When people asked me if I was nervous about moving to the Middle East, I told everyone that the biggest thing I worried about was clothing.
When I asked expats who already lived here what I could or should wear, their comments were frustrating because most often they would say things like “Oh, it’s not that conservative, you can wear whatever you like” or my personal favorite, “just dress how you would normally dress” but with the caveat that I should be careful.
What did they mean by that? How could I prepare? I had no idea how to move from a European winter to a Middle Eastern summer. Here’s everything I wish I had known in listicle format with more narrative and as much advice as I can muster at the end.
1.) The standard for women’s clothing in public outside of Muscat is that your pants should reach your ankles, you should be wearing something long and billowy to cover your butt, and you should not show your shoulders but forearms are okay. In general, show as absolutely little skin as possible and keep your clothing loose fitting.
2.) If you’re worried about preparing ahead of time, don’t be. Cheap clothes are everywhere in Oman. You can find amazingly comfortable and sheer pajama-like pants in two-rial stores or even little run down shops in every small town. Bigger chain stores like Lulu’s, Ramez, and Max also carry Oman-approved clothing for absolutely reasonable prices.
3.) International brands like Zara, H&M, Mark’s and Spenser, Victoria’s Secret and Matalan can be found in most of the malls in Muscat. If you’re ah, bigger chested, Matalan carries bras up to an F size and they also have an extensive collection of swimwear, albeit most of it is located in their Avenues Mall location.
All that being said, the clothing items that I have found indispensable have been a few sheer, kimono-style cover up wraps that I ordered from outside of Oman. They are also easily found on Amazon and are made of rayon and viscose and easily layer-able with the light scarves that you can find everywhere in Oman. But truth be told, I’ve seen women who wear jeans in Oman in 120f weather. I’ve seen some Western women who have adapted to the bright-colored, sparkly, Indian-style dresses sold in the shops. And I’ve seen women in Muscat dress the same as they would in the States, peaks of cleavage and all, although I wouldn’t dare to do so in my little town.
If I am honest, dressing as an Expat woman in Oman can be difficult. Culture here dictates that you wear clothing so loose that you have no identifiable outline at all, and for me sometimes it feels shlumpy. I’ve compromised on recent trips to the store and into my office by wearing form-fitting workout pants and a tank top layered with a big, loose flowing cardigan (that goes down past my butt) and also a scarf around the front and the neck to minimize the chance of cleavage. Going out like this makes me feel less like I’m wearing pajamas or that I’m in a nursing home. I feel like, in Western fashion, the unspoken law is that either your top or your bottom can have baggy clothes, but going out baggy trousers and an oversized top makes one feel like they might as well put on a panda onesie and call it quits on life. And if you read my recent post on the sweet, sweet temptations inside Omani grocery stores, you’ll understand why that might not be such a bad idea.
On the positive side, providing that you follow the rules (and don’t worry, you’ll be asked to leave any mall or public space if you do not follow the dress code), Oman is a generally laid-back and nonjudgmental place as far as fashion goes. The majority of folks living here make much less money than you would expect, so unless you’re in certain neighborhoods in Muscat (or at certain bars), than you don’t have to worry about not being seen as fashionable. You can literally, go wild. The idea isn’t so much what style of clothes you wear, as it is important that you keep covered up.