An Illustrated Style & Packing Guide to Cape Town

Cape Town is the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited. It’s almost frustrating how quickly I formed that opinion. All it took was a 90 minute hike up Lion’s Head Peak for a 360 degree view of the city, surrounded by ocean and wrapped up in clouds rolling off the pacific, to know that this place was unlike any other I’d been. Perched at the end of the continent and bathed in constant sun, the street style of Cape Town is as unique as the city itself. 

People watching from the balcony of a Kloof Street beer bar on a Friday night, the color and print and energy I witness is mesmerizing. As is the individuality Cape Town’s citizens dress with. There’s no overall uniform to the city, no dominating trend that sweeps across Capetonians. There’s a desire to bring personality into streetwear, be it through a pair of oversized red sunglasses or a fluorescent floral shirt.  

Unlike other cities I’ve visited, the men on the street jump out to me most. They wear leisure suits and bold prints, pristine sneakers and shined up loafers. It’s not just women who are cultivating a look, and often when a couple walks hand-in-hand it’s a two-person battle for who’s bringing the most style that evening. 

I visited Cape Town in mid-March, just after Autumn started, and will describe the overall fashion patterns I saw during that time. There are few style rules to follow other than be yourself and get inspired. 

  • Color Palette: Bright, saturated colors. I see canary yellow, papaya, fuschia and cerulean. When neutrals do appear they’re in spotless white and black. This is not a muted city. Its color palette is as vibrant as the houses in Cape Town’s Bo Kaap neighborhood. 
  • Prints: Florals. Stripes. Ankara, batik and Dutch wax prints (what the West recognizes under the generic moniker of “African prints”). Unlike the stereotypical Portlander living in plaid or the Parisian in a black and white striped shirt, no one print summarizes the city. The overall trend I pick up on with print is to wear whatever makes you smile. 
  • On top: Men wear button-downs tucked in and sealed up to the neck or hanging loosely and left undone to the chest. Bold graphic tees and deep v-necks are worn underneath denim jackets or blazers. Women wear fitted tees and tanks, and I notice a fair number of cropped tops, revealing a few inches of skin above high waisted skirts or jeans — Just enough to look both intentional and sultry. I also spot a variety of jumpsuits, ranging from fitted all the way down to full and flowing. 
  • On bottom: For men it’s denim denim denim. But, not boring denim. I’m talking denim in shades of salmon, aubergine, scarlet and lime. Sometimes it’s a skinny fit, sometimes it’s a wee bit baggy on top and scrunched throughout the lower leg. Often it’s worn cuffed at the ankle to put the choice of footwear on display. If a man isn’t sporting denim they’re seen in slim joggers, printed trousers and tailored suit pants. Women wear skirts of all shapes — Minis that show off the thighs, fitted and slitted knit pencil skirts, maxis barely missing the floor. There are also draped pants, painted on skinnies and denim short shorts. I see women of all sizes rocking crop tops and minis, so if you feel comfortable, do it. 
  • Shoes and Accessories: The accessories in Cape Town aren’t shy. Men wear polished leather shoes, sneakers that demand attention and trendy sandals. Hats are especially common, particularly wide brimmed ranchers, and men often have a bag on them — Not a backpack or heavy messenger bag, but a tote or more commonly, a small crossbody tucked just under the armpit. Women wear scarves loosely across shoulders or knotted to pull hair up. On their feet are gladiators, slip-on sneakers, and lace up sandals. Costume jewelry like chandelier earrings, beaded necklaces and jangly bangles gives an outfit even more pop. 
  • Hair and Makeup: Hair styles are unique to the wearer. There are box braids piled high on the head. Locs (formerly known as dreadlocks) that are loosely pulled to the side or hang past the shoulder. Shaved heads on women and long hair on men. Distinct edges and sharp high tops. Like many beach towns, makeup isn’t harsh. A nude or dark lip may appear on occasion, but I don’t see heavily done up eyes. 

