tropical staples

There are very few style guides written to help those living in equatorial zones. I know this because every guide recommends a trenchcoat, and you'd pass out if you wore one here, even if it were raining. A lot of summer essentials guides also act as if all summers are spent in resorts - I'm thinking more for dressing in the city for people who actually live in such climates.

So I made my own list. A few things to keep in mind are:

1) Be fabric conscious: cotton, linen and silk are your best friends
Look for cotton knits, or even better, linen knits. Silk cotton is good for something more luxe but less stifling than full silk. I love linen because it's really the coolest thing to wear. Chambray anything is a good alternative to denim anything, except jeans.

2) Buy machine-washable things, or at least things that stand up to frequent washing
You change and wash clothing more frequently in hot weather. Most jackets containing wool will will require dry-cleaning so no matter how much I like them I avoid them. Anything I worry about losing shape or getting damaged I pop into little netted bags to protect them - my machine's various modes have never damaged my clothes, even my 100% silk items.

3) Look for things that skim, but don't cling.
Whenever I spot a rare bird that does this, I zoom in. Things that have shape but don't fit too closely are a dream in warm weather.

Summer collections from a lot of labels look like some kind of garish resort boutique where they sell you overpriced and poorly-made beachwear. And when labels - like A.P.C. - do nice clothes, they're often too heavy for tropical weather .

My favourite affordable place to shop for hot weather basics is Muji, mainly for their linen items. Lots of natural fabrics like linen, loose silhouettes, lovely neutral colours, great prices. Not all their clothes fit well - they're designed for the petite Japanese, and some of their knit items are flimsy and don't hold their shape - so you need to choose carefully. A word on Asian labels - you'll be surprised how many of them don't cater well to the warmer weather. I wonder why?

Label from places with true summers usually do hot weather clothes better - Massimo Dutti and Zara (Spanish) make trousers and knits that aren't too heavy for the tropics but still look smart enough for the office.

And Steven Alan is pretty awesome for summer items - lots of natural fabrics, cuts that are relaxed but still urban, airy, soothing colours. In fact, I'm illustrating this whole post with their very inspiring spring 2011 lookbook, haha.

My list of hot weather essentials:

1) Lightweight cotton/linen T-shirts and tanks
There are days where the air is so warm and clammy that wearing anything at all makes you want to weep. These are the next best thing. I prefer them in a slouchy fit but not so slouchy that I need to layer under it. I get them striped and plain.

2) Lightweight linen and cotton shift dresses
I used to mind dreadfully how linen wrinkles and then I got over it. Fabulously breathable and it never seems to get damp and sticky and it always looks crisp and cool. The best ones are those cut in a tailored way, rather than smocky, empire-waist things that will always look silly in the office - cotton shirtdresses are one good option. And a lightweight linen shift, preferably unlined but still opaque enough, is one of the breeziest things you can wear and not look sloppy on a disgustingly tropical day.

3) Denim shorts
For the jeans and T-shirt look when it's too hot for jeans. It's a classic, effortless casual chic. It denim also hides grime well.

4) Lightweight linen or rough cotton knit scarves
To layer chicly without passing out. Personally, even this is a little stifling for me on most days but my friends do this very well. I like how it's an easy way to add colour and look more summery instantly as well. Muji does awesome ones.

5) Linen knit pullovers
Perfect for days where you can't wear a t-shirt but you'll wilt in a blouse, sweater or shirt. They keep you covered (and hence keep the sun off your skin) but they're so lightweight and easy. Zara and Massimo Dutti were doing lots of these last season and I bought a few to stock up. Good things don't stick around in fast-fashion. Cotton knits are also wearable even though they can't beat linen.

6) Flat sandals + flip-flops
I wear flip-flops all the time - even covering my toes feels like torture on some days. Also, it rains here all the time, and very suddenly. Havaianas are the best since they're rubber and never get ruined. I keep an emergency pair in the office to save my favourite shoes from getting killed in sudden downpours.

Flat sandals are for days when flip flops won't do. I love how they look like you dressed up when it was no effort at all. And it looks so right for the warm weather.

6) Cardigans that look like jackets (knit jackets?)
Jackets look better lined, but lined jackets can be killer to keep on in the heat. And I hate those thin, shirt-like blazers - I just think they look cheap. Cardigans, on the other hand, are much lighter and more wearable. Cardigans that look like jackets are a rare breed and should be snapped up when spotted. I have one made of knitted linen that looks like tweed - it's hefty looking but it's cool to wear. I also saw a knitted one from Uniqlo made of some super-light and super-soft machine-washable knit, but looks exactly like tweed, a la Chanel. You get that tailored, pulled together feel without feeling like you're about to spontaneously combust.

7) Silk cotton shirts
I love the luxe feeling of silk, but silk cotton is the best substitute for those pretty chiffon and silk blouses that can get uncomfortable in hot weather. The hard part is finding one that isn't so sheer that it needs layering. This is why I only have one. I should have bought it in multiples.

8) A dash of colour
I think living in the tropics has ingrained in me an appreciation for cheerful prints and colour, even though I'm drawn towards colours like ivory, grey and navy. It's the sun, the greenery, living in a culture with strong colour traditions. Refusing to join in even in a small way can make you feel like a spoilsport. Colour-blocking is my favourite way to wear colour.

9) Tapered but not skinny trousers
I love skinny cuts and wear them frequently but sometimes, you have to let weather rule. I love that tapered fits have been trendy for some time because that means more choice for finding the perfect pair in such a cut. They're a godsend if you don't really wear wide-leg trousers like me - the slim silhouette with a tailored look without "stuffed" feeling.

10) Stiff cotton sleeveless/short-sleeved boxy tops
I don't know if it's clear what I mean by these - Marni-esque boxy tops that aren't fussy like blouses, structured but not constricting. For days where you just want to wear a t-shirt but you still want to look polished and sharp, such tops help you keep it together.

This is obviously not a definitive list, especially if you don't dress in the same, basic, tomboy way I do. It's also more of a foundation thing - add on as you will to make the look your own, choose a silhouette that you like.

Pictures from


Ammu said…
Lovely list. One thing I would add is skirts - perfect when it's too hot for trousers and too formal for shorts. Plus a skirt with an interesting texture or detail is a good way to dress up a tee.
asha said…
I understand why you have no use for boots now :)

This is a really good list, and helpful for me because at the moment the temperature here is around 30-40. I try to only buy 100% linen tees, and 100% silk shirts are my new luxury.

I really don't like my legs, so I wear skinny jeans all through summer. When it's crazy hot, maxi dresses or skirts are the next best thing :)
K. said…
Amazing list! Being from Hong Kong myself, I understand the challenge of dressing well in the tropics - when you cannot do layering or wear chunky knits!

I would add a set of really cute, scallop-trimmed bikini and a pair of ballet flats (for the days hanging around coffee shop and art galleries where it can be chilly inside) to the list :)

Vegalyn said…
I have a few Muji tops that I love, I need a L in their sizing while I'm a 34 in European sizes!

I'm pretty much a loose-fitting-top + pants + loafers kinda dresser in warmer weather. With the cool summers we always have, I keep several light-weight blazers as cover up for mornings and evenings. Easy Breezy

To my surprise I scored 2 silk tops during the winter sales earlier this month! Perfect for spring and summer. Don't you just love shopping for the right stuff in the wrong season :-))
Fleurette said…
Such a great post. I even look forward to summer when I read your post, because I mostly wore black skinny jeans in 40C .. lol. Isabel Marant always make 100% linen clothes, especially jackets, t-shirts, basics and trousers.
Despite living in a tropical climate all my life, I just figured out how to dress for it a few years ago. Excellent post! Fabric and machine wash- ability is crucial. It never occurred to me before, but you're right about zara doing good summer clothes. I buy “summer” trenches (when they’re lighter weight cotton than the heavier weight in the fall/winter). For socks I look for pairs that have cotton or rayon blended into them, it makes a huge difference. I know what you mean about #8, in the summer I like to bust out all my fabulous, over the top, tropical prints.
Amanda said…
I'm from Malaysia, so after 24 years of only wearing nothing but cotton and linen, I still find it hard to make the move to heavier items.

I'm heading back there in February and this is a good list to follow! Thank you.
Aïssa said…
Can I say how much I envy you right now? I want to wear sandals and linen outfits, not 2 pair of tights and layers of thermals!

On the topic, I used to live under such weather, your post is inspiring and also reminds me how hard it is to keep a fresh and business look when engulfed by warmth humidity.
Milly said…
Really excellent post. Thank you. Dressing in hot weather can be such a chore! Now I can have a little daydream about SUmmer while I re-read your recommendations.x
miss sophie said…
this is an excellent post. i'm in NYC so am fortunate with regards to not having to work too hard to dress for seasonal circumstances. i bookmarked a lot of the same looks in the SA lookbook as well! i wish designers would take more into consideration how pieces stand up to washing - a big disappointment is when i see a lovely piece that's dryclean-only due to its fabric content. that's fine for dressier items that i won't be wearing all the time, but more often than not a nicer designer piece made out of a luxe natural fabric (ie: silk, linen, etc) also happens to be high maintenance and delicate. sigh...
Camille said…
This is very informative, I find it so difficult to dress for summer. Even though Montréal is mainly known for cold and long winters, we have really hot, humid summers that I never seem to be able to dress for. I don't know if you've seen them, but Gap has a lot of cotton/silk tops in their new collection. Most have long sleeves but I think they could also be made into short sleeves without altering the style (I particularly like the pale green Edwardian-looking one!).
Alex said…
Great list!!! I only 'discovered' linen a few months ago, I'll be wearing it for life..
lin said…
Ammu: I probably left out skirts because I'm not graceful enough in them, haha.

asha: Doesn't stop some girls here from wearing boots though, but I always thought it was a weird look in the tropics.

k: Yeah, I think it's the particular style I'm drawn to that makes it challenging for me to dress in warm weather - I like sweaters and cardigans! Ballet flats: definitely an essential, wherever I am.

Vegalyn: Yep, I know that feeling! I never buy winterwear at full price, because I know it will be on sale, and I only use them when I travel anyway.

Fleurette: I wish I could see some of this Isabel Marant in person - the label only recently became available here, and I'm sure the prices are marked up. I love my line t-shirts from Zara and Massimo Dutti though, good quality enough!

Pret a Porter P: I think you wear the most amazing looks for the tropical climate. I think I'm not dedicated enough to a look enough to sacrifice a little comfort.

Amanda: Agree about the adjustment, and often I'm relieved that cotton, linen and silk are far easier to care for and maintain then wool, cashmere, tweed and other heavy fabrics.

Aissa: Businesswear is the hardest part about dressing in hot weather. Here in Singapore, there's a lot of (far too much) airconditioning. When I went to Nepal for work, I admired how people still put on jackets and shirts in the heat.

My least fave part about winter is peeling off all those layers everytime you move indoors!

Milly: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!

miss sophie: The Steven Alan lookbook is just lovely. Agree about washing needs - I've given up on buying a lot of things with the dry-cleaning label, although sometimes I quite confidently ignore them if I think I know the fabric content stands up to certain cycles on my machine.

Camille: Shall check out Gap soon as I have the time, thanks for the recommendation. The only thing that works for me in humidity is linen. The wrinkling is a pain, but I've learn to ignore it.

Alex: It's such a hardy fabric too, and comes in so many types (gauzy, knit, soft, crisp) - and I like how you instantly look leiurely :)
Mari said…
Oh i love this! I love how you are looking ahead too. I completely agree with you, especially on the tapered trousers.

Also, I just posted the 17th outfit for the I6L styling challenge.

What do you think of the challenge so far?


-La Copine


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