Travel dress code - Travel with Jane

What to wear while travelling? Here’s 5 ways to pack for cultural dress codes

4 January 2016

We’re all for dressing to impress, but when we’re travelling it’s often smarter to fly under the radar. Wherever you’re heading, follow our 5 step checklist on what to wear to blend in and play it safe

Appropriate dress standards vary wildly from country to country, so it is easy to get it wrong if you’re not paying attention. It’s no surprise then that researching the dress customs of the countries on your itinerary comes in at number 10 on our essential Travel with Jane pre-departure checklist. Essential because dressing appropriately in some regions can be downright critical to protecting your safety and keeping you out of trouble with the law.

Getting your travel wardrobe right is also about showing respect and treading lightly on the sensitivities of cultures where religion plays a central role, or where tradition dictates a more conservative approach in general.

With personal safety and cultural sensitivity in mind, here are 5 things to look out for when packing for your next big trip.


Headed to a country which holds deeply religious views, such as those in the Middle East, certain parts of Africa and Asia? Dress conservatively and know that revealing too much skin can cause offense and attract unwanted attention, especially when covering up is part of the religion.

Conservative dress codes usually apply when visiting most religious sites around the world,  however on the tourist trail in Bali, Cambodia, India, Japan and Thailand, dress requirements for temple visits are easily met by covering knees and elbows in loose fitting clothes, and wrapping a scarf over your shoulders, or head for good measure.

In stricter regions – temple or no temple, more cover up is needed to hide ankles, arms, and hair. A more conservative wardrobe of slacks, tunics and a handy shawl is a good idea when travelling in places like Dubai, Egypt, Kenya and certain parts of Turkey. In these spots, as with many traditional or developing nations, notions of what’s appropriate can swing from ‘western’ to conservative in a heartbeat.

Err on the side of modesty if you want to blend in and be prepared to cover your entire body, with the possible exception of your hands and face, in certain Middle Eastern countries. Like in Saudi Arabia, where a woman must wear an abaya (a long black cloak that covers the body from the shoulders to the toes) and possibly a niqab (a headscarf and veil). A scarf should be carried at all times to cover your head when requested. These dress codes are strictly enforced by law.

When it comes to footwear, pack both sandals and shoes in case your feet must be covered and never wear shoes in a Muslim mosque or in a Buddhist or Hindu temple. A last point on cultural sensitivity is to think about the unintentional messages your sartorial fashion choices might be sending out. Try to avoid prints with religious or military symbols, swear words, national flags and any words or symbols written in a language you cannot translate. It’s also not a bad idea to leave religious jewellery at home. If you must, keep them under your clothes so they’re not visible to sensitive eyes.


‘Do the handcuffs match my outfit?’ A question no travelling gal ever wants to ask herself. Yet in some parts of the world, the clothes you wear, or don’t wear, can land you in hot water with the law. Aside from religious dress requirements, swimwear rules are another big one as they creep into nudity laws. For example:

In Barcelona it’s against the law to wear a bikini, swimming trunks or to go bare-chested (if you’re a man) away from the beach-front area. The penalty is a fine. In Thailand, posting selfies featuring partially-exposed breasts, known affectionately as ‘under-boob’ could get you up to five years in jail.[minti_listitem icon=”fa-legal”]In Fiji topless sunbathing is illegal. The penalty is a fine. Thongs are banned in many parts of beach lovin’ Florida. The penalty is a fine Serving a jail term for contravening a local clothing law is rather unlikely, but being issued with a fine can and does happen. Similarly, you might not be fined as such for going against a dress code, but you could be removed or banned from a place, so once again, go with the flow until you can roll like a pro. (Providing that rolling like a pro is legal over ‘there’.)

The best way to research the dress laws of your next destination is to check out the Smartraveller website. It provides country specific travel advisories which usually note the countries where moderate dress codes apply, or where women are legally required to wear specific items of  clothing.


Unless you know a country inside out, there are going to be times on your trip where you’ll be at least a little out of your depth. Perhaps you’re travelling for the first time, or you’re on a solo mission. Or, perhaps you’re carving up the road less travelled like the boss that you are. When you’re not completely in your comfort zone, for whatever reason, blending in with the locals can ease the journey.

For obvious reasons, if your fashion choices have you standing out in a crowd, you’re more likely to get noticed. And not all attention is good. Likewise, if you’re running the classic tourist look in khakis and backpacks and travel contraptions and so on, you’ll be spotted a mile away by local opportunists.

We wish it wasn’t so, and it shouldn’t but, but revealing and figure-hugging clothes can unfortunately act as an invitation to some people. Be sure you want that RSVP. [minti_listitem icon=”fa-remove”]Bright colours and loud prints are awesome – but they’re also bright and loud, creating a visual beacon for crims scanning the road for easy pickings. [minti_listitem icon=”fa-remove”]Adventurous fashion-y outfits will get you spotted by travelling fashion bloggers – win! But your fashion-forward style could also make you a target if the local scene is more subdued.


Frostbite is not the kind of souvenir anyone wants to bring home. Ditto for its fiery cousin, sunburn. Dressing for the elements makes good sense all the time. But especially so when you’re travelling in a foreign country as mishaps tend to er, snowball. That’s where researching the weather, and dressing accordingly can keep you both comfortable and safe. If you’re heading to a really cold place, invest in proper gear. Unfortunately it’s a case of ‘you get what you pay for’ with winter jackets, thermals and waterproof gear so read the reviews or get help from someone who’s done it before. Warm weather calls for loose clothes in natural fabrics like linen and cotton. These let your skin breathe, and as bonus are typically quick drying if a wash is required. [minti_listitem icon=”fa-umbrella”]Sun protection is not an optional extra, it’s a must. Irrespective of what the weather is doing, travel sun safe with a proper SPF 30 sunscreen, hat and polarised sunglasses. Ideally, keep bare skin covered if you’re out in the sun for long periods of time and consider that some fabrics are better than others at shielding you from UV rays.


Try not to wear expensive, flashy jewellery overseas, unless you want your diamond rings, pearls and watches to end up in someone else’s collection. There’s also the chance of losing valuable in the dramas of packing, unpacking and moving hotel rooms.

One exception is a wedding ring, whether married or not, which can come in handy if you want to avoid unwanted attention. Travelling opens us up to new worlds. Follow our 5 tips to respect the cultures and customs through dressing appropriately for a richer, immersive travel experience. Equally, take care of your personal safety through the wardrobe choices you make.

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