What To Wear: Acceptable Attire Around The World

What is considered suitable clothing for men in Italy? Can I wear sandals in a Thai temple?

If you haven’t asked these questions before packing your suitcase, you aren’t ready to travel.  Acceptable attire is a concept that varies from one place to another – even within the same country. Although few cities have legal restrictions on what you may or may not wear, offending the locals with unacceptable clothing defeats the purpose of travelling and may be a work hazard on a business trip.

No one has the right to complain about religious dress such as hijab, turbans, religious medals and kippot. Even countries that don’t allow religious freedom won’t object to people conforming to their own religious standards – it’s a basic human right. There is a difference, however, between religious attire and cultural dress.

Dress codes... some people always get it right

Dress codes… some people always get it right

What Not To Wear

Choosing the wrong colour in some regions can create hostility: Iran’s government discourages women from wearing bright colours; Japanese expect professionals to wear dark suits and avoid colours such as red. Swedes seem to love wearing black but in Australia and the UK, many find it unusual to see children dressed entirely in black.  For some pathetic reason that I can’t comprehend, Europeans in recent years have a problem with little boys dressed in pink.  Men wearing gold jewellery and silk is forbidden in Islam. They are frowned upon by some muslims, depending on wear they are from – more likely in North Africa, The Gulf States and Central Asia than in South East Asia or the Arab Republics.

While you may see Australians heading into the bank or  post office in bikini tops and shorts, I really wouldn’t recommend it in most countries. Although not illegal in places such as The Philippines and India, swimwear is likely to attract unwanted attention away from the pool. While Saudis and women of some Gulf states often cover their faces it is not a religious requirement. Although acceptable attire in the Gulf, niqab or burka clad people in many places, such as South Korea, USA, France, Australia and China can cause alarm.

Quite simply, it frightens the locals: I’ve seen Australian children run from “The Dementors” at the supermarket; Japanese staff in shops and offices are reluctant to serve people if they can’t see their face;  I’ve seen a child in the lobby of Singapore’s Goodwood Park Hotel burst into tears at the sight of an intimidating figure dressed entirely in black.Miniskirts and bikinis are totally acceptable in my culture but I won’t be wearing them in Saudi Arabia or Qatar – I wouldn’t want to cause offence. I don’t expect Qatari and Saudi travellers to shroud their faces in black cloth when they travel to my country.

What To Wear

After extensive research, here are some guidelines for your travel wardrobe. Mostly my own advice and only a guideline for those who are curious. The lists are in no alphabetical order – I want to keep you all on your toes.

Anything Goes – where you may wear whatever you like,  at your own risk:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Pacific Islands
  • Most Western European countries such as France, UK, Germany
  • Southern Europe such as Italy, Spain, Greece
  • Most of Eastern Europe

*NB – partial nudity will upset some people everywhere, even if it’s legal. Toplessness and bare bottoms definitely offends, especially older people and parents of young kids. I don’t see why you’d want to do that. If you are an exhibitionist or a career tanner then I recommend getting some really good sunscreen and find a nudist beach/private garden.

Almost Anything Goes – but don’t go topless  or wear arse-bearing swimsuit costumes, you could be arrested/fined/asked to leave the pool or at least  intensely ogled and harassed:

  • Cuba – topless for men is fine on the streets
  • Brazil
  • USA – varies from place to place
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Japan
  • Monaco – pack your sunday best. Strict dress codes for casinos, hotel restaurants.

Conservative Dress – covered knees, no cleavage, no tank tops, t-shirts are fine. It may not be legally enforced but a certain standard of dress is expected. Ladies may wish to bring a scarf or sarong in case you plan to enter places of worship to cover heads or arms – else you may be given a scarf on loan, erk!

  • UAE
  • Jordan
  • North Korea
  • India
  • Lebanon – except Beirut and Jounieh, which are fairly liberal
  • Mongolia – except Ulaanbataar, which is fairly liberal
  • Malaysia
  • Philippines
  • Vatican City
  • Indonesia – conservative except for that ghastly tourist trap of Bali, the exception to every rule
  • Brunei
  • Syria
  • Cyprus
  • Turkey – not very conservative, some people do wear what they want but away from the beaches you risk getting harassed if you wear revealing clothes.
  • Pakistan (you may need especially conservative  dress in some regions)
  • Israel –  only off the beaches and out of Tel Aviv. Long trousers or skirts for visits to sacred sites.
  • Thailand – short/t-shirts frowned upon away from the beach and western resorts.  Temples/palace visits require covered feet and modest dress (no shoulders/knees exposed)
  • Qatar – bordering on especially conservative dress code. The government asks for people to cover their shoulders and knees but I’d wear long sleeves and a long skirt/trousers. There’s been a few cases recently of modestly dressed foreigners clashing with ultra conservative locals recently to which I say “get over it, Qatar! If you want an international economy then learn to deal with foreigners.”

Especially Conservative Dress – swathe yourself in floor-length fabric of black and muted tones, covered heads for women – no ankles or hair should be exposed. Females may be harassed by religious police for nail polish or makeup, although this is uncommon. Long sleeves and trousers are suitable for men, however gold jewellery is often frowned upon.

  • Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia
  • Iran – a knee length coat/dress over trousers with a headscarf is acceptable
  • Afghanistan (no legal requirement but it strongly advisable, according to my sources in Kabul, to cover your head in public, Wear loose fitting trousers under a skirt to avoid unwanted attention)

These last 3 destinations are probably not ideal for a summer holiday…

Now you are informed – pack wisely and enjoy your trip.

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4 responses to “What To Wear: Acceptable Attire Around The World

  1. What a great post! Wonderful information. One cannot underestimate what an impression our attire makes on others — and what an impact it can have on how we’re treated.

    I am going to Turkey and Morocco this month and even though I’m not Muslim I’ll be wearing traditional Muslim women’s clothing. Now if I could just find a good YouTube video on how to properly tie a headscarf… 🙂

  2. You really do not need to wear a headscarf in Turkey to be acceptable, in fact headscarves are banned by law for civil servants and at Univeraities as it is a secular nation legally. Iran can be a wonderful holiday destination, my sister and I had a lovely holiday there a few years ago, the people are warm and friendly and really welcome the opportunity to talk to Western travelers…..

    • Yes indeed – I only cover my head in synagogues/mosques/tombs and some churches if there is no need elsewhere. I wish I could go to Iran for a holiday. Sadly, it’s not as easy these days unless you take an approved tour. I will get there one day!

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