How should a Western woman dress for Egypt?
November 12, 2006 3:32 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone give me experience-based guidance on what clothing is acceptable for Western women visiting Egypt?

The guidebooks and websites I've read and visited tend to vary widely between "don't be stupid: completely cover up" and "don't worry about it at all unless you are way off the beaten track." I will be very much on the beaten track and am looking for specific guidelines. Are open sandals okay? Jeans? Tee shirts? Non-scandalous (by Western standards) shorts?
posted by Morrigan to Travel & Transportation around Egypt (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't bring shorts or tank tops. Are you staying primarily in Cairo?
posted by k8t at 3:48 PM on November 12, 2006

There are two things to consider - tradition and climate. Sandals are OK - everyone in Egypt wears sandals, but Jeans is too hot, unless you are traveling during the winter months. Tee shirts and shorts are not ok in my opinion at all. They are also not the most practical wear for the climate. Loose cotton tops with long or short sleeves will be better than anything tight. Wearing shorts is completely out unless you are on the beach in Sinai, and even then not more than 10 meters from the watter. Loose cotton trousers, or a long skirts will be OK. I would avoid anything tight and stretchy. I often notice while traveling that some Western tourists really like to attest their right to wear whatever they feel like completely disregarding local customs and traditions, gosh, how silly they look. And how much disrespect they get from their hosts.
posted by slimeline at 3:53 PM on November 12, 2006

I remember clearly after spending a couple of months in Egypt being astounded at Heathrow at the amount of cleavage on display. I don't think I saw any in Egypt at all, even in downtown Cairo, or what I did was extremely modest. Slimeline has it really: trousers or long skirts all the time, and covered shoulders and arms.

I also wore some long-shorts with my ankles bare, but it's a good way to get filthy, that.

Guidebooks often mention the groping you get from Egypt men. On returning to England I understood why, because for the first half an hour everyone looked incredibly slutty. :)
posted by bonaldi at 4:02 PM on November 12, 2006

Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Aswan, primarily. In January. I won't have a problem with the "no tank tops" dictum, but no shorts.... So, flip flops would be okay on a woman?
posted by Morrigan at 4:03 PM on November 12, 2006

When I was there (in 89 or 90), I wore sneakers, jeans, long skirts, & assorted shirts. (Probably mostly loose t-shirts, as that's pretty much all I owned back then, but I might have brought some cotton button-up shirts.) We were told to avoid shorts & anything that bared shoulders or upper arms.

I was there in ...hmm... February?... and it was surprisingly cold (especially at night). I wore sweatshirts quite a bit.
posted by belladonna at 4:03 PM on November 12, 2006

Long, full cotton skirts are very comfortable, even in humid heat. I have a couple of really light cotton skirts from a local store that sells Indian imports, and I find them more comfortable in 40 degree (aka 100 F) than shorts (because they keep the sun off, and yet let air circulate. Simiarly, loose long-sleeved cotton shirts keep the sun off, and you might find them cooler because of it.
posted by jb at 4:25 PM on November 12, 2006

I worked in Cairo a few years back. In the touristy areas you will see everything...the Egyptians used to joke the Italians barely wore any clothes. Wearing shorts around the beach and tourist areas will be fine...In January it was quite cold when I was there and I was even wearing sweaters. The lack of humidity there helps tremendously. I basically lived in khakis and cotton t-shirts and was fine. Flip flops are okay too!
posted by psususe at 4:34 PM on November 12, 2006

I've been in Cairo and Luxor in January. Pants are fine; you won't be too hot. The women on our project wore long skirts as well. No shorts, no short skirts. T-shirts are okay, but no tank tops.

That said, especially in Luxor, I've seen some absolutely disturbing outfits. Mainly Russian tourists that take Nile cruises and only leave the boat to go see temples and things. Think short shorts with ample ass cleavage and skimpy tanks that leave NOTHING to the imagination. Not that you would, but don't be that person.
posted by The Michael The at 4:38 PM on November 12, 2006

My sister wore little open sandals in Egypt, got a cut on her foot and acquired a whomping infection – for what that's worth.
posted by zadcat at 5:51 PM on November 12, 2006

I was there last year - Cairo and over to Dahab - and i recommend that you wear loose-fitting clothing for both modesty and climate reasons. Try not to show much cleavage (think t-shirts or cheese-cloth indian style shirts) and have tops that cover your shoulders. Also, I recommend wearing 3/4 length pants rather than shorts, as they're still cool but cover your knees. If you're going somewhere you think may be particularly traditional, you might try a long skirt, but I found that 3/4 pants and loose top meant i was comfortable and people didn't pay quite so much attention to me.

And don't bother trying to wear anything white in Cairo - it's filthy!

