What (not) to wear in tropical weather

Expect hair like a plasma globe

July 2021

In a recent Financial Times article, journalist Robert Armstrong advised readers ‘how to look slick in the rain’. His elegant writing style aside, it was clear that Mr Armstrong has never attempted to take his own advice much further south than New York or London.

Looking slick in Taipei in the rain, or indeed at any time between the end of May and the beginning of November, would fox even the most sartorial of fashionistas.

Try looking dignified in a yellow rubber coat, classic trenchcoat, or waxed jacket (as Mr Armstrong advised) when it’s 36 degrees and raining so hard it’s bouncing off the pavement and coming right back up the inside of whatever you’re wearing.

So here’s a counter-suggestion for those of us whose urban centres are more tropical than temperate:

How to look good in 36 degrees (and rain)

A raincoat: don’t bother. There’s no raincoat yet invented that can keep you dry in a tropical downpour with 36 degrees and 98% humidity. You’re better just to go without. That said, convenience stores in Taiwan offer a ‘rain poncho’ in several bright pastel shades: a glorified see-through bin-bag with a hood and long sleeves. With some deft dislocations of your arms, you can slip it over your outfit as well as your handbag, small child or backpack. It can be yours for about NT$35 (about €1.10). True, you’ll sweat inside it like a lettuce wrapped in cling film on a sunny shelf, but when you reach your destination you might not look as if you accidentally got in the bath wearing all your clothes. Just twenty minutes standing in front of the air conditioner on full blast with your arms raised will dry out the worst of your poncho-induced sweat. Alternatively, give yourself up to the tropics and accept that everybody looks drenched for five months of the year.

Footwear: this is tricky. Wear flip-flops or thongs and you end up with mush between the toes as you inevitably slosh through gritty puddles infused with petrol run-off. Rubber boots are out because they make your feet and lower legs so sweaty that you soon feel like you’re taking a tepid foot-bath. Wear anything else and you ruin a perfectly decent pair of shoes. More elegant leather flip-flops are right out: one deluge will separate the inner- from the outer-soles, the toe-strap from its base, and the dye from the leather all over your foot (though that dye will inexplicably linger on your intra-toe skin for several days).

I actually spent several Hong Kong summers walking barefoot through Central, up to my ankles in torrents, rather than aqua-planing in flip-flops or wrecking a decent pair of pretty shoes. Men in Taipei or Singapore should not even consider struggling in socks and Crockett & Joneses, Churches, or anything that would pass for footwear in London’s Canary Wharf. Do what everyone does in Taipei: strap a pair of cheap sandals to your feet and carry your shoes in a bag. Since your legs will be clad in shorts in this heat and not, on any account, long suit trousers, you won’t look out of place. Take your trousers in a bag too, and change when you get to your destination.

Umbrellas? Not so useful

Umbrellas would appear to be the only sensible way to stay dry in countries where it rains a lot. But they are only useful when the rain is polite and moderate. When it comes down like the Rain Gods are going in for a bucket-challenge (minus the ice), anything below your shoulders gets drenched. Wear something made of soft cotton and wring it out when you get to your destination.

And, ladies, do not – ever – dress entirely in white.

One day last summer, shoes in hand, I was walking along a busy road from the bus stop to a client’s office during a typical mega-downpour. Although I only had to go a short distance, wall after wall of water was thrown up by every passing car, truck, and bus. The pavement had disappeared under 20cm of water…. and I was wearing a white dress….

By the time I reached the client’s office all my dignity was gone. Dripping from head to bare-feet, Coco Chan, the receptionist, aghast, hurried forward, saying ‘you can’t come in here!’

‘Oh’, I thought, ‘she’s worried about me dripping on the floor.’

‘The air conditioning!!’ she gasped in concern: ‘You’ll freeze!!!’

Aww. I’d forgotten, for a second, that I’m in Taiwan: the nicest, most considerate place in the mortal world.

She led me to the restrooms and pointed me to the hand dryer. I needed a clothes dryer.

She paged the colleague I’d come to see, who came bustling in, all mum-like, and bundled me through reception, me leaving little wet footprints all over the polished marble floor, whimpering about my now completely see-through dress and her soothing me with ‘yes but you look so sexy’.

Off we went to the executive shower rooms (oooh!) where she spent the next 20 minutes spinning me round, padding me down, blow-drying me. When I finally got to the conference room for the meeting, looking like a river-soaked Golden Retriever after being vigorously rubbed with a towel, Coco was bringing in a mug of hot ginger tea.

I have experimented with a wide variety of looks over the last 20 years in an attempt to survive summer in a tropical city with some degree of dignity and my conclusion is this: dignity has little to do with what you wear and everything to do with your expectations. If you expect to be crumpled and bedraggled, with Picasso-esque surrealist sweat-splodges under your arms and hair like a plasma globe, then your serenity will know no bounds whatever the humidity.

Also, if you’re going to get completely soaked in a tropical downpour, do it in the kindest country on the planet.

Images: Mike Jewell