When I went on my first trip to Africa, I only thought of the pictures I’d seen in the media. Either very Westernized urban outfits or barely dressed rural villages. Therefor, I didn’t think what I packed would matter. I was wrong. Not only did I bring too much unnecessary clothing, I felt uncomfortable as my clothing committed social taboos. As I walked down the street from the market in my bright orange shorts and airy tank top, I felt the heat of the sun, but my face flushed further when an old lady came out of her shack waving her finger at me speaking in her tribal tongue. I knew what she was saying by her look of disgust at my bare legs. I was so embarrassed.
Here’s what I learned. When in doubt, cover your knees and shoulders whether men or women. If you are attending a church, temple or a business function, pants for a man and long skirt for a woman should get you through. Nothing too fancy, just coverage is what matters. Flip flops though easy to travel with are not supportive and leave you vulnerable to injury and disease. Plus, flip flops are not acceptable in some restaurants.
To get specific, in West Africa, women wear skirts, rarely wear pants and never wear shorts. Tops may be optional in the villages, but knees should be covered. I took a few jersey knit skirts from Old Navy and ended up wearing them every day. Anything goes for men during the week but church calls for a dress shirt and pants. Be aware that wearing flip flops can make you vulnerable to puncture wounds and diseases carried by sewer water. Crocs are a good choice when traveling to developing countries. They dry quickly, prevent bacteria, and support your foot.
In Southeast Asia, women wear long pants or long skirts and shoulders are covered. I wore stretchy travel material pants and t-shirts. Shoes are taken off inside, so crocs or sandles work well. When entering a temple, you may wish you had a scarf to cover your head if you do not like to stand out and the scarf doubles as an air filter to help you breathe in dusty or polluted areas.
Latin America is a little less conservative and a little more like the U.S. Dressy clothes are not needed as business casual is your best bet for special functions, church and business. Wear supportive shoes as flip flops leave your feet vulnerable.
Europe is more about color choices than about coverage, except in cathedrals. Knees and shoulders must be covered in cathedrals. Other than that, if you don’t want to stand out, avoid bright colors. Neutrals are much more popular in Europe. Though charming, the cobblestones streets can be uneven and wobbly. Shoes that are supportive are ideal; high heels can be disastrous. Restaurants tend to be more formal than U.S., so if you plan on a nice dinner, a button-up long sleeve shirt for a man and dressy slacks for a woman would be the baseline of appropriate.