Daily life in tropical areas can be intolerable for visitors who are wearing less than ideal clothing. Fabrics for tropical climates have a number of properties which make them highly suitable to wear and use in regions which get warm and humid. In addition to seeking out better fabric choices, it is best to try garments on for fit and comfort, as clothing that is tight or fits oddly can be maddening in hot weather. It may be easier to purchase tropics-friendly clothing locally, and it might be a good idea to check what local people are wearing.
High temperatures combined with high humidity can make life uncomfortable, especially for people not used to these conditions. Humans keep cool mainly by sweating: the evaporation of liquid takes heat away from the body. Sweat evaporates less quickly when humidity is high, and so has less of a cooling effect. For this reason, fabrics for tropical climates should maximize the flow of air through the clothing, allowing heat and moist air to escape. It also helps if clothing is loose fitting.
Some fabrics tend to trap heat by providing an insulating layer over the skin. Others tend to reflect heat back to the body and inhibit the outward flow of warm, moist air; this is often true of synthetic fibers, such as polyester. Another important factor is the ability of a material to absorb water. Synthetic fibers tend to be water-repellent; they allow sweat to build up, reducing evaporation, and causing discomfort and irritation. Natural fibers are generally better at soaking up moisture from the skin and allowing it to evaporate from the outer surface.
As a general rule, the best fabrics for tropical climates are those made from natural materials such as cotton, linen and rayon. Strictly speaking, rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber, but it is made from natural raw materials and resembles natural fibers in its properties. These materials tend to “breathe” more than synthetics such as polyester. Wool and silk are not good choices, as they tend to retain heat, and silk can lose some of its strength through exposure to strong sunlight and perspiration.
Cotton is an excellent material for a tropical climate because it permits movement of air from the skin through the fabric, allowing heat to dissipate and reducing humidity. It also absorbs moisture well, keeping the skin dry and increasing evaporation. This tendency to soak up water could potentially also be a problem: it can become damp and stay damp for some time. Anyone who has worn denim cotton jeans in wet weather will know that they absorb a lot of water and take a long time to dry out. These, however, are made of relatively coarse, thick material; cotton clothing for hot, humid parts of the world should be made of thinner, lighter fabric.
Another useful property of cotton is that it can be machine washed and dried. As sweat accumulates in a hot climate, the ability to wash clothing quickly and easily is a definite advantage. Cotton is also easily ironed and reasonably durable.
Like cotton, linen is cool and absorbent, and very comfortable to wear. It loses water quickly when it gets wet or damp, which is a useful feature in humid conditions. The material is relatively stain-resistant and can be machine-washed; however, it tends to become wrinkled and creased easily, especially when tumble-dried, and ironing it can be hard work. It is also susceptible to mildew, which can be a problem in areas with high humidity.
This fabric is made from natural cellulose, which is subjected to various chemical treatments to create a fibrous material suitable for clothing. Like cotton and linen, it is cool and comfortable to wear: it does not trap body heat, and absorbs water easily, making it well suited to tropical conditions. Normal rayon, however, has limited durability, and should be dry-cleaned rather than washed. Another form of this fabric, called high-wet modulus (HWM) rayon, is much stronger and can be machine-washed.
Other Things to Consider
Generally, light colored fabrics are better for a tropical climate, because they reflect light and heat. White, beige, and pastels are common choices, and they can be embroidered with thread to create colorful designs. Tropics-themed textiles do not have to be dull white or shockingly patterned; options are varied when it comes to decoration.
Clothing for tropical climates should also be loose and comfortable. Many cultures have traditions of flowing garments which allow air circulation close to the body. In addition to being cooling, this also helps to keep the body dry, preventing irritation, rashes and skin infections. People who are overweight may also want to consider the use of a cream or powder on areas of the skin which are subject to chafing, to prevent painful sores at the end of a day of activity in hot, humid conditions.