Our Guide to What (Not) to Wear When Travelling Abroad

Vivian Vassos | February 28th, 2018

Photo; The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

​Wardrobe, culture and travel. After the fallout, backlash and, sometimes, compliments Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (pictured above with Bollywood star Aamir Khan) experienced during his recent visit to India, we thought it might be worth opening the discussion of  being respectful of tradition abroad.

As Zoomer’s resident travel expert, I’m constantly asked what to pack: “Advice! I’m going to Bangkok for work! I’m doing research and will be out on the streets asking folks questions. What should I pack!” asked a good friend of me just last week. But packing when travelling – especially to countries where the religion, the dress code, the language and even the way facial expressions can mean completely different things – is more than just what you put in your suitcase.

But I started there: Be culturally sensitive. Good footwear is important but especially a pair with the ease of taking off and putting on often, as you can only enter Buddhist and many other temples barefoot. When you go to temples, your shoulders and knees should be covered (I’d say the same thing for someone who is doing a big church tour in Italy, or a mosque tour in Istanbul,too!), so pack a lightweight shawl that doubles as a sarong.

For my part, when I travelled to Myanmar, most women and quite a few men as well, wore a longyi, or traditional sarong. Not just at temples or monasteries, but everywhere. Knees and even ankles are usually covered. I did some research before hand, and knew of this cultural dress code, so I packed a series of long sarongs, and oversized printed shawls, and, yes, appropriated this style of dress – as a sign of respect. It was greeted with more than a positive attitude from the locals, and I was asked many times to stop so they could take my photo! They appreciated my respect for their culture. (That’s me, above, helping distribute alms to the local monks in a town along the Irrawady river). Interestingly enough, I was also travelling with others who chose not to conform to the custom, wearing short shorts! And, by the end of day two, you could see they were noticeably uncomfortable in their “rebellious” choices. By day three, they had purchased sarongs made by the locals, and seemed much happier and more comfortable for it.

I loved wearing the sarongs every day. I felt dressed up and culturally correct. It added a boost of confidence, too.

Yet, in a more recent moment, where I was outrunning the volcano in Indonesia in November 2017, I went by land and ferry from the casual Hindu island of Bali to the much more reserved Muslim island of Java, within hours, and not till I emerged from the back seat of the car to go into a gas station, did I realize what seemed like a modest sleeveless shirtdress in Bali, was a point for stares in Java. I quickly went back to the car and slipped on a long, cotton skirt under my dress, and the moment passed.

What’s more important is to pack a good attitude.

For my friend, I reminded her that the Thai people revere the Royal Family, and any sign of disrespect will be deemed offensive, so steer clear of those types of questions. As well, the top of the head is also revered, so no patting cute children on the head! Finally, showing the bottom of the feet is also deemed offensive, so no matter how tired your feet may be, resist the urge to prop them up on a chair or show them in any way.

So in that spirit, we put the question out to some of our contributing travel writers, to get their take on the Trudeau dress code debacle.

Bert Archer

Recently returned from: Ottawa, Munich and Dubai 

“On one of my visits to Doha, after a Qatari friend showed me a pretty dashing shot of him in a thobe, the traditional Qatari robes, I asked him what people would think if I went out and bought one to wear around when I was there.

“Nope,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to do that. People wouldn’t like it.”

We talked a little more and got to the nub of it, which I think is probably the nub of the distinction between fitting in while travelling and cultural appropriation. Ideally, you want to find out about a place, figure out how they do things where you are, so you don’t accidentally offend anyone or break the rules. So, take your shoes off when entering a masjid, or a Japanese home. Don’t jab your chopsticks into your bowl of uneaten rice when you’re not using them. But also don’t wear a kimono, a thobe, a kurta or, sweet merciful heaven, a sherwani if you’re just a prime minister travelling with your family. Here’s the simple rule: You don’t want to offend them, but you also don’t want to pretend to be them.

Rebecca Field Jager

Recently returned from: Costa Rica

“Brush up, but don’t dress up. It is one thing to acquaint yourself with a nation’s greetings of good will, dinner etiquette and the like but quite another to dress in what you perceive as their customary garb. Get it wrong, as the Trudeaus did, and you risk looking like the guy who didn’t get the memo about it not being appropriate to dress in costumes depicting cultural stereotypes at Halloween. Mind you, erring on the side of negligence is no better. I wasn’t thinking when I donned a skort to go on some excursion near Dubai. When we crossed the Oman border, my guide told me that, until we were well into the desert, it would be best if I didn’t get out of the car. Since then, I always pack a shawl or large scarf that can double as a head-covering or long skirt no matter where I go.

Viia Beaumanis

Currently In: Senegal, Africa

When in Rome? How is it inappropriate to wear the clothing of a region? Often, it just makes more sense, such as in India’s heat, why not don a light cotton tunic and trousers as they do? You see similar approach in Africa, Brit ex-pats wear kakois (african sarongs) with their dress shirts – because it’s cooler than pants. Also, looks chic for cocktail hour. Why would dressing in local regalia be viewed any differently than, say, an Indian wearing jeans and a polo shirt when they’re in the West? I also note that the ‘cultural appropriation’ goes one way. As with foreigners donning Western wear – at home and abroad – perfectly fine.

