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How To Dress Modestly in a Tropical Climate

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From the French following classic fashion to British women favoring eclectic styles to minimalist clothing making a big part of a Swedish woman’s closet, each country has its own style rules when it comes to fashion. If you are into learning about fashion from different countries, I’m sure you will be interested to know what type of fashion we Malawians follow in Africa.

For anyone who has not heard of Malawi, it is a small country in Sub-saharan Africa. The country was colonized by the British in 1891 and gained independence in 1964. Under the new constitution, Malawi became a republic under the dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

During his reign from 1964 to 1994, women were forbidden to wear trousers, short skirts, and dresses above the knee. Even though those strict dress codes no longer apply to Malawi, it is still generally frowned upon if you wear anything skimpy.

The first time I ever wore denim shorts in a city was during a family visit to Sydney, Australia in 2015. To my surprise, nobody approached me to tell me to “cover up.” Everyone just went on with their day.

In Malawi, however, I would have had to cover up with a chitenje (traditional fabric) if I wore shorts.

I think the unwritten fashion rules are a little over the top sometimes. However, I agree that dressing modestly is good. Modest clothing makes you look ladylike and is comfy to wear!

If you are interested to know how to dress modestly in a tropical climate, keep reading to see what staple fashion pieces Malawian women have in their closets.

1. Long Pleated Skirts Are Everything

A pleated skirt is a beloved clothing piece in Malawi. Almost every woman in the country has one (or two), including my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother.

This maxi skirt is very versatile. It is worn for work, church, family visits, and weddings. They are accessorized with ballet flats, kitten heels, and in some cases, sneakers.

A pleated skirt in a lightweight material is breezy, keeping your legs cool without sacrificing style.

Though it may be too warm for your climate, traditionally, a long sleeve top is paired with long pleated skirts in Malawi. The top is always tucked in and never hanging loose.

The older generation loves to wear pleated skirts with petticoats underneath, while millennials and Gen Z Malawians prefer not to.

2. Ballet Flats Are a Must-Have

Malawian women prioritise comfortable fashion. They gravitate towards shoes that they can wear everywhere.

Hence, women invest in ballet flats because they can get a lot of use out of them. From walking to the market to the office — ballet flats are good for wearing all year round.

They wear these flats wholeheartedly. This means they wear them with skirts and dresses. On days that are really hot, we opt for sandals.

3. Clutches Over Crossbody Bags

Clutches have always been an essential accessory for Malawian women, especially on special occasions. They favor them over crossbody bags, which can be weird to some people.

Clutches are usually deemed impractical because they are not a hands-free accessory. However, they can be practical as well. Clutches have a lot of room and some designs are a comfy material to carry.

Because a clutch is generally thought of as a formal piece, it will instantly add that classy element to your outfit.

4. Puff Sleeve Dresses for Effortless Femininity

Malawian women believe in covering up their shoulders in style. And they do this by dressing up in beautiful puff sleeve dresses. They either opt for traditional puff sleeve dresses made from chitenje cloths or bright floral designs.

When I was a toddler, my aunt would make puff sleeve dresses for me. At the time, I didn’t like them, but now I love them. They are the true definition of elegance and femininity.

Related: 5 Classic Swimsuits for The Chicest Beachwear

5. Lightweight Trousers Will Be Your Best Friend

Living in a hot climate requires wearing lightweight pants. That is not to say that jeans are not worn in Malawi, but it is more comfortable to wear lighter fabrics in the heat.

Even when American and British ex-pats arrive in Malawi, they swap their jeans for flowy pants due to the heat. It is very common to see them flock to second-hand markets like DAPP to stock up on fun lightweight trousers.

6. Stud Earrings for a Classic Touch

Malawian women (especially the 40+ age group) do not like jewelry that is too flashy and bold. They prefer to wear dainty jewelry like small studs, rather than large hoops.

7. Sandals To Beat the Heat

Casual footwear that is frequently worn in Malawi is sandals (but here, we call them slippers).

They are the perfect footwear to slip on in this hot sub-Saharan climate. Not only are sandals good house shoes, but they are also great for running errands.

8. T-Shirts Are Always a Good Idea

T-shirts are an easy fashion choice for Malawians. They are comfy, modest, and perfect to wear on hot days.

While some women around the world prefer a crisp white t-shirt, Malawians pick graphic tees.

Paired with sandals and a pleated skirt, this outfit strikes the right notes between modest, classy, and hot weather appropriate.

9. Consider Square Neckline Dresses

square neckline dress

One of the best ways to dress modestly in the tropical climate is by wearing square neckline dresses.

In Malawi, deep plunge necklines that reveal the chest are frowned upon. Dresses with a square neckline not only make them appropriate to wear to many formal and casual gatherings, but they are classy and timeless too.

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To master the art of modest dressing even more, pick up some classic summer outfit ideas.

Up next: 4 Go-To Classic Summer Outfit Formulas Modeled On Two Different Body Types

dress modestly in a tropical climate
How to dress modestly in a tropical climate


Hi! My name is Temwa and I have an obsession with all things lifestyle. Whether it's home decor, classy fashion, beauty products, or gift ideas -- you will find me writing about those topics. When I'm not sitting at my laptop, you will find me making press-on nails over the weekend!