How to dress for respect

Scarf tying lessons from a local in Morocco

Holiday destination and itinerary planned – tick! Flights and trip booked – tick! Now what to pack? What clothing will be most appropriate for this upcoming adventure?

Being prepared for the differences in clothing norms will go a long way towards helping you feel at ease and welcomed in your holiday destination. And it may additionally help, especially, but not only women, avoid unwanted attention.

Between the internet and modern aviation, the world’s people are in some ways closer than ever before. Western style dress may be more common in the big cities, but still in many cultures differences remain as to what is considered respectful.

In general, the best tip is to see what locals of the same sex and similar age to you are wearing, in everyday public life. Then ‘do as the Romans do’ and follow suit in regards to how much skin you expose, or how loose fitting your garments are.

It’s a safe bet, that in most non-Western cultures at a minimum your thighs and shoulders should be covered. Loose fitting clothes are always a comfortable and respectful option, especially in hot climates. A lightweight sarong is a very versatile cover-up item for any holiday destination, improvising as a skirt, headscarf or shoulder-covering shawl, particularly when visiting places of worship.

Here are some tips from popular Intrepid holiday destinations:

ASIA Holiday Guide – throughout Asia, especially outside major cities, dress standards err on the conservative side. Loose clothing that covers your shoulders and at least to the knees is both respectful and cool in the predominantly hot Asian climate. In many rural areas in Asia, women will need to wear modest clothing even to swim. A spare T-shirt and sarong are always handy for these occasions.

If you are visiting temples, churches, mosques or other places of worship, adhering to the dress code is essential. For many religious sites men may need to wear long trousers and women a long skirt or sarong. Some may also require a head covering, so a large scarf or shawl is always a handy item to pack.

EAST AFRICA Holiday Guide – though Western dress is more accepted in the major cities, East Africa remains on the conservative side. Women are best to cover their thighs with loose trousers or skirts. Coastal regions are predominantly Muslim and longer loose fitting clothing is definitely best. Shirts and trousers with UV protection, non-wrinkle and breathable fabric, commonly available in most outdoor clothing stores, is also great for protection from mosquitoes.

CENTRAL & SOUTH AMERICA Holiday Guide – Western style dress is generally common in the cities. As the region is dominantly Catholic, pack neat conservative (thigh and shoulder covering) clothing for any church visits, including long trousers for men and knee-covering skirts or dresses for women. This also applies for any rural village visits. Swimsuits should always be covered when moving away from the beach or poolside.

EGYPT & JORDAN Holiday Guide – As dominantly Islamic nations, conservative clothing should be worn in all locations. Shoulders and knees and everything in between including midriff and cleavage should be covered at all times. Wearing shorts and singlet tops isn’t appropriate (for men or women) and may well restrict your entry into sites of a religious nature, as well as family homes and it will limit your local interaction opportunities in general. Loose, lightweight, long clothing (3/4 trousers that come to the calf are fine) is both respectful and cool.

IRAN Holiday Guide – as a traditional Islamic nation, a strict dress code is enforced throughout the country, and must be adhered to at all times. Men must wear long trousers and generally keep themselves neat and tidy. Short sleeve shirts that cover your shoulders and open-toed sandals are now acceptable for men – but ankles must be covered and full-length shirts must be worn at religious sites. Women must wear the hejab at all times, a loose-fitting trench coat that comes down to just above your knees, plus a headscarf. The full details of what to bring and what to purchase on arrival is available in our comprehensive Iran trip notes.

Our experience around the globe is that if you dress like a local, and always keep in mind that you are a guest, doors will open, your travel will be easier, and experiences richer. Travel doesn’t get better than when you are widely and warmly welcomed into local community.

All Intrepid trip notes have packing lists, or see Intrepid’s Ultimate Holiday Packing List.
For more information on being a responsible traveller.

* Photo in Morocco by Greg Croft, for the Intrepid Photography Competition.

