If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Punjabis, it’s that they go all out. Whether their singing, dancing, drinking, fighting, or partying, you can expect extravagance, going over the top, taking it to the next level. And if you’ve been invited to attend a Sikh wedding in north India, you better keep up and dress to impress.
There may be a variety of events to attend over the course of several days, but the main focus is going to be the religious ceremony (the anand karaj) and following reception party. If you are attending events for the engagement celebration (sangeet, mehndi, haldi, or jaago), you should dress less formally but still look good. There’s some basic rules you’ll want to follow for these and any Punjabi event:
- Modest – With the exception of baring your midriff in a lehenga or a saree (traditionally worn by Hindus throughout India but not generally by Sikhs), pretty much everything but your arms should be covered. This sometimes includes your head as well, so girls have a scarf, and boys have a handkerchief ready if needed.
- Colorful – This is not the time for beige. Choose a bright color and maybe a contrasting color, and work it, even the boys. Unless you’re attending a funeral, avoid wearing all white or all black, and avoid them altogether if you’re celebrating a marriage or other joyous event. Also for marriages, avoid red because the last thing you want is to upstage the bride.
- Fresh – Try not to repeat outfits. Especially during marriage events, everyone will be wearing something new to each – even if you have one event in the morning and another one that same evening. Although this one is really tied up in status and class (which I’m not about), the next bullet point also points out another good reason for keeping it fresh.
- Cool – It’s so hot in India. Even when they say it’s a nice day, it’s probably still too hot and too humid for me to consider it nice. I’ve sweated through every outfit ever, so I suggest clothing that’s light, breezy, and made of cotton. If you’re attending a large function, it’s likely to be at least partially outdoors, but even if it is fully inside, expect to be full of spicy food and bhangra-ing on a packed dance floor all night. You’ll be sweating either way.
Keeping these things in mind, let’s talk about the religious ceremony and reception. These two will likely be held on the same day – sometimes immediately after and other times at the beginning and end of the day (which is nice as you avoid the mid-day heat).
The religious ceremony will be held in a gurudwara (Sikh place of worship) and will be less than an hour. The bride and groom will enter first, then their families, and then friends. Everyone will stop just outside the main hall to take off your shoes, wash your hands and feet, and cover your head. As an attendee, you’ll find a seat on the floor inside, stand during prayers, and accept your parshad (a sweet pudding similar to communion) with both of your hands cupped. When all the traditions are complete, you’ll head back out to your shoes and probably some picture taking.
The reception is an optional event but gaining popularity with Western influence. While every party will be different, you’re guaranteed food and dancing. Usually, appetizers and drinks will be served when you arrive. This time is for socializing and taking pictures with the bride and groom. A couple hours in, dinner and dessert will be served. The food may be completely vegetarian or a mix of veg and non-veg options. Following dinner, the music goes up, and the dancing goes down. Learning a few bhangra steps in advance will help, but if you don’t know any, jump around (so far I haven’t encountered any slow dance songs at receptions). If you plan to stay for the whole party, don’t expect to get home before midnight.
For both the anand karaj and reception, you should assume semi-formal unless told otherwise. There’s a few different options for men and women’s dress:
- Suit – Also referred to here as “coat-pant,” Western suits are very popular for men, and you definitely won’t be alone in this ensemble. You can also go with a more Indian-style suit called a bandhgala or jodhpuri. Remember to steer away from black and bring in some color with your shirt, tie, and pocket square. However, I just feel like you’ll be too hot, but men’s suits are not my area of expertise.
- Kurta – If you’re feeling traditional, kurta and churidar pyjamas will keep you cool and breezy while still looking formal. Remember to avoid the popular white kurta during these joyous celebrations and try a floral print (they’re so in right now).
- Sherwani – Step it up a notch and look hella fine with sherwani. I seriously love the long coat sherwani look. You might stand out a bit (because in my experience, men are lazy) but in a good way.
- Western-style Dress – You can definitely get away with one of these and likely won’t be the only person looking western. Remember to keep it modest – your hem should be at your shoes, no cleavage showing, and covered shoulders.
- Salwar Kameez – Big, baggy pants and a long tunic is the standard style in Punjab and so commonly referred to as a Punjabi suit. Suits range from plain and simple daily wear to elaborately embroidered and bedazzled formal wear. Although you won’t be as heavily decorated as the bride, look for a patterned design and bling it out with plenty of jewelry. We’re talking anklets, bangles, statement necklace, earrings, nose ring, headwear. You can pair with heels, sandals, or punjabi jutti (stylized ballet flats).
- Lehenga – If you really want to flaunt it, you can go with a lehenga. They come in two styles: one piece or skirt and more or less a sleeved crop top. You’ll have wide, full-length hem, and the entire dress will be heavy with material and embroidery. You’ll only see these on the most formal of occasions.
- Saree – Although Sikh women will not be wearing sarees, Hindi guests typically will. You’ll have your crop top bodice and one piece of fabric acting as both your skirt and scarf, which can be arranged to reveal or hide your belly. I suggest finding someone with experience to pin you all together to avoid any wardrobe malfunctions.
There are pre-made options, especially online, but it’s common to get your outfit made to fit from the bolts of fabric. Make sure you plan plenty of time for a tailor before the big day. I also suggest making sure you’ll be able to sit cross-legged, stand up from the ground, and bust a dance move before finalizing your wardrobe. And most importantly, whether you want to blend in or stand out, go traditional or modern, make sure you feel comfortable in your outfit, because I want you to know that I have personally seen every single one of these rules broken by Punjabis. So it’s okay to be you and be happy in your clothes!
What about Cultural Appropriation?
Great question! That is a complex problem that is not solved by talking to one person – especially a white American. But I can share what I’ve learned from my time in India, my own research online, and talking with my husband.
One of the most important aspects is finding the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Appropriation is basically taking something from another culture without asking and without acknowledging – it’s especially a big deal when the taker is part of a culture with societal power and the takee (???) is part of a minority or disempowered culture. So how do we know if we are appreciating something?
- Research – Learn about the background, the cultural context, the tradition, etc. etc. And then ask yourself, “Is this cultural element sacred to this community?” “Is it something that’s been frequently appropriated?” “Is it something I should not be a part of?”
- Support – When it comes to clothing and household decorations, where you buy from is important. Are you just throwing money at a corporation of white guys who are trying to pretend they didn’t appropriate it? Or are you actually putting your money back into the originating culture?
- Ask – AFTER you have done your research, if you still don’t know, then ask someone from the originating culture who invited you to the event or is a good friend of yours (not an acquaintance, not your token diverse coworker). If they say no, accept that graciously and move on.
Dressing for a Punjabi wedding is fun and lets you try new things. But we’re all going to know if you’re wearing some cheap knockoff saree you found on Amazon. Spend the time and money to find an authentic outfit that supports the community. Draw the line at wearing any religious symbols that you don’t fully understand. And if you’re not willing to put in the effort to genuinely appreciate the culture, then just wear a Western look and stay in your lane.