the winter, heavier weights.
- Visually inspect the kameez fabric. You can see the tightness of the weave. Naturally, cotton with a tighter weave will let less light (and subsequently air) through. So in the summer you want a loose weave and in the winter, tighter weave.
- Visually inspect the design. Whether it's a cheap suit or high quality suit it's bound to have some picks and pulls in the design. Find them and give them a little tug. This will show you how loose the threads are or if it's just random. If there's a lot of loose threads, you know it's a cheaply made suit and you should not pay much money for it.
- Rub your whole hand across the fabric. You will feel irregularities, stiffness, rough fabric, etc. Pay close attention to how your palms feel because this fabric is going to touch sensitive parts of your body. If it's rough on your palms, it won't feel better on your sensitive areas.
- Run your hand along the back of the fabric across the design. You're feeling for sharp edges from any sequins or sparkly threads. You don't want these scratching you either.
- Check for fuzz. If the fibers seem fuzzy then it's likely the cotton was not singed to remove it. This is low-quality cotton and the fabric is much more likely to pill and look ratty quickly.
Picking Nice Suits
These are for outings like the mall or dinner. They can be cotton, silk, polyester or other synthetic materials. The difference between these and every day suits is the embellishments. Typically there's a lot more embroidery and bead work on these suits.
- Check the fabric for picks where the threads are coming loose and other imperfections.
- Check the design and embellishments to ensure they are sewn on well. Pay close attention to the edges of the design. If it is sewn on (and not embroidered into the fabric), make sure the fabric was pre-washed before it was. If not, the fabric could shrink and leave the design looking crooked and unkempt.
- Wet your finger (you should always have bottled water with you when shopping in the markets, especially in the summer months) and touch one corner of the fabric. Hold your finger there for a few seconds then check to see if your finger is dyed the color of the suit. If it is, the dye job is not good and your suit will change colors with each wash or worse - dye everything else you own too! Don't spend a fortune on something you can only wear once before it needs to be handed down to the maid.
Picking Party Wear Suits
Party wear suits are worn to special events. You should never wear these to the mall or an ordinary dinner out. Special occasion dinners at nice restaurants are fine but they're not suitable for the local dhaba, visits to tourist attractions, etc.
- Pick up the entire suit. They can be quite heavy (some up to 40 lbs!) and you need to consider how long you will be wearing it. You do not want to put on an extremely heavy garment and have to wear it for 8+ hours. If it's your wedding, then by all means pick out any dress you want because you'll be sitting down a lot anyway.
- Never pick a heavily ornate suit to wear to someone elses wedding. Just like in the west, it is unacceptable to be more decorative than the bride. I know that sounds hard but trust me, you do not want a heavily decorated suit. Dress down some.
- Check the garment thoroughly for any picks, holes or damages. The ornaments on the garment have been known to cause damage to the fabric. Turn the garment over and observe the back side so you don't miss anything.
- Check the back side of the garment for loose threads. You do not want to purchase something that is already falling apart.
- Check the front side of the garment for missing stones. All the designs should be consistent. Even the most pricey boutiques have damaged goods. This is a universal concept. Don't let all the sparkly stones go to your head, you still want to get your money's worth and you want a garment that is made right.
- Find a special tailor who knows how to sew the fabric you purchased. Not all tailors will be skilled in sewing silk, etc. Just like with your cheap suits, test their capabilities on something meaningless before you give them your expensive party wear.
Do you have any tips for other areas of India?
Do you have tips for larger cities in Punjab?
How do you avoid getting ripped off or cheated while shopping in the bazaars and markets?