SKs and mainstays: What to wear in the Desh (for women)

Clothes are a huge part of culture and, somehow, knowing what people put on their bodies and what they wear as they go about their daily lives helps us to understand what that life is like.

Loads of people from home have asked me ‘what do you wear?’ – and I know that was a huge question I had before I left for Bangladesh. Travellers know that women are often expected to change the way they dress when travelling or living in a different culture – often more so than men – in order to be culturally sensitive. So what do you pack? What should you expect? Is it necessary to wear local clothes? How easy is it to make the transition? Does it feel like wearing a costume? Is it comfortable?

So here’s my low-down on threads in the Desh.

SKs

SK three-piece

In a ready-made three-piece – see how my orna and the detailing on the sleeves match the pants? (This SK from Aarong; little person not included)

While the traditional dress for women in Bangladesh is the sharee (sari), the Salwar-Kameez (SK) is now standard everyday wear for most middle-class Bengali women. This outfit is made up of a long top (kameez – it’s distinguishable from a dress because of the slits down the sides from the hips), pants (salwar), and a scarf or shawl (orna).

Matching your outfits is very important here, and most Bangladeshi women buy their SKs as a pre-designed ‘three-piece’, either off the rack (‘ready-made’/’cut’) or as a set of fabric that is then taken to the tailor to be sewn up in your size (‘uncut’). Usually the salwar and kameez will be made with different but matching fabrics, and the orna will tie the outfit together, often by repeating the pattern of the pants.

village

A colleague wears a three-piece SK while we walk through a rural village on a field trip. This is standard office wear for most Bengali women.

If you’re working in an office with mainly local staff (like me), wearing SKs is probably the easiest way to fit in, clothes-wise. It’s easy (buy whole outfits in one go and never worry about making decisions in the morning again!) and comfortable (yes, thank you, I would love to wear pajamas to work every day).

What is a boob curtain and how do I wear one?

As in any country, to avoid scandalising anyone, it’s important to ‘dress modestly’. Putting aside the slut shaming politics of this for a moment, let’s look at what that means in practice.

You might think your boobs are covered, by a shirt and several layers of fabric in your bra, but you were wrong! You also need an orna (sometimes called the ‘boob curtain’ by certain volunteers I know). The function of an orna is to hide your chest modestly. Most women wear their scarves ‘back to front’, with the end hanging down your back and the middle fold sitting over the chest, as this keeps the hot fabric off the back of your neck. It’s also fine to wear a scarf hanging down your front, or looped around, as long as it hides your chest.

Hippy chic

Hippy chic: If I’m wearing a shorter shirt I’ll often wear super-baggy pants to compensate (yes, I actually wear poo-catcher pants to work). Note I’m still wearing a thin black scarf.

My crotch is exposed? What do you even mean?

The length of your shirt/top is also important. Feel free to wear t-shirts, shirts, blouses etc from home (even if they don’t look like a kameez) but ideally whatever you wear will cover your bum and crotch. Wearing anything that doesn’t come down past your hips will leave your crotch ‘exposed’… Yes, even if you’re wearing pants. The idea is to keep that region as baggy and invisible as possible.

Remember to also keep your shoulders covered: short sleeves are fine, but if you have a sleeveless top you can use your orna to wrap your shoulders up with a scarf.

Alternative styles that work well

While buying SKs here and wearing them all the time can seem like the simple and culturally friendly thing to do, chances are there will be days when you just want to wear western clothes and feel like yourself again. You won’t be able to wear anything too revealing in the street (unless you’re happy attracting a lot of attention), so I recommend bringing short shorts and dancing around the house in them, just to get it out of your system.

But there are other things you can wear in public. DIY three-pieces are a way of inserting your normal clothes into a Bangla-friendly outfit. You might wear a baggy, long top with local pants and scarf, or on a cooler day you might wear a kameez with jeans. If your top is loose you might want to ditch the scarf.

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You can also wear short (or calf-length) dresses with leggings – as long as you’re covering your bum, tight pants are A-OK.

maxi dress

The Maxi dress and shawl combo (complete with turtle tank in background)

Maxi dresses are also a great alternative to pants and tops, and provide a bit of variety. Just wrap your shoulders up with a wide shawl!

If you’re heading out on the town and want to wear something more revealing but don’t want to draw stares on your way there, you can even wear a short tight dress and take the leggings and orna off when you arrive. Kimonos are also known for coming in handy if you want a full-body cover-up.

Head coverings

Bangladesh is a Muslim country, and many women choose to cover their heads for religious reasons. Some women wear their orna as a ‘veil’, draped loosely; some use the end of their sharee in traditional style; some wear a more Arab-inspired hijab; and some choose to wear a full niqab, covering the lower part of their face, often with long dark-coloured cloak over their normal clothes.

However, head-covering isn’t essential and many local women choose not to cover. In Dhaka, it will generally be assumed that unless you are Muslim you won’t want to cover, and most people are comfortable with that. In more rural villages where expectations can be more traditional and conservative, you might want to cover as a sign of respect, but again, it’s not expected.

Dressing up

Dressing up

Dressing up for a formal dinner: me in a sharee, Ollie in punjabi/kurta.

You’ll see a lot of people wearing sharees around town – poorer and more traditional women often choose to wear them every day, tying them with a simple and comfortable drape.

While most wealthier women don’t wear them every day (although some do – especially older women), they are an essential part of any formal occasion. If you’re invited to a wedding, important party, meeting with dignitaries or even just a conference, sharees are standard formal attire. I wouldn’t want to wear one every day (they’re a bit restrictive), but they’re great fun and incredibly elegant – a room full of sharee-clad women is really quite a sight.

On the whole: Bangladeshi clothing is generally comfortable (I can’t stress this enough, I basically wear pajamas to work every day), easy to organise (three-pieces really take the decision-making out of your morning) and colourful (let loose your inner rainbow unicorn child!)

Packing: If you’re travelling through, bring cool and comfortable long pants, some longer, baggy shirts and a couple of scarves.

If you’re moving here, I recommend planning to buy quite a few three-piece SKs when you get here, as well as some kameezes to go with other pants. But don’t throw away your jeans and minis just yet – there’s a place for them here too. (For more packing advice, see my post on What to pack when you’re moving to the Desh).

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