About the author'
Jane Crouch - Jane is a responsible business guru who writes about all aspects of how travel can bring positive environmental, social and economic benefits. Informed through travel on seven continents, leading Intrepid trips through SE Asia, work in outdoor education, energy conservation, international development, philanthropy and climate change action, plus a big love of walking, mountains and world music.

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Nancy Shattuck / Reply

I wore a salwar kameez (I had several made) throughout my six months in India and was often complimented. Indians felt that Americans who dress in Indian clothing are wise. I feel the same way in the U.S. when I see Indian women dressed in blue jeans. They are wise to fit into the culture. When in Rome, you don’t have to do as the Roman’s do, you don’t have to think as the Roman’s do, but you dxxx well better dress as the Roman’s do. (a quip made by a dear friend).'
Vivienne Harris / Reply

I have just returned from Morocco and must disagree re the comment on dress for this country. Although all of our group were “suitably dressed” i.e. three quarter/long pants and tops with sleeves I do not think any of us were harassed.'

Good article. It’s always been that us female westerners have had to cover up a bit when visiting some other countries and a long sleeved shirt and sarong are always usefull when going inside temples etc, but now with some muslim countries more conservative than ever and the current fashion in many western countries of less is best and I mean clothing, it’s going to take more than a sarong or long sleeved shirt.
Seriously if you have to go out of your way too much when packing for a holiday it’s not a holiday any more.'

I don’t think the article is accurately titled. Sadly, it is obviously aimed at women because men can pretty much where what they want. And the countries in which we have to cover up the most are the ones in which women are respected the least.
“How to dress so as not to get harassed by the local men” would have been a better title .
I spent three months on Morocco and was harassed even though I covered up and looked down, as befitted my inferior status.'

Hi Louisa,
Thanks for your thoughts. I prepared this story fully intended for both men and women, as generally wherever the ‘cover shoulders and thighs’ recommendation is made, this applies for both men and women. I know from my extended time of living in conservative communities in Asia, that locals can find a man in a singlet top or shorts, just as disrespectful or offensive as a woman exposing this much of her skin.

I’m sorry to hear you felt harrassed while in Morocco. Some years back I travelled through the region (on an overland trip) and amongst our group there were two tall blonde male Danes. They felt just as challenged by the attention as we ladies did. I did find wearing a salwar kameez I’d bought in Sri Lanka, with a light local scarf draped around my neck helped me feel more accepted, (plus it was great sun protection).

Best wishes, Jane'
sharon Granger / Reply

what to wear in Greece'

Thanks for the tips. Very useful and appropriate.'
Richard Reiser / Reply

I find it amusing that dress for USA was omitted. Since the current trend seems to be
all about dressing inappropriately. Never in the history of this country have people been
poorer, more indecent, in their dress. As a world traveler, I can report that we are the worst.'

Have you travelled to Amsterdam? My home country, the Netherlands, is probably worse than anywere else.'

I submit that the better title would be “How to Dress TO Respect”, as you cannot force folk to respect you, Conformity to dress norms could elicit respect, but isn’t guaranteed.
Suzanne Pomeranz / Reply

In ISRAEL, conservative clothing (much like that described for visiting in Egypt & Jordan) is best for visiting in Jerusalem’s Old City and any religious area or site. However, women are NOT required to cover their heads at all anywhere, and while men should cover their heads in Jewish holy sites (synagogues, the Western Wall, David’s Tomb, etc.), they must remove any head covering when entering churches or other Christian holy sites.
In Tel Aviv, at the Dead Sea & on Masada, even in much of the Galilee and along the Coastal areas, and especially in Eilat, however, you may indulge in wearing shorts, tank tops, whatever… feel FREE to be yourself!

Very informative article, and it is good to see such an example of respecting a culture as the photo shows.'
kathryn murdock / Reply

One of the best compliments I ever got when traveling is that “you always look like you belong”. The advice you gave is not just for non-Western countries – it helps in Europe and westernized regions of the world as well. It has surprising perks.

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