10 Items to pack:

  • A colorful top or onesie: I love the vibrancy of Cape Town, and being able to match its spirit in fashion is such fun. Sure you’ll want to pack a classic white tee shirt or black v-neck to have on hand, but throw in a color you wouldn’t normally wear on a Monday. 
  • Printed tops: Don’t stop at bringing some color with you, load up on prints as well. I love prints and have a closet full of them. Some cities are decidedly non-print friendly so have some fun and don’t be afraid to mix prints. Because if you can get away with it, why not? 
  • Sunglasses: Sunglasses are a necessity. The city has a mediterranean climate, with warm winters and hot, dry summers. When it’s sunny it’s really sunny. If you’re taking the time to climb table mountain (or just funicular to the top), you’re going to need some sunnies to fully take in the view. 
  • Maxi dress: A maxi is so versatile in warm weather. It doesn’t restrict you during the day, it’s easy to toss on if you’re headed to the beach and it can easily transition to night. Toss on a loose and forgiving maxi then go get your fill of bunny chow and milktarts. 
  • An easy day dress: A knit dress is a no-brainer for a coastal city. When most of your time is spent outdoors a simple outfit is a good outfit. The city isn’t a highly formal one so no need to worry about pressing pants before heading out the door. Pack a piece that goes from your bag onto your body without any fuss. You’ll fit right in with the locals, no stress involved. Who doesn’t want that on vacation? 
  • Loose pants: Wearing pants in my twenties meant wearing skinny jeans — delving into wide legged pants in my thirties was a game changer. Autumn in Cape Town means 70s/80s during the day and the coastal sun is a hot one. A pair of pants that breathes in all the right places is vital, and prevents the awful back-of-the-knee sweat spots of skinnies. 
  • Sandals: In the heat the feet need to breathe. I’ve mistakenly packed ballet flats for hot and humid regions and my feet still hold grudges from those days. I have yet to come around to the traditional Birkenstock, but I’ve fallen in love with their Papillio sandals. It’s the same cork footbed so my feet aren’t screaming at the end of a day, but with a more delicate overall style. 
  • Statement earrings: Punchy accessories are how Capetonians round out an outfit. My regular travel go-to accessory is a statement necklace, but when wearing a lot of print, earrings are an easy way to finish a look without overpowering or clashing with what’s on top. 
  • Bathing suit: You’ll swim in Cape Town. Trust. Whether you’re jumping into its famed beaches or relaxing in the pool after a long day in the sun, you’ll want a swimsuit in your suitcase.  As I’ve traveled, I’ve found that if I’m going somewhere hot and have no intention of swimming, I’ll still pack a swimsuit. I talked my husband into packing one for our trip to Africa and he was incredibly grateful I did. 
  • Book: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah; Throughout the country we had multiple locals bring up this book in conversation. It means something to the people of South Africa. Trevor Noah tells the story of apartheid, and how its scars shaped his childhood in Johannesburg’s townships. I’ve read this since my trip and it’s funny and brutal and heart breaking and is, as the country’s citizens will tell you, mandatory reading. 
  • Optional (but you won’t regret it) 11th item: A hiking outfit. Hiking Lionshead was one of my more rewarding South African experiences. I wasn’t ready to buckle up for a half-day hike up Table Mountain that would wipe me out and leave me sore the next day, but I was eager to get a birds-eye view of the city and oh my it was gorgeous. A workout like this does require hiking shoes or sturdy sneakers and some clothes you’re willing to get dirty, but if you’re physically able and have the suitcase space, I’d say it’s a must. 

Take the Chapman’s Peak Drive for awe inspiring oceanside views. Ferry to somber Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent decades imprisoned. Hang with penguins at Boulders Beach. Learn about apartheid at the District Six Museum. Eat koeksisters and drink rooibos during high tea at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel. There’s so much to do in Cape Town and never enough time, but no matter how short the visit, it’s impossible to miss the city’s beauty. 

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