What Are the Best Fabrics for Tropical Climates?

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It may be hot in the tropics but that doesn’t mean you can’t dress fashionably. Image: N-Y-C
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One of the advantages of living in the tropics is that we don’t have to spend so much on our wardrobes. That’s especially so for men who can get around most places in a pair of shorts and t-shirt and only need to dress up for special occasions or going out at night. For women, the big advantage is that they only require a summer wardrobe with perhaps a shawl or cardigan for cooler evenings in the dry season.

For most of the year when it is hot and humid, free-flowing short or long dresses are all most women need, but it’s important to choose the right fabric to ensure day-long comfort. Generally speaking, it is fabrics made from natural fibres that are the coolest to wear in the tropics – except for wool of course (although some lightweight wool fabrics make excellent suits for businesswomen working in the cities of tropical countries when they are in air-conditioning for most of the day).

Cotton is the most popular and widely available fabric, and for maximum comfort it’s important that it should be 100 percent cotton and not a cotton/synthetic blend. Cotton does stain easily from perspiration, especially under the arms, but can be frequently laundered. It’s an exceptionally durable fabric.

Surprisingly, some people who move to the tropics from temperate climates say they don’t feel comfortable wearing 100 percent cotton because it feels heavy compared to the cotton/polyester fabrics that they’ve been used to wearing.  But keep in mind that cotton fabrics are available in many different textures, qualities, and weights, and often the problem is just that they haven’t found the right one to suit their personal preferences.

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Linen shirts for men are comfortable to wear in the tropics but not everyone likes the ‘unironed’ look. Image: Helena Lopes

For those with a higher budget to spend, linen is a popular choice too. It’s heavier than other fabrics and creases more easily than cotton, but many find the creased linen look to be stylish in its own way. However, men’s linen pants do need ironing after every use to stay looking smart. Ironing linen though does take some patience and is best done with a good steam iron.
 
If you like the denim look, chambray is another option for both the warmer and cooler months. It’s much easier to iron than linen, and some chambray fabrics display better crease resistance than other 100 percent cotton fabrics. Chambray is very breathable so great for hot weather.

Although somewhat out of fashion these days, embroidered cheesecloth tops are comfortable to wear in the tropics. They can be fiddly to iron (and need only a cool iron or the fabric will burn easily) but may appeal to those who like the gypsy look or something girlish to contrast with a pair of denim jeans.

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Bamboo fiber is now being used to make fabrics that are well suited to wearing in the tropics due to their ability to wick away perspiration. Image: Laura D. Vargas

In some tropical countries, hemp is now being used for shirts and dresses, but the fabric is not available in the Philippines, so it’s not one that I’ve had any experience with. However, in my country there are fabrics made from bamboo and pineapple fibers available. In fact, traditional wedding dresses have been made from pineapple fiber for many decades.

Rayon is a man-made fabric, but it’s made from wood fibers so it’s quasi-natural. It does quite a good job of keeping you cool in the tropics, but some people don’t like the feel of it and say that it feels like they are wearing a polyester garment. However, as with cotton, there are different weights and textures of rayon available, and it is generally much cheaper than cotton. But it doesn’t stand up to being frequently laundered as well as cotton.

Although all the best fabrics for the tropics are made of natural fibers, a large proportion of the population in hot countries still wear garments made from fabrics with some content of polyester. Cotton/polyester mix garments are popular because they wear well, are easy to wash and iron (if indeed they need ironing at all) but polyester is basically a man-made plastic product. It holds in heat (great if it’s cold but not if it’s hot) and doesn’t wick away perspiration.

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This 100 percent cotton button-down dress is ultra-comfortable to wear on even the hottest and most humid days. Image: © Bernadit Lagunay

So why do so many people who are born and brought up in the tropics wear cotton/polyester mixes? Is it because they don’t sweat as much as people from temperate climates? The reason is simply that garments made with cotton/polyester mix fabrics are much cheaper than clothes made with 100% natural fibres, and that’s the primary reason why so many people wear them.

It is a fallacy that dark-skinned people don’t sweat as much. Researchers have concluded that there is no significance difference between sweat gland activity of dark and light skinned people. However, some Asian racial groups have less of a gene that causes sweating under the arms, but not everyone. In fact, the races with the highest number of people who don’t have that gene are Koreans, Chinese and Japanese – all of whom are generally light-skinned and living outside of the tropics.

In the tropical countries of Asia, notably those in South Asia and Southeast Asia, and some countries in Central America, between about a third and a half of people born there don’t have that gene, but in Africa nearly everyone has the gene. So whether someone in the tropics sweats less has no relation to skin colour, but to their racial and genetic background.

The ability to wear cotton/polyester mixes in the tropics really depends on how well you adapt to the heat and humidity, which is why many people who have lived all their lives in the tropics can do so with ease. But many people who are new to the tropics find fabrics with man-made fibres to be uncomfortable to wear.

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This long dress is a cotton/polyester mix but it’s loose and airy so still comfortable to wear despite being mostly a man-made fabric. Image: © Bernadit Lagunay

I do wear cotton/polyester mixes myself, especially when travelling because they don’t crease as much as other fabrics. But I choose light fabrics that have been fashioned into a style that provides plenty of air circulation and is not tight-fitting on the body.

For men, there are a lot of man-made fabrics used for polo shirts and t-shirts (and for women’s exercise gear) that supposedly use new technology to wick away perspiration and keep you cool, but I’ve not come across any myself that I have felt comfortable wearing. Although I do have one very skeptical male friend who bought one such high-tech t-shirt and had to admit it was as comfortable as wearing a cotton shirt.

And talking about wicking away perspiration, don’t forget that whatever you wear in the tropics, you will be perspiring and losing a lot more water from your body than in temperate climates, so it’s important to keep up your water intake throughout the day to avoid dehydration.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I agree with all your observations but aside from fabric and style, another important factor is color. Dark colors absorb heat whereas light colors reflect heat. That’s why you see so many people wearing white, cream, beige and khaki in the tropics 😉

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