As much as women should be treated equally while traveling, this just isn’t the case in some parts of the world. How you dress does matter, especially while visiting conservative countries.
It’s easy to think you’re not hurting anyone by wearing tank tops and cutoff shorts. Why should you? You wear them every day in your normal life. But, drawing attention to yourself in this way is seen as negative, disrespectful, and even dangerous in certain destinations.
A good point to keep in mind: Just because you don’t have the same conservative values doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adapt to your locale. Do your research in advance before visiting places like Malaysia, India or parts of Africa so that you aren’t offending the local customs (and you pack proper clothing).
We’ve put together some basic conservative packing tips, and don’t worry, you can still be fashionable while also being modest.
If you’re visiting mostly Muslim or Hindu countries, it’s respectful to cover your shoulders. This can be difficult in warmer climates, but leave the singlets and spaghetti straps at home, unless they are used for sleeping or layering. If nothing else, have at least one light shirt that covers your shoulders for days you’re visiting temples and holy sites. Also make sure you’re not showing too much cleavage. I always have a few cheap solid colored t-shirts from Target or Old Navy for trips like these, like the one pictured above.
The Evolve top or the Chrysalis Cardi make other great top options- and don’t forget the Chrysalis Card can also be a scarf and a dress!
Scarves and Sarongs
These two items are essentials for the female traveler, regardless of where you’re going. Use them to cover your shoulders or head before entering a holy site, or for added modesty if your top is a little low-cut. They’re easy to toss in your bag if it doesn’t need to be worn all day. It also makes for a versatile travel item since it can be used as an eye mask, towel, and so on.
Wearing shorts can attract unwanted attention, so pack a pair of bottoms that goes at least to your knees, but right below is better. I don’t usually pack jeans for conservative countries that are also humid, but instead bring leggings or yoga pants, which can be worn on long flights and at religious sites. I love my Lole Refresh pants for this purpose. Capri pants are also useful, as are hippie pants sold throughout Southeast Asia.
When it comes to skirts, you’ll want them to extend past the thighs and over the knees. Lightweight cotton works best, especially maxi skirts to be paired with tops and scarves. Brenna shares some cute and modest outfits she’s worn in her travels.
Dresses are easy items to lounge around in or add accessories to for a night out. But as with the other clothing items listed for traveling in conservative counties, make sure shoulders and knees are covered up. A standard black maxi dress can be worn many ways and fits into nearly every culture given the shoulders and cleavage are covered.
Graham Franklin says
You have made very valid points about clothing in Southeast Asia. Many people forget that these are religious shrines and both men and women need to respect them. Shoulders covered for both sexes and also long trousers for both sexes too, unless it’s a ruin non working temple and shorts are ok.
Love this! I’m on the hunt for the perfect skirt that packs up small and comes below my knees, and doesn’t make me look super frumpy. So far that’s been a tough find. Any suggestions?
Michelle, try Eddie Bauer. They have a Travex-brand skirt that goes below the knees (Travex is a brand for traveling and wicks away moisture, doesn’t stay wet for long, etc.) It converts into a dress, too and is definitely not frumpy!
One more quick tip – bring a pair of socks for visiting temples – you may have to remove your shoes and walking barefoot is a risk. Also, bring a bag to put your shoes in or a way to lock them up – leaving them out with everyone else is an invitation to take them (Alternative: buy a pair of cheap local shoes for temple day to blend in).
April G says
Hi Caroline – great article and great tips! I will be visiting Costa Rica, going overseas for the first time. I understand that it is a Catholic country and thus more conservative than many other beachy, touristy countries. I am also very conservative and choose to cover my shoulders and wear shorts and skirts to or below my knees for religious reasons. I am very interested in the Evolve Top and Chrysalis Cardi for their multiple uses, which can potentially lighten the packing list. But I can’t see how they would cover my shoulders as tops or dresses, only as scarves, cardis and shrugs, which kind of defeats the purpose when I already have those things. In your opinion, would they still be worth the expense? Thanks for any info you can give.
Michelle Alexander says
Having traveled in Egypt, I find especially for older and plus sized women, that tunics, and the stretchy fabrics in separates sold by Stein Mart travelers brand, Chicos, Metrostyle catalog and Jessica London catalog, pack well, are lightweight, and wash well. I like an elbow length top which is modest but also comfortable. I like long light cotton skirts in black. I sometimes wait to buy scarves in the location, but pack something lightweight in silk or a silk poly. Ebay is a good place to buy inexpensive items or thrift stores. Closed comfortable shoes are a must! Good socks and lightweight easy to dry underwear. I left american money and my passport in the hotel safe and only carried Egyptian money and credit cards which saved my life when I lost my wallet in a cab. I had money and my passport and other valuables to take when I went home.
Could I wear a black jumpsuit that’s lightweight instead of a black maxi dress in Italy. It’s bersatile enough to cover with denim jacket and casual shoes or wedges