Dressing modestly in hot climates: what to wear in tropical climates where showing a lot of skin isn’t appropriate. How to stay cool and stay culturally respectful
Being of the western world, when the weather gets hot Paddy and I bust out the tank tops and shorts, pulling them from the wrinkly depths of our dresser drawers for their 3 months of glory before the Seattle rains set in again. When the temperature gets above 85, all I want to do is put on a flimsy sundress and lounge in the shade or in front of the fan. Dressing modestly in hot climates? I’ll save that for when I sit in my air-conditioned office. The sundress goes on right when I get home when it’s hot.
We’ve traveled to a lot of tropical countries where this kind of clothing is just fine. When we started planning our trip to Thailand, I read up on local dress and customs, and in Thailand shorts are only for the beach. In addition, women generally keep their shoulders covered when walking around the city, and going into a Buddhist temple and the Grand Palace requires closed-toed shoes and covered shoulders. Men usually only wear shorts and tank tops at the beach.
So how does one go about dressing modestly in hot climates and still stay cool? I thought maybe I’d buy a white gauzy long-sleeved hippy shirt. I tried it out the summer before our trip and felt like I was being slowly suffocated to death by medical gauze. They say that you are hotter if your skin is in direct sunlight. I can see how this can be true, but I need to feel airflow and a breeze on my skin. That, and there is the whole armpit sweat issue.
Paddy had a similar dilemma. If he can’t wear shorts, what kind of pants can he wear when he has to cover up and stay cool? Jeans are out of the question. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to wear jeans in 90 degree weather with 100% humidity, but I made that mistake once and never will again. We always see locals in hot countries wearing jeans, but I don’t know how they do it.
Dressing modestly in hot climates for Men:
For shirts, Paddy usually packs quite a few light-weight, loose-fitting cotton or linen short sleeve button-down shirts for our tropical vacations. They look nice and keep him cool. Just don’t get the aloha shirts unless you are actually visiting Polynesia. They’ll just make you look like an obnoxious tourist.
Another option for covering up (we’ve seen Anthony Bourdain wearing these kind of shirts a lot as well on his shows) is a mesh-lined moisture-wicking long sleeved shirt. Paddy has a Columbia Sportswear Tamiami II PFG shirt like this one, with unnoticeable slits in the sides that help vent heat out. It is super light, and supposedly has extra SPF 40 sun protection.
When the sun goes down and you need to go out to a nice restaurant but it is still sweltering hot, or you have a business meeting, or you need to visit a temple or church, pants are a must in most countries. Paddy found a pair of linen pants on deep discount at Nordstrom Rack and another one at a good price at JC Penney and they have served him well on a couple tropical vacations. Linen and cotton are your best fabrics for hot weather as they are very breathable. Paddy did end up wearing long below-the-knee shorts most of the time, and linen pants at the temples or when we went to a nicer place for dinner.
Paddy also swears by moisture-wicking underwear for hot weather. They are expensive, but he says they are a life-changer.
Fisherman sandals are a great option for close-toed foot protection that has ventilation. Many of them are aquatic as well. Just don’t try to wear them in the Lebua Sky Bar in Bangkok, they don’t consider those appropriate footwear (although beat-up Chuck Taylors seemed to be allowed).
Dressing modestly in hot climates for women:
Women have a little more to worry about, depending on what country you are traveling in. If you are traveling anywhere that is predominantly Muslim, you will definitely want to cover up. Thailand is pretty modest, and women wearing shorts and tank tops outside of beach areas is frowned upon. This doesn’t mean that tourists don’t do it, but it isn’t culturally respectful. In Thailand you won’t be allowed in a Buddhist temple with shorts and a tank top. Women need to have their shoulders covered, a skirt that is knee-length or longer or long pants, and both men and women need to have close-toed shoes.
For Thailand I embraced my inner hippie. Long, flowy linen and cotton skirts worked perfectly for keeping me covered and keeping the airflow going.
Shirts and tops were a bit more difficult. I wore sleeveless tops that covered my whole shoulder or light-weight cotton cap-sleeve t-shirts most of the time. The cap sleeve was perfect–it covered my shoulder but left some air flow to the armpits, so I didn’t have to worry as much about sweat stains.
Lightweight, cotton or linen scarves are also great to travel around with. You can put them on to wrap around your arms/shoulders when necessary or use them to cover your head/hair. In the north we associate scarves with keeping warm or fashion, but they can be great for keeping the sun off your head and neck if you get one made from a breathable light-weight material in a light color. If you are in Muslim areas of Asia or Africa you will definitely want to have one of these to wear.
I’d also like to offer a tip for another problem for women in hot climates, that has nothing to do with dressing modestly in hot climates. It’s the phenomenon no one likes to talk about called “chub rub.” Unless you have the 90’s era Kate Moss heroin chic thigh gap, you may have experienced it at some point or another. Chub rub is chafing from the tops of your thighs rubbing together when walking bare-legged in a dress. The hotter and sweatier the climate, the more chafing occurs.
Cotton bike shorts offer a solution to this problem, which I’ve used a lot. If it is REALLY hot though, bike shorts provide a bit too much coverage and restrict airflow. They’re better than having stinging, chafing thigh burns, but not the ideal solution.
A few years back I stumbled across an online startup company called Luvees, which offers lacey shorts and slip on thigh guards with thick pads on the inner thigh portion. I have both the shorts and the slip ons, and they are the perfect solution. The lacey shorts provide breathable coverage while keeping the thigh guards in place. The thigh covers work best when it is really hot and sticky (Thailand was the ideal climate). When it is only 75 degrees in Seattle, they slip down while I walk, so the shorts are the better solution. There is another company that makes a similar product called Bandalettes that claims no slippage. I’ll have to get some of those for next summer to see how they work.
Dressing modestly in a hot climates is kind of tough to do, when all you want to do is walk around in shorts, flip flops, and a halter top. But in many countries, it just isn’t safe or culturally respectful. Personally, I like to try not to stand out as much as possible–it usually attracts unwanted attention. Stay cool, and stay considerate.