Wearing flip-flops wouldn't be offensive, in my experience, but I know that especially in Cairo I absolutely would not wear them. Take some light trainers instead, or some kind of covered, sturdy shoe.
posted by Lucie at 5:54 PM on November 12, 2006

Zadcat's experience leads to practical advice, Lucie has it. Wear sneakers, save the flipflops for the beach.

As a general guide to the dress code, think, oh--Connecticut in the 1950s. If a decent woman wouldn't have worn something then for fear of scandal, it's probably inappropriate for Egypt.

It is very cosmopolitan and they are used to the entire world passing by--Egypt has veen a crossroads for millennia. At the same time, it's poor, often inconvenient, and it doesn't rain enough to keep the sidewalks clean and shiny like London. So protect your feet, wear shoes with good traction, and dress semi-conservatively.
posted by Phred182 at 9:18 PM on November 12, 2006

I usually go to Cairo for Christmas, and have spent about two months there over the years.

Jeans, long sleeved shirts, forget the sneakers and sandals. Cairo is a messy and dirty place. I wear Doc Marten boots. With the exception of Giza and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, the most interesting stuff is off the beaten path. But these are typically the poorest, most debris strewn parts of town. You'll see dead animals on some of the side streets - dress appropriately!

The Islamic Quarter and The Cities of the Dead are my particular favourites.

To get an idea what these parts of Cairo are like you can check out some pix from my last trip.

I couldn't go last year as there was too much Anti-American crap going on, so I went to Bombay instead.
posted by Mutant at 11:03 PM on November 12, 2006

I was there last week, and, to start, Cairo was surprisingly cold (15degC) for early November. The Sinai/ Red Sea coast was far warmer.

In the really touristy areas, anything goes. I was quite shocked at the short skirts and cleavage (and the high heeled sandals - great for walking through the sand) as I had prepared to dress with reasonable modesty. I found the Egyptian men to be grabby no matter what was worn - prepare your stony face and 'la shokrun' means 'no thankyou' (important for when any random male near you is offered 15 camels for your hand or you need to refuse the crappy souvenirs for the 25th time).

I found a headscarf very useful - keeps the sun and wind off and can be worn in mosques. I also wore it whenever I felt it would be more appropriate/comfortable to have my head covered, which happened more often than I anticipated in the souks. I wore Doc Marten sandals the entire trip and they were fine.

So, basically - ensure you have layers for the weather, dress comfortably for the activity, steel yourself for some very annoying men and have fun!
posted by goo at 12:18 AM on November 13, 2006

Wow. Great images--I take your point.
posted by Morrigan at 7:02 AM on November 13, 2006

I agree with the advice above. It's true that in the touristy areas you'll see all kinds of clothing, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea or that you should wear what western tourists wear in Egypt. You can, but there's no good reason to do it. I think it's quite juvenile to flaunt the clothing ppl can get away with in their own cultures. Should African women go around bare breasted in NYC? Anyway, with those winter temperatures, you could wear jeans or loose skirts or slacks - they'd all be fine, I'm sure.

Egypt is famous for grabbing. I traveled with three other (blond) girls all wearing long skirts and loose-fitting blouses, and frequently head scarves (just covering our hair). We didn't have any problems. When our two guy friends were with us, we really didn't have any problems. None of us were ever grabbed. If rude comments were made to us, none of us understood them. Mostly we were impressed with how friendly and nice everyone was.

I don't remember what kind of footwear we wore - whatever it was was not a problem. I think we alternated between flip flops and tennis shoes.

Enjoy yourself! Eat the kusheri - it's delicious. And drink the fruit smoothies. Spectacular fruit. Foul is yummy too. The Giza pyramids are a joke inside (everything has been removed to museums, but tourists still wait in lines and climb through the pyramids to see... nothing!), but pretty cool to see from the outside. Smoke a hookah and enjoy watching how most of Egyptian society (including old ladies) smoke hookahs even late at night. One of the highlights of our trip was being driver to cliffs outside the city where we sat on pillows and smoked a hookah. I think there was a bridal party there. No idea of the particulars since it was just an Egyptian friend who brought us there, but very enjoyable.
posted by Amizu at 7:07 AM on November 13, 2006

I've been to Egypt (Cairo, mostly) several times for work, but did the tourist thing quite a bit. The only time I can remember clothing being a "cultural/taboo issue" for the women was when we went to the Citadel. Ladies weren't allowed in the mosque with bare arms showing.

Other unsolicited advice for you... Learn to say no ("la-a") when accosted - especially at the Khan al Khalili. Traveling with male friends is very helpful - they can deflect unwanted attention.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 10:36 AM on November 13, 2006

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