Travel Style: What to Wear in Conservative Countries

Throughout the streets of Mandawa, India, local women continued to gawk at me, glancing up and down before shaking their heads as if I were dressed in a Tigger onesie. The looks of disdain continued through the day, but I couldn’t figure out why — I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt over yoga pants. Baffled, I consulted my tour guide.

“Oh,” he said, “it’s because your ankles are showing, which is really inappropriate.” I was also wearing a dazzling anklet, which apparently brought me even more attention.

In popular tourist places, attire rules are flexible, but venture off the beaten path, where locals are less accustomed to our usual digs, and expectations change quickly. The only way I’ve learned to abide local custom is adapting to expectations once I arrive. I hope some of the tips below help you prep successfully, so that you dont go around India flashing your ankles.

Here are some general guidelines and suggestions:

Packing for travel in conservative countries is all about striking a balance. There are ways to maintain your unique style, yet tone down an outfit to make sure you don’t commit any cultural faux pas.

I love the outfit below for a few reasons. First, these sleek black yoga tights plus a simple boat neck tank and a sheer fabric dress give you ultimate versatility while also allowing you to stay cool and play dress-up-dress-down. The sheer overlay dress is v-neck, but the boatneck tank underneath makes it more conservative, plus the dress cut is wide enough to cover the majority of the shoulders. It’s a great outfit to pack because you could wear just the leggings and tank with sneakers on an active day, slip the dress over the top to dress it up with sandals, or even wear it out at night and dress it up with some stylish ankle boots, a belt, and chunky jewelry. I love outfits you can wear several ways because it makes for easy packing.

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I still feel sexy while wearing this floor-length racer back dress (left) because it has a flattering cut for my shape with two slits up the front and a cinched waistline. Plus, if necessary you can make it more conservative by packing a shawl and those leggings into your day bag, just in case. The same can be said of the long pink skirt plus white tank on the right. Again, I love packing solid color tank tops because they can be easily dressed up or dressed down. Go for bold basics and you’ll never fail. I don’t typically wear long skirts back home because I am short, but this one had enough sexy factor to still feel stylish, so it’s a good compromise.

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When you dress in layers, you can quickly peel that shawl off to capture stunning images of your goddess self inside landmarks, where appropriate.

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Another way to stay stylish yet conservative is to choose funky patterns. As in the photo below, spring for unique sneakers, pants, or top. I usually shop at thrift stores because I can easily spot funky pants, many of which come in light-weight, wrinkle free fabrics. Also, a light cardigan in an absolute must-have in conservative countries, you’ll find you will use it a lot. I like dressing in layers, otherwise if you wear a long-sleeve shirt you’re stuck in it all day.

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Again, a pattern like this can be worn as funky club chic, business casual, or simple around town. My other secret trick is packing a pair of panty hose, which I slip on underneath a pair of pants like these to add an extra layer of warmth if I am traveling somewhere that is hot during the day and cold at night.

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Also, pack a flowy shawl, which can moonlight as a beach cover-up, scarf, or even head scarf if you need to cover your hair. Your jewelry and sneaks can make a casual, all-black outfit just a little more interesting.

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In the photo below, that racer back is actually a sports bra, which again scores you savvy travel packing points because you can wear it as an undershirt or during adventure activities.

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These are just some of the accessories I brought with me to Israel. That sports bra has versatile style and utility; a simple black belt can bump up style but also cinch in an outfit meant to conceal; and chunky jewelry is your best friend when it comes to dressing up clothes meant to cover up your body. I also like purses with a stylish flare. The sun hat I didn’t actually wear as much as I thought I would, but it was essential under the ultra bright rays of the Dead Sea. Oh, and I never go anywhere without my travel journal.

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Here are some general rules by country:

Israel: Style wise, Tel Aviv can feel a world apart from its conservative neighbor cities. In this trendy beach town, pretty much anything flies. You will want to cover up your bikini when departing the beach, though, so as to not warrant any extra attention. Outside of Tel Aviv, you’ll want to pack a shawl and more conservative options for visiting conservative landmarks. For example, if you go to the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, covering your shoulders and knees is mandatory for entry.

India: Keep those ankles covered. Many female travelers don saris while they’re in India, but wearing local clothing to fit in is personally has never been my thing. Any long skirt or pair of loose-fitting pants should do the trick. Remember, in India it gets super hot!

The United Arab Emirates: I had a similar experience in Dubai as I had in Tel Aviv, the range of clothing I saw women wearing went from shorts and tanks to burqas. You can get away with pretty much anything that makes you feel comfortable in Dubai, like a pair of longer shorts and a more conservative top. Beyond Dubai, though, the rules change when you visit sites like the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. At the entry, guards lend you a black burqa to wear over your outfit, but it’s best to dress conservatively underneath as well just to save face upon arrival.

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Bali: A sarong is mandatory to enter any temple in Bali. Most vendors will try and sell you one for an outlandish price at the point of entry, and most tour companies will try and take you to their friend’s store. When you land, swing by a market where you can bargain fiercely for one you really like. It should cost only a few dollars and you will use it a lot.

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