What to Wear Traveling in Conservative Countries

What to Wear Traveling in Conservative Countries
April 10, 2017

Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes: Body Coverage to Consider in Conservative Countries

Elizabeth Esparza, senior program manager on our International Safety & Security team, has traveled throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Here, she shares her advice on what to cover, when, and where based on her personal travel experiences in conservative countries.

Elizabeth visiting Siem Reap in Cambodia, summer 2016. Photo credit: Elizabeth Esparza

Head

Covering your hair can be an extremely controversial topic. Some countries require it of its female citizens while other countries have made it illegal. Become familiar with the requirements, either by custom or law. To be prepared, women should always carry a scarf, especially when visiting religious sites. In countries that require local women to cover their hair, you may receive more unwanted attention if you don't.

Shoulders

While in Cambodia last year, I spent a couple of days exploring the temples of Siem Reap. Cambodia is hot and humid, and Siem Reap is a huge tourist attraction. Both of these factors made it easy to forget about conservative dress norms. I was wearing a maxi skirt, but chose a tank top on my first day there. Luckily, I always travel with a scarf, which I quickly converted into a shrug that covered my shoulders. Men and women should keep your shoulders covered by wearing loose-fitting t-shirts or button-down shirts. For women, wearing low-cut tops that reveal your cleavage isn't recommended. Also, be careful when wearing button-down shirts; they sometimes gape between buttons and reveal more than intended.

Sign at Siem Reap instructing visitors on proper dress and behavior. Photo credit: Elizabeth Esparza

Knees

In some countries, showing your knees can be scandalous. Generally, if you can’t bare your shoulders, you shouldn't wear anything that shows your knees. But, the opposite isn’t always true. When I lived in West Africa, I had a wrap dress made. It was a tank dress with straps that I wanted to hit just above the knees. The tailor wouldn't agree to the design. He was fine with the strappy top, but he thought the length was too scandalous. I promised to only wear his creation in the U.S., and this seemed to appease him. So leave the short, knee-bearing skirts at home, as well as the shorts. Throughout most of the world, it's extremely unusual for men or women to wear shorts outside of a beach environment.

Toes

I've never been to a country where you can't show your toes. But "head, shoulders, knees, and toes" sounded like a better headline than just "head, shoulders, and knees." Feel free to pack your flip flops. Sandals are a convenient choice when exploring sites that require visitors to remove their shoes, such as temples in Thailand and Burma. But beware, it's considered rude in some countries to show the soles of your feet; in others, you should never point or touch another person with your feet. The main message: remember to research your destination's customs.

Questions & Resources

If you have questions, or if you'd like to schedule a private travel consultation, email me at elizabeth_esparza@harvard.edu. You can also check out the following resources to research your destination: