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 stevenalan.com