I’ve traveled the world and seen plenty of seriously weird or wacky sights along the way. Each new destination reveals the many quirks and habits of the welcoming culture, and I absolutely love that about travel. But weirdest of all is seeing American tourists wearing clothes that are so utterly out of place with their surroundings that you could spot them a mile away.
The trouble is, so can thieves, pickpockets, scam artists and I shudder to think who else. Not only that, many of the fashions that Americans bring with them to far-flung destinations can be downright offensive to locals, whose customs, religion or beliefs may completely clash with the way these brief visitors cavort themselves around town.
Personally, it’s a pet peeve of mine
In my opinion, one should never be able to pick a tourist from a local… based on what they’re wearing, anyway!
But as I traveled through the heart of Central America, I still managed to see plenty of Americans shining their beacon of ultra-touristyness to the whole world — and some of those places weren’t exactly the safest spots on the planet. Garish Hawaiian-style shirts, large DSLR cameras slung over their shoulders, hats that someone would only ever wear while on vacation, and those quintessential double-strap sandals that all Americans seem to be head over heels (pun intended) in love with.
Jump to Southeast Asia, and I’m seeing exactly the same thing. Cities where the locals dress in the latest Western fashions, with sharp suits and designer shirts, and then there’s an American slouching by with a faded t-shirt and cargo shorts. Or perhaps that infamous combo of sneakers and jeans, a.k.a. “Sneans.” I still cringe at the thought.
Personally, I see travel as a way to integrate into local cultures and connect with the people who make such destinations their home. Dressing in such a way that you look completely at odds with that culture will not only make those interactions very difficult, it will also make you a target for some of the seedier folks who unfortunately also inhabit the area.
So, before you pack for your next exotic vacay, here are a few key pointers on what not to wear while traveling.
This one should be a no-brainer for most seasoned tourists. Never wear bright, flashy or ostentatious jewelry while traveling, as it is a sure sign to local pickpockets and criminals that you’re a worthy target. Even if that jewelry isn’t actually of high quality or it’s just a cheap knock-off, ensure it remains out of sight when you’re in public, as criminals often won’t take the time to work out the difference before they strike. Besides, if you’re traveling in poorer countries, such an obvious show of wealth can be quite offensive to the locals.
Sneakers and sandals
You already know my view on sneakers, especially when they’re combined with jeans! But this isn’t just a fashion faux pas of terrible proportions — it’s also downright repulsive to many cultures… particularly the haute couture-crazy Italians and Spaniards. In these countries, sneakers are only worn on the sports field, and sandals are fashion items rather than practical footwear.
If you’re trudging around cities all day during your travels, invest in a comfortable yet classy pair of walking shoes. And if you must wear sandals, ditch the plastic and velcro and opt for high-quality leather instead. You’ll be surprised how much nicer the locals will treat you!
Chances are, during your travels you’ll want to check out at least a few cool cathedrals or religious attractions. Temples, churches, mosques — they all have one thing in common: visitors must be modestly clothed! That means shoulders covered, knees hidden and as little skin showing as possible. With this in mind, if you’re a lady, always carry a large silk scarf or shawl around with you just in case you want to step into a religious building or area and you need to cover your chest and shoulders. Incidentally, these can also be very handy indeed if the sun is beating down and there’s no shade to be found while waiting in those long lines.
If you’re a guy, opt for shorts of a slightly longer length, or invest in a classy pair of cotton trousers instead. I still remember when my boyfriend and I visited Istanbul for a couple of days and how he was so embarrassed about the fact that he hadn’t packed any pants. We didn’t see a single local wearing shorts the whole time we were there, and he became very self-conscious of his “outrageously” bared legs towards the end of the trip!
Overly colorful possessions
This one requires you to do a little research before you pack for your destination. While many cultures dress in super bright colors, others prefer more neutral colors like blues, grays and browns. Track down a few “representative” pictures of the locals, and judge your clothing color scheme based on that.
Remember, though, that this isn’t an excuse to adopt that quintessential American pastime of wearing all the same colors at once! No full-tan or khaki outfits, people! Unless you’re on a safari, that is.
This no-no may not be an option for many of the hardcore backpackers out there, but it’s definitely worth taking into consideration. While large backpacks or even day packs may be a convenient way to carry around your possessions while you travel, they also scream “tourist” to any would-be thieves and local scallywags. If you can, swap the backpack for a classier, more understated over-shoulder man-bag or small tote bag. This way, you can blend in a bit better with the locals but also keep a closer eye on your worldly goods.
Stay classy, adapt your fashions to the conditions, and you’ll travel smarter and safer!
— Liivi Hess