As a female traveller exploring conservative countries, it’s highly recommended that you make an effort to dress more modestly than you would at home.
It can be especially challenging if you’re in a very hot or humid climate, but it’s still necessary.
What you don’t want is to draw attention to yourself, especially from the males. Dressing modestly will help avoid these situations where you start to feel uneasy as the centre of attention, or even unsafe.
Showing off too much skin or wearing tight-fitting clothing is a pretty big no-no and can be seen as rude and disrespectful in some cultures. It’s certainly not the first impression you want to give when you’re trying to connect with the locals!
Whether you agree with these customs or not is irrelevant. As travellers, we have an obligation to be respectful to the culture and to do our research before we arrive.
You’ll feel more confident by not being the only lady with limbs exposed, you won’t have to worry about if you’re offending anyone and you’ll have less googely-eyed men staring at you. Win-win.
What to wear when dressing modestly
As a general rule of thumb, cover your shoulders, cleavage and knees at all times. In more conservative countries, you may have to cover down to your elbows and chins/ankles and sometimes even feet.
Many countries requiring modest dress also have a number of religious sites which you probably want to visit. It’s important to cover up in these places of worship otherwise you could be denied entry.
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul is the only place I’ve been to which gave out cloaks and headscarves at the door to anyone who didn’t fit the dress-code. The staff at many other sites aren’t so kind and are free to just turn you away!
Based on what I’ve seen, many travellers going to Southeast Asia forget (or just don’t know) that it’s really disrespectful visiting a temple without having their knees and shoulders covered.
In many countries, it’s also offensive to sunbathe topless. Save the brown boobies for when you’re at home.
Western dress is generally more accepted around popular, non-holy sites and near beaches, but it’s still easy enough as a traveller to throw a pashmina around your shoulders while you’re there then you’re certain you’re being courteous to their customs.
That small step may be enough to avoid causing offense and the locals will appreciate your effort.
Conservative countries where women dress modestly
Generally speaking, predominantly Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist countries are ones you’d need to cover up the most in.
Western countries, or countries with a major Western influence, are usually fine to wear whatever you please. It’s still important to bring at least something to drape around your shoulders and to cover your legs in case you’d like to visit a religious site.
It’s always good to do a quick Google search before you go so you know what to expect when you pack.
What should you bring with you to be prepared for dressing modestly?
The best solution is carrying light pieces of clothing that you can roll up and put away if you don’t require them then pull them out easily as you need them.
Leggings and yoga pants are OK for coverage, but you’ll probably still want a long tunic or something similar to sit over your buttocks and crotch. Tight-fitting clothing can be frowned upon and will likely attract unwanted attention.
Always go with the light, natural fabrics which are still breathable and will let the heat escape from your body. You’ll be covered up, considerably cool and as a bonus you’ll have sun protection.
- Scarves and pashminas are my #1 suggestion and barely take up space or weight in my luggage.
- A long skirt or long loose-fitting pants.
- Lightweight shirts or blouses which can be layered over a tank top.
- A maxi dress to be worn with a pashmina or blouse then can double as a summer beach dress in non-conservative countries.
- T-shirts which don’t show too much chest and definitely no cleavage.
- Or if in doubt you can bring a couple of items then purchase the rest when you arrive. I’ve found that locals love helping when tourists are making an effort to adapt to the customs and culture.
It can seem like a daunting task at first with all these ‘rules’ and it can feel so overwhelming as a female visitor trying not to cause any offense to the locals, not to mention trying not to stand out.
But there are SO many amazing places which are far more conservative than what we may be used to and it’s not worth missing out on them because you’re worried about a dress code.
At the very least, make a little bit of effort then you’ll figure the rest out quickly once you arrive.