06/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When in India, Please Don't Wear a Sari

Sometime during my first week of work as a journalist on exchange at the Times of India (Bombay office) I strolled into the newsroom wearing an approximation of Indian dress. A long kameez (tunic) over salwar (loose pants) and a tres chic dupatta (long and wide scarf) draped elegantly, or so I thought around my neck.

I am not sure what response I expected (a standing ovation perhaps? sighs of appreciation? warm thanks for making an effort?) but at lunchtime one (or maybe three) of the female journos who had taken me under their wing and made me part of their club told me quite simply that I looked "foolish." At that moment I felt like an idiot.

Yes said my friends, westerners who come to India and dress local look like try-hards. Leave the saris (the most elegant national costume in the world, no argument entered into) and the salwars, the churidors, and kurtas to the Indians. You've got your own clothes. Please wear them.

On a trip to the Taj Mahal I saw a very pale western girl rather unhappily wearing a sari, obviously thinking "photo opportunity." She looked wretched, not least because she just could not carry it off, but it seemed that every Indian in the place was looking at her. And not in an admiring way.

I have since worked for rather long stretches in Afghanistan and in North West Pakistan. In Pakistan I wore nothing but very baggy salwar kameez and grew to love them with a passion I could never have anticipated. With Pakistani female friends I would go shopping for the material and get our clothes made up by tailors who never had to touch the female person, just look at you then start sewing. There were all kinds of modern touches (would we like the width of the pants 9 inches or the far more chic 6 inches?) but essentially the traditional uniform remained in tact. I found the salwar set flattering and liberating and I could spend ages fussing over scarves, matching sets, to have pockets or not, length of tunic etc. My Pakistani kameezes made the transition to Afghanistan but as I was in Kabul for the most part, I used to wear jeans with long tunics to cover my modesty and a great big scarf to cover my head when I was outdoors. (In the newsroom, rules were relaxed).

In Afghanistan and Pakistan there was no snobbishness about expats wearing local costume - in fact it was encouraged. But I shall always remember that day when I felt so smart only to be told I looked foolish.