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 and what you are seeking from your travel experience. Each country is different but these two sartorial principles are universal:
- Be comfortable. If you feel like a trussed whale in a sarong, don’t wear one.
- Be appropriate. If you’re in a conservative country, don’t let it all hang out.
HOW TO DRESS LIKE A LOCAL. BETTER YET, WHY?
- Want to look more sophisticated? For all you know, your own usual look might seem sophisticated to locals – who might well wonder why you dress like they do when you can afford a range of Levis.
- Think you’ll get better service if everyone thinks you’re a local? Ask yourself this: will you sound like a local when you open your mouth or will your high school French make the waiter cringe?
- Feel you are shy and don’t want to call attention to yourself? Unless you’re perfectly at ease with what you’re wearing and look the part perfectly, you may end up the center of attention.
- Want to show you are a seasoned traveler, who has seen and done it all? Unless you nail this one, your effort might have the exact opposite result.
- Worry that you might be paying more as a foreigner? Most often you will be, no matter what you’re wearing.
- Come from a nationality that is disliked where you’re visiting right now? This reminds me of my backpacking days, when Americans (courtesy of the Vietnam War) sewed Canadian flags on their backpacks and pretented to be from Toronto… Not a lot of people fell for it and lies wear thin fast.
- Just think it’s fun?
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?
- In South Asia a salwar khameez – a loose tunic and long scarf over pants – is comfortable and will demonstrate a certain respect for local traditions. I wore this throughout a trip to Bangladesh and while I was clearly a foreigner, I felt utterly comfortable. It is also common in India.
- In Southeast Asia a sarong is always practical, although it isn’t exactly street wear, more for the beach.
- In North Africa you might want to try a djellabah, a loose coat you wear over your clothes (I often wore one when I lived in Algeria, but times have changed).
So yes, if you feel comfortable in local clothes and it is appropriate, by all means rush out and buy the latest local fashion. 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 scarf over your hair. A few years ago, you also had to wear a manteau, or chador, although these days that’s no longer necessary: long pants with a tunic that covers your hips and elbows will be fine. Some Western women won’t travel to countries where you have to cover your hair.
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 midday 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 that sets out some of the interesting points on this debate can be found here.
THE ISSUE OF BLENDING IN
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 is, by the way, unfair, inexcusable and makes me cringe, but it is the reality.
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 weekly women’s travel newsletter), 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.”
“Almost everyone says the same thing: Don’t dress like an American, dress this way or that so you look like you are French. But 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.
Ask yourself this.
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.
TRAVEL TIPS ABOUT FOREIGN DRESS CODES
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 avoid 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. Also, mores everywhere are changing and on my last visit to Paris, I did see plenty of sports shoes in the city, on very Parisian feet. It still tends to be the student crowd, however.
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 even 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 in a foreign country. 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 an urban setting. 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.
- Wearing your daypack on your chest. You can be sure anyone doing this is from North America (with a smattering of other Anglo-Saxons thrown in). Dress in the city with a shoulder bag and if safety is an issue, wear one that slings across your chest. Not ideal, but better than the daypack. You’ll still look like a foreigner. (I use the Pacsafe Citysafe 200 Gii handbag – in fact I have two!)
- Bum bags. Nuff said.
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, an urban 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.
SO HOW DO YOU FIND THAT BALANCE BETWEEN LOCAL AND YOKEL?
That really does depend on your ‘visibility quotient’ but here’s what I do.
- I do my research before I go and read up on local customs before I pack.
- When I get to my destination, I ask. I ask women and girls what they think I should do. Would it be appropriate for a foreigner like myself to dress like a local? Would it be insulting?
- I use local accessories, a shawl or scarf or poncho that is clearly a locally made product. I might use a local scarf with my jeans, for example, or a locally made bag. It won’t make me look any less foreign, but if I’m wearing it, it means I’ve been there at least a day.
- First and foremost I look for comfort, followed by its close second, appropriateness. If I have to walk around town for hours, chances are I’ll wear my athletic shoes (unless I brought those cute and comfy leather moccasins). If I’m going to a fabulous restaurant around the corner from my hotel, I’ll be pulling on my city or evening shoes.
- And finally, there’s the issue of respect. If I’m in a conservative society, I will dress accordingly, covering shoulders and legs with loose-fitting clothes. I don’t want to insult people in their own home and if I disagree with their clothes, I do have the choice of staying away.
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.
— Originally published on 23 March 2015