Delhi Feature

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Dressing the Part

Many traveling women (and a few traveling men) are inspired to buy an Indian outfit to wear for the duration of their trip. Here's a primer:

The traditional North Indian women's ensemble of a long tunic over loose pants is known as a salwar-kameez. Today it is equally common in a variation called the kurta-churidar. The word kameez is a general term meaning "shirt," whereas kurta specifies a traditional Indian tunic worn by both women and men. The pants worn beneath women's kurtas take two forms: the salwar, which is very loose, with only a slight gather at the ankle, and the churidar, which is loose in the thigh but tight along the calf, bunched up near the ankle like leggings. Presently the churidar is in greater vogue than the salwar, and true fashionistas now wear very short (above the knee) kurtas over thigh-tight churidars, a look with a Western element: it favors skinny women. Most women opt for knee- or calf-length kurtas.

The outfit is usually finished with a matching dupatta or chunni, a long scarf draped over the chest with the ends dangling in back, traditionally 6 feet long and 3 feet wide. These days you're free to drape the dupatta however you like; slinging it back from the neck, or even forward from the neck (Western-style), gives the outfit a modern twist. Just beware of dupattas made of stiff or starchy fabric—no matter how beautiful they look, you will probably find them unwieldy. A dupatta is particularly useful in places like Old Delhi and Nizamuddin, where you can pull it over your head as a kerchief if you feel too conspicuous.

You won't have to invest much in any of these items; at Fabindia or Dilli Haat you can buy a smart trio of kurta, churidar or salwar, and dupatta for US$25-US$50. Another option at Dilli Haat and some fabric stores is to buy uncut "suit fabric," a smartly matched set of three pieces of fabric meant to be sewn into the full regalia. If you buy suit fabric, simply take it all to a tailor (ask any market merchant to suggest one; most are holes-in-the-wall), allow him to measure you, tell him what kind of neckline you fancy and whether you want a churidar or salwar, and come back for your custom-made "suit." This can take a few days, but the tailoring costs about US$10 and these ensembles are very attractive.

Men's kurtas are traditionally paired with a churidar or with loose, straight-legged "pyjamas." Most urban Indian men wear Western shirts and trousers, but Delhi's politicians keep the white cotton kurta-pyjama and the more formal dhoti (a loose, bunchy men's skirt) alive and kicking. Formal silk kurta-churidars are trotted out only for weddings.

Many Western women who buy salwar-kameez choose muted colors, perhaps on the premise that light skin tones need light fabric tones. Unfortunately, muted colors often make Westerners look washed-out and even more "foreign." Be bold! Women of all complexions are flattered by the jewel tones of many Indian clothes.

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