While Christianity in India is as old as the early church itself, it was the modern missionary movement initiated by William Carey that caused the faith to take root. But colonial rule also caused Christianity in India to become associated with foreigners, despite the tradition that it originated with the apostle Thomas as early as 52 A.D. and historical evidence that the East India Company actively opposed missionary activities.

The growth of the Indian church, however, imparted new Indian converts not only a religion but also a culture. Mahatma Gandhi was critical, saying these converts had “imbibed the superficialities of European civilization, and have missed the teaching of Jesus.” He was not alone. Christian evangelists such as British missionary E. Stanley Jones and the wandering ascetic Sadhu Sundar Singh also took issue with the conflating of Christianity and Western culture. This impulse emphasized the need to “give the water of life in an Indian cup.”

Although India gained independence from British rule in 1947, many urban and semi-urban Indian churches continued to embrace the Western heritage they inherited. This included using pews instead of sitting on the ground; embracing a liturgy of hymnals, creeds, and doxologies; constructing cathedral-style church buildings; and the practice of wearing “white” bridal gowns or saris. Yet Western attire has not displaced the colorful traditional clothing for weekly worship, and church communities remain diverse in their dress.

CT spoke with seven female Christian leaders from six regions of India, all either married or above age 30, about their understanding of “Sunday best” clothing in India. The answers are arranged from favoring Western outfits to preferring traditional attire:

Avani Wilson Tandel, volunteer for the Women’s Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, who attends a Methodist church in East Gujarat:

I prefer Western attire exclusively. Western clothing makes me feel comfortable, confident, and carefree, allowing me to express my style effortlessly. It grants me the freedom to move, sit, and stand comfortably, while also keeping me in line with current fashion trends.

Additionally, I find Western attire to be practical and presentable in various settings, especially the global community. It boosts my confidence, empowers me, and gives me a professional look.

It makes me feel “positively,” which I describe as an acronym:

P — Professional personality
O — Outstanding thinking
S — Strong and skilled
I — Influencer
T — Talented
I — Insightful
V — Versatile
E — Embracing equality
L — Looking lively
Y — Youthful

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My choice also positively influences others, such as these:

  • Young unmarried girls who want to wear Western dresses but feel the pressure of their family, society, and tradition. As a married woman, I can inspire them not to yield to societal pressures but exercise their freedom to choose.
  • Married women, who are pressured not only by tradition but also from age-old patriarchy. I can inspire them to make this choice without fear of judgment from the community and their own families.
  • The global community, as it portrays adaptability and openness toward multiculturalism.

Lalrinmawii Fanai, an elderly member in a Presbyterian church in Mizoram:

Our English-speaking congregation has people from different cultures and languages, and therefore we are not constrained by a specific preference in dress. I wear a variety of clothing, whether Mizo Puan (traditional attire of various Mizo communities), Western dresses, or pants. But one time after attending the morning service, I was in a hurry to get to the afternoon service at a nearby church and showed up in the skirt I was wearing. I later heard that there were questions about my attire! So I understand that many people here are conservative and expect traditional clothing.

Some years ago, the women’s wing—a department at the highest synodical level of the Presbyterian church—requested all women to wear their traditional Puan to a church service. I only heard this anecdotally, but I think that is why Mizo women adhere to it. Most if not all women wear their traditional Puan for church, including weddings or other events. I believe it has more to do with the promotion of culture and heritage and nothing to do with matters of faith.

That the synod said so is usually taken as a polite way of saying “Look, everybody, just follow this.”

Deepthi Tarapatla, a theologian and church management committee member of an independent church in Andhra Pradesh:

I am comfortable wearing both types of clothing, but I prefer to wear an Indian traditional outfit in church so that I don’t look different from the crowd and can fit in. If I was in the United States, I might wear Western outfits; but not always, because I find Indian outfits to be more comfortable.

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Although there are no guidelines or restrictions from the church authority in South Indian churches about what to wear or not wear, in general married women are expected to wear traditional garments. Even a traditional sleeveless Indian outfit is not acceptable and considered indecent in church. For me, the criteria should be that the choice of clothes should not be a means of attracting other people’s attention and becoming a distraction from church itself.

Abhineeta Matney, professor of epistemology and intercultural studies in Madhya Pradesh:

For me, the question of clothing depends on where I am worshiping. If somewhere in India, where the majority of the women wear Indian attire, I would probably wear salwar kameez (an Indian dress with a head covering). When I am in the US, there is no set standard. In the Midwest or South, many women still wear dresses; in places like Colorado and California, people dress more casually. Either way, my intention is to dress modestly in a manner that demonstrates humility and reverence.

Whether reference is made to covering one’s head in 1 Corinthians 11 or to the instructions for worship in 1 Timothy 2, the bottom line is to not draw attention to yourself and distract from the heart of worship. Whatever I wear, it needs to be based on respect for propriety, taking into account any cultural nuances. Having said that, I am no one to judge what another person is wearing. If I am truly in church to worship, Christ welcomes everyone “just as you are,” so I wouldn’t want to be a stumbling block by trying to impose my standards of modesty. We need to look past dress codes, because we are not bound by tradition when we worship Jesus Christ.

Seema Linus, a leader in a Wesleyan church in South Gujarat:

It’s very important to dress according to the place and occasion, but according to the Bible, we must be modest. God has created us beautiful, and we must reverently maintain our inner beauty more than outwardly beautifying ourselves. We should carefully and sensibly choose our clothing for church. It is not about a sari, salwar kameez, or Western outfit. Church is about worshiping God, talking and listening to him.

First Timothy 2:9 instructs women to “adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing” (NKJV). Our choice of Indian traditional attire, such as saris or salwar kameez, is primarily rooted in our cultural heritage and is an individual preference. People can choose whatever they like to wear, based on comfort or culture.

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Snehprabha Massey, president of the Women’s Society of Christian Service for a Methodist church in Uttar Pradesh:

It is a biblical command for women to cover their heads and dress modestly. An Indian sari and salwar suit is perfect for this purpose, while also giving us a modest and elegant look. These options drape a woman’s body completely, leaving no room for men to be lured or distracted in church.

The sari is an internationally acclaimed garment that even global fashion pageants feature as a representation of timeless beauty and style. Western clothes are more appropriate for unmarried girls, making them look attractive and smart. But once married, husbands and in-laws prefer that their wives and daughters-in-law dress modestly in traditional garments, especially in church.

The bride traditionally receives 5, 11, 12, or 51 sets of clothing—numbers considered auspicious in Indian weddings—in her bridal trousseau, which are mostly saris and salwar kameez, leaving her with fewer options for Western wear. (An Indian bride usually does not take her old outfits into the household she marries into.) In any case, there is no doubt that an Indian traditional outfit looks good on every type of body—whether slim or bulky.

Anujit Emerson, trustee for Voice of Truth Ministries and pastor of an independent church in Punjab:

Though I love Western outfits, I strictly wear Indian traditional wear in church. Christians, being a minority community, are being watched very closely by people of other faiths who are looking for reasons to malign us. I do not want what I wear to give them an excuse. As a pastor, if I dress up in Western jeans and a casual blouse, what example am I setting before my Hindu and Punjabi neighbors? Many Indians consider such clothes as modern and unacceptable. And what example am I before my congregation? I certainly do not want to be a stumbling block for them. As Paul spoke about eating in Romans 14:20, I apply the same to dress: “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food”—or an outfit.