Tips for Women Dressing Modestly in Conservative Countries

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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

conservative dress mirna 2

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

conservative dress mirna

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.

Read More: How to Travel Safely to India as a Solo Female Traveller

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.

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Packing suggestions

  • 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.

Read More:

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.

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Have you ever visited a place where dressing modestly was important?

27 thoughts on “Tips for Women Dressing Modestly in Conservative Countries”

  1. In Italy I remember churches having disposable kind of sheets that people could put on. No one I was with needed one so I didn’t feel them but they looked kind of like thick & stiff crepe paper sheets that could be stapled around you into a shawl or skirt.

    1. Wow, that’s interesting! I didn’t see those anywhere in Italy but maybe, like you, I just didn’t require one. It’s great when they do offer something in case you just don’t know 🙂

    1. Hi Jacob, my sister lives in Morocco and says this is spot on for the country so she now shares it with her guests. Glad that it’s helped!

  2. I have always tried to dress conservatively in countries that require it, but it always makes me question why I am doing it and if it is actually paying respect to the local culture or if it’s paying respect to the local sexism. Conservative clothing for women tends to be worn in cultures where women are also “lesser” citizens than men and so, I sometimes wonder, if by not wearing shorts in a certain place, I am just bowing to the dominant patriarchy. And, if that’s the case, would I be better setting an example that women can wear a tank top and not be a sex object at the same time?

    I honestly don’t know the answer, but it is an eternal internal struggle for me when I travel.

    J

    1. Great point Jane and something to think about. My honest opinion is that when you are in another country you respect their culture and their ways regardless of what you believe is right or not. Think of it this way. Imagine if someone from another country visited your culture and went against your customs because they believed you were doing it wrong. It’s the same principle, just your belief against theirs.

      Ultimately, it’s not up to us to enforce our way of life on others or to tell them our way is better, it is up to them to decide what they want to believe and how they dress. WE can’t make them change, they have to do it themselves. And in my experience if you did wear WEstern clothing in those countries the women wouldn’t look to you with respect or an example to follow, they’d be actually really offended and annoyed, which doesn’t help your good intentions at all.

      1. Hey Caz,
        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. While I do agree in practice and always dress modestly when it’s appropriate, I’m still not convinced that following all customs to the letter is the right move, especially when it comes to human rights. For example, if we apply the same principle to travelling itself, then that would mean that women shouldn’t travel solo through any country that frowns upon women being alone with men who aren’t part of their immediate family. Just by travelling in the first place, we completely ignore so many customs… I want to be clear that I’m not trying to start an argument here – it’s just something I thought a lot about while I was travelling, especially in the Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia.

        1. Great point. I didn’t think about that. Although I think they are more open to us travelling there because it’s beneficial to them from an economic perspective – so they are tolerant of us living out our Western ideals from that perspective. I’ve never encountered any issue or antagonism from the locals in doing so. I have however many times in regards to dress. I still think the travel side of things is powerful for helping to subtly and gently show a different way, but I still see the dressing part as a direct insult to them. I’m not sure if I’m clearly explaining the difference as I see it. Great food for thought Jane. Thank you!

    2. Hi Jane! Ahhh, I admit that runs through my mind a lot. Especially in VERY conservative places where women are expected to cover up most of their bodies. I agree that I also don’t want to ‘give in’ to their belief that women are lesser citizens than the males, and by covering my body it’s like I’m giving the men more power over how I can live and dress.

      HOWEVER, I also agree with Caz and think it’s not up to us to try and change their customs. Especially because it’s not always just for ladies. I had a long conversation with some local women in India and they said they were equally offended by men wearing sleeveless shirts as women wearing short shorts. Some cultures find our Western ways really ‘out there’ so it’s insulting to them when we ignore how we’re making them feel. If we choose to visit them it’s our responsibility to adapt to their culture regardless of our personal beliefs. If we don’t want to adapt then there are plenty more places to visit instead.

      Thank you for bringing this up, it’s a great point and something I have thought about a lot before!
      Mirna

  3. It is extremely important to dress in a non- revealing way when touring a conservative country because not doing so might attract unnecessary attraction from the natives. Sometimes the natives might get the wrong message and it can also offend their belief and culture. It is important to respect the culture of the place we are visiting.

  4. A good topic. As two nomadic women travelling the world for some years we are always dressed well before landing in a country that requires different etiquette than we are used to. We want both to show the respect to the local culture and don’t want to look like women with strange manners.
    We are currently on a local island in the Maldives. We have chosen staying on a local island instead of a resort to get the experience of meeting the locals.
    The Maldives is a strict Muslim country and unless you spent your stay in a resort it’s necessary to wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees at least. We are surprised to see tourists, both women and men, strolling around island in short dress, string tops and very short pants, men even without a T- shirt.
    We just would like to add to the post that not only women but also men should dress properly when travelling in conservative countries.

    Happy travels,

    [email protected]

  5. It’s good advice to shop when you arrive. I find it hard to actually buy conservative clothes in Australia. For example, maxi dresses are often sleeveless and show a fair amount of cleavage, plus are often in polyesters or other fabrics that aren’t good for the heat.

    1. Kathryn, I totally agree! The maxi dresses I had brought to Asia from Australia seemed thin and light but were purely synthetic so they felt horrible in the heat. And it seemed impossible finding something that covered shoulders and chest. I’m glad you found the post useful.

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