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Why Don't Westerners Wear Robes in the Desert?
August 17, 2012 2:21 PM   Subscribe

In the heat, Bedouins wear long, flowing robes. Westerners wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats. What are the advantages of the robes?

I have really two related questions.

a. Either long robes or lots of exposed skin do a better job of keeping you cool in the sun. If robes keep you cooler than exposed skin then why do Westerners (and Kalahari Bushmen, and the Masai, etc.) stick with lots of exposed skin?

b. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sombrero, or conical Asian hat keeps you in the shade in the midday sun. Yet many tropical cultures such as the Masai don't seem to wear hats. Why not?
posted by musofire to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well I imagine your susceptibility to sunburn has a lot to do with it. Also see humid vs dry heat.
posted by fshgrl at 2:24 PM on August 17, 2012


maybe long robes work better at warding off certain kinds of windblown sand and dust.
posted by facetious at 2:26 PM on August 17, 2012


why do Westerners (and Kalahari Bushmen, and the Masai, etc.) stick with lots of exposed skin?

Contemporary caucasian Americans and Europeans go for the undressing in the heat. Everywhere else in the Americas (yes, I know Europe isn't in the Americas, I am having a grammar fail here, not a geography fail) people who work outdoors all day cover up. It keeps your skin from turning into jerky and you have your own microclimate in intense heat.
posted by Forktine at 2:26 PM on August 17, 2012


Flowing, lightweight, light-colored robes let plenty of air in to flow around you while reflecting the sun's heat and protecting your skin from sunlight, sand, and dust.
posted by WasabiFlux at 2:38 PM on August 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


The one major strength of covering yourself win long robes is you're protecting yourself from bugs. The long lightweight robes act like mosquito netting.

I've thought about finding a suitable garment like that while traveling in the Melbourne area of Australia. Bloody flies.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:43 PM on August 17, 2012


Bedouins live in a dry heat.

I'm all about long loose garments, but at a certain point in North America it just gets too damn muggy and GET THE BEHIND ME, PEASANT SKIRT.

Note that indigenous people in rainforest environments tend to wear little in the way of clothing.

Frankly, I don't know how people in pioneer times didn't just spontaneously combust. The underwear alone looks exhausting.
posted by Sara C. at 2:44 PM on August 17, 2012 [19 favorites]


"Bedouin robes, the scientists noted, are worn loose. Inside, the cooling happens by convection - either through a bellows action, as the robes flow in the wind, or by a chimney sort of effect, as air rises between robe and skin."
posted by mykescipark at 2:55 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Mid-day Sun" -- Westerners are probably not great examples for those who understand living in hot conditions. It may feel cooler to have skin exposed to whatever breezes might pass by, but it's not a great way to survive in full sun.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:05 PM on August 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Long robes protect from the sun. Dark colors protect eyes from glare. (Although I'll admit I don't understand how this advantage could outweigh the advantage of light colors that wouldn't get as hot.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:20 PM on August 17, 2012


Sunburn. My wife is Japanese and will absolutely not go out in the sun with shorts or short sleeves (god forbid a tank top). I think she is on to something.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:28 PM on August 17, 2012


you might be interested in this recent npr story on this topic.
posted by juliapangolin at 3:36 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I lived in Phoenix I did my best to not be outside in the dry desert heat and sun and generally took my clothing cues from my family, my peers, what's I saw in my culture and what was available in stores.

When I had to be out in the heat, out in the sun I (sometimes) wore a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeves, covered my neck, etc.

But I spent most of my time inside, in temperature-controlled environments so I just wore what seemed normal.
posted by mountmccabe at 3:53 PM on August 17, 2012


When I lived in the desert I wore a big hat, baggy long sleeved shirts, long shorts, and boots.

The downside of skirts was chaffing thighs, and getting snagged on stuff. I would never have gone with short sleeves or hatless, and I am not generally afraid of the sun, tans, or skin damage. I am afraid of THAT sun, however. That sun was OVERTLY hostile.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:02 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I used to lead tourists on multi-day desert treks in Egypt, and I couldn't for the life of me convince most westerners that they would be far cooler in a flow-y, long-sleeved cotton shirt than in a tank top. Those that did try it were shocked to find it true. (I am western, caucasian so I know where they come from).

It is a dry heat thing - when there's little humidity, almost all the heat comes from the sun - block the sun and you mitigate the heat. It doesn't work the same when the moisture in the air around you is the major source of the heat.

Basically, most of us are raised believing that less clothes=cooler is an immutable fact, when that equation is actually dependent on climate and/or geography.
posted by scrute at 4:33 PM on August 17, 2012 [13 favorites]


Oh - and they usually wear shorts or cotton pants under their robe as well - there's no chafing that way.
posted by scrute at 4:33 PM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Cowboys and other folks who work outside all day wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hats (obviously) here in Texas, where it is endlessly hot.
posted by cannibalrobot at 4:45 PM on August 17, 2012


For me I've noticed that wearing loose cotton or linen not only protects me from the sun it absorbs the sweat and wicks it away from my body.
posted by PJMoore at 6:11 PM on August 17, 2012


juliapangolin: you might be interested in this recent npr story on this topic.

Key quote regarding Bedouins:
Researchers have studied the heavy black robes worn by Bedouins in the desert. They say the key there is thickness. The outer layer of fabric does get hotter because the black color absorbs more heat. And that heat doesn't get transmitted to the skin because of the thick fabric.
And I imagine that high winds and dust and/or sand make large brimmed hats more annoying to chase than functional to block the wind.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:02 PM on August 17, 2012


It is a dry heat thing - when there's little humidity, almost all the heat comes from the sun - block the sun and you mitigate the heat. It doesn't work the same when the moisture in the air around you is the major source of the heat.

It's true!

Think of a time when you sat in the shade on a very hot, very dry, day. Not too bad, right?

But when it's humid? You can't escape the heat by seeking shade. Sweat, wind, and nudity are your friends then.
posted by General Tonic at 7:16 AM on August 18, 2012


Black clothing absorbs more heat from both the inside and outside, but creates a chimney effect when the clothing is loose. Wind convects the heat away as well. It's convection, as mykescipark says, but the convection is increased by the color of the robes. They're actually hotter than white robes would be if you just measure the surface of the fabric.

There's an easy way to test this if you are wearing long pants on a hot day: roll them up just enough to create an air gap between the tops of your shoes and your pants leg. You can feel cool air being pulled in as heat rises from your clothing. If your entire outer covering acts as a chimney, you would have convection throughout, not just your pant legs.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:26 AM on August 18, 2012


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