Would you wear a sari to the opera? Or a djellabah to the market?
Do you try to blend in when you travel by looking like a local?
In some countries, wearing local clothing is a great idea. In others it's a no-no. As for blending in, it depends on how much you want to call attention to yourself. Each country is different but these two principles are a starting point:
Strangely for such a seemingly innocuous issue, there are layers of answers.
First, there's the question of national dress - the sari at the opera or the djellabah at the market. Is that a good idea?
So yes, if you feel comfortable in local clothes, by all means rush out and buy some. Just beware of the cultural faux-pas that can result. That cute long ‘granny skirt’ you picked up for a song in an Indian market? It’s actually a sari petticoat and no self-respecting Indian woman would ever be caught wearing that on the street – it’s like going out in your underwear.
Wearing local clothing isn’t acceptable everywhere, however. In the Gulf States most foreigners dress as they would do at home. In China, a foreigner wearing a qipao will probably turn heads, since the traditional dress isn’t something you’ll see on the streets of China anymore (other than at a wedding or on TV). Chinese women prefer their jeans.
In some (few) countries you’ll have no choice.
For example if you’re visiting Iran, you’ll have to wear a manteau, or chador, and a scarf on your head. I have friends who won’t travel to certain countries because they refuse to dress locally.
From a Western perspective it is also tempting to look at these items of clothing as signs of oppression, of keeping women in their place. But things aren't that simple. Some of my Muslim friends wear headscarves yet are the most liberated and visible women in their professions. Others who dress like Westerners might rush home at lunchtime to cook hubby lunch. It’s not about the headscarf, or even about the clothes.
Finally there’s the issue of racism. Some cultures view foreigners wearing local dress as ‘cultural appropriation’ – almost a form of cultural theft or racism, at least in some circumstances. An interesting piece on this and the ensuing debate in the comments can be found here.
Mostly though, dressing like a local means trying to blend in.
Is that good advice?
Sometimes it is. Not only do thieves systematically target foreigners in tourist areas but women who look ‘foreign’ and call attention to themselves may attract more harassment from men who see them as ‘easy Westerners.’ This latter reason by the way is unfair, inexcusable and makes me cringe, but this is about reality, not rights.
There’s also a common belief – also sometimes true – that you’ll get better treatment as a local, or at least if you try to look like one. Again, this shouldn't be. But expats tend to get better treatment than tourists because they are seen as living there and as being part of the community. Not only is there a bonding aspect, but an expat might mean 'return business' whereas a tourist will leave and never return.
I hadn't even given this issue much thought until Fran Moreno-Randle, a reader of Women on the Road News (my monthly women’s travel ezine – please subscribe here if you haven’t yet!), raised it with me recently.
Here’s what Fran had to say:
“Now I do study up and learn about whatever country I'll visit… And I believe in being open to the differences in culture, including wearing a head scarf when necessary, not wearing shorts, discreet dress. But I see no reason to try to dress like a woman from France, Italy, China as I'm not fooling anyone plus I am proud to be an American.”
“Almost everyone says the same thing: Don't dress like an American, dress this way or that so you look like you are French. My reply is: The minute I open my Texas mouth, everyone will know I am from the USA!”
Fran has a point.
No way will you blend in unless you happen to be ethnically related to people in your destination. If you have pale blond hair but wear a djellabah, you will not look Moroccan. But you may look as though you live in Morocco and that, again, will result in different (though not always better) treatment.
How badly do you want to become the center of attention?
If you’re in a traditional Turkish village wearing shorts that are barely larger than a belt, expect to be stared at. This isn’t how local women dress and both men and women will wonder about your strange behavior – and in some cases react to it.
In an ideal world we would all have freedom to dress exactly the way we want, but we’re not quite there yet.
Assuming you've decided you do want to blend in - at least a little - here are some things you can think about.
If there’s one bit of sartorial advice that you’ll see consistently about dressing like a local, it’s to ditch the Nikes. The athletic shoes. Tennis shoes. People who live in a city (at least outside North America) simply don’t wear them unless they’re out jogging or heading to or from the gym. Nothing wrong with them - but you will immediately be recognized.
That said, travel involves a lot of walking and dainty little office shoes won’t cut it, a bit like wearing stilettos on cobblestones.
If this is an issue, just get a comfortable pair of walking shoes for city sightseeing (no one will begrudge you the Nikes to climb the pyramid or tramp across the forest). With ‘city’ shoes, you’ll still look like a foreigner but one who lives there as opposed to one who is passing through, if you care about that.
I like being comfortable. I’m often running from one thing to the next and I need something that will stay the race. If that happens to be a lovely and light pair of leather moccasins, then so much the better. But if it’s sneakers or runners, that’s fine too. Frankly I don’t really care if people think I’m a foreigner. That's what I am, after all.
I do draw the line at Crocs (which I wouldn’t wear in public anywhere) or flip-flops in a sophisticated urban setting, like Paris or Rome. Unless of course you want everyone to stare at your feet.
A few more dead giveaways
If you’re hoping to pass for a local, you’ll have no chance with any of these styles, which will instantly give you away.
Sometimes dressing like a local isn't about what you wear but how you wear it.
It may simply mean dressing more or dressing less – as in dressing up or down. If you’re in Italy chances are you’ll be underdressed because Italians look stylish even when they go out to buy bread. Conversely a European visiting an American mall may be overdressed and stick out just as much. Both of these are extreme generalizations but some societies are simply more formal than others. My Nigerian friends dress up to come over for coffee, whereas I'll saunter over in a track suit.
That really does depend on your 'visibility quotient' but here's what I do.
Bottom line: I’m me. I’m not going to become someone else when I travel. I will try to adapt and blend in because being unobtrusive means I can observe more and be observed less. That won’t happen if everyone is staring at my misconstrued outfit.
That said I’m not going to wake up an Indian beauty or an Arab princess overnight. Nor am I ever going to wear a full-face burqa, ever. I'd rather stay home. It's all a question of degree.