That appreciating a look equals an insulting or thoughtless ‘appropriation’ is ridiculous. One caveat: A friend and I had a chat about Pharell on a mag cover in an Indian headdress a couple years ago. I thought he looked awesome, she pointed out that that those headdresses are ceremonial and have meaning, each feather symbolic of a won battle or some such. In this, I concede, possible one should not wear Indian headdresses and bikinis to Glastonbury. So, with certain items that have a special, elevated symbolism, one should be judicious. Otherwise, I think it’s a bunch of nonsense, people should wear whatever they like and feel comfortable in, and borrowing from other cultures is often not just practical (cotton saris and kakois in hot weather) but inspiring. How boring would fashion be if everyone was made to ‘stay in their own cultural lane’? YSL lived in Morocco half his life, adored Berber culture, and incorporated it into numerous collections.

I’m in Senegal, Africa right now, writing by my hotel pool bar and a white lady just walked in with her black girlfriend, both wearing the traditional look of Senegal – full skirts and head wraps in colourful local fabric. No one’s offended or even noticing, except me, as we just happen to be having this conversation. Meanwhile, all the staff is in dress shirts and trousers – classic western attire. I’m off to a desert camp where I’ll eat local food and ride camels, possibly find a wonderful dashiki – and wear it! I also have a couple of cheongsam dresses in my closet back home, along with Moroccan coat, kaftans from Kenya, tunics from Egypt. A thousand Indian kurta, which I wear all summer long and while travelling anywhere hot – because they are pretty and practical.

We live in a global society. We routinely share each other’s style in every other way – food, music, decor. To reiterate, outside of some ‘use your better – more respectful – judgement’ angles: Like, maybe pass on partying in ceremonial headdresses while at a music festival, but rather enjoy the everyday garb and culture of a foreign country, even appreciating it so much that you adopt it into your own lifestyle – hello yoga! – is not disrespectful. In fact, it’s often the blending of diverse aesthics that adds to both. See: Marrakech for 1,000 sublime examples of that.

Toby Saltzman

Recently returned from: Cruising South America’s eastern coast from Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and up to Barbados  

As this South American itinerary touched many cities, I had to be sensitive with photography, particularly as Brazil has a huge and diverse aboriginal and African-Brazilian population that are irresistible to photograph. Rather than encroach on the locals’ privacy, I found that if I asked nicely, people usually allowed me to photograph them.

But as far as Trudeau and wardrobe, my best advice? Ask if there’s a dress code, and dress accordingly. Particularly important for events held in a church, mosque or synagogue where modest dress is de rigueur, bring a shawl to be respectful. Most important, you want to dress appropriately to be respectful to your host – and, especially if it’s a special event – to dignify the occasion and the culture of the host.

Key is to be appropriate, as elegant as the event deserves, without trying to outshine the host or wearing something that could be perceived as condescending or poking fun of the host’s cultural dress. Sometimes, I think it’s easiest to dress elegantly, and conservatively rather than glitzy and, if you like, accessorize with something relating to the culture. Say, in India, with a gorgeous swath of Indian silk as a shawl.

Recently at a Chinese New Year celebration, I saw a few guests (men and women) wearing flashy embroidered “Chinese style” jackets that they likely picked up in Asia. I’m certain that the hosts or attending dignitaries were not insulted, but, interestingly, the hosts were all dressed in current Western/continental: most in suits, dresses or pantsuits. As I was clad in all black, I nodded to the occasion by adding an Hermés scarf designed in traditional Chinese yellow with a bonsai pattern. (That pattern was designed for a celebratory year in Chinese history.)

If men’s dress calls for “jackets required” or “no flip flops or running shoes” or “dress shoes with covered toes,” expect to be turned away at the event if you do not conform. I recall a Royal invitation to lunch at Monaco Yacht Club that clearly stated “semi-formal dress jackets required.” As it was a hot Riviera day, one man in my group (who happened to be tall and heavy) had refused to bring a jacket. The entire group was kept waiting in the foyer for one hour while the staff searched the nearby tailor shops for a large size jacket.

As for me, my worst sartorial faux pas occurred on my first trip to Greece, decades ago. Our first night in Athens, my husband and I checked what’s happening with the hotel concierge. He said if we quickly run to the ticket booth around the corner, we may be lucky to get tickets to the Greek Opera being held at the outdoor amphitheatre the next evening. We ran, before checking into our room and scored amazing seats, in the centre, a few rows from the front! Not to waste a minute in Athens, our plan was to tour all day and eat somewhere en route to the opera. Expecting scorching heat, my husband wore his usual Tilley shorts, I an orange short set. As we approached the amphitheatre, it dawned on us that “outdoor amphitheatre” in Athens did not mean “casual dress.” Everyone approaching the gate was dressed in suits or glamorous dresses. There was no time to run back to the hotel to change. The ticket taker looked at us suspiciously, examined our tickets, and let us in. Turns out, this was opening night and we were seated amid dignitaries. We could hear people around us mumbling, “Americanos.” We didn’t tell them we are Canadians. Even worse, at intermission I visited the bathroom. Somehow, I took the wrong path back to my seat and suddenly realized that I was standing on the stage! I ran off the stage and, as I finally found my way back to the seat, people were clapping. I was so embarrassed. Bottom line, I should have checked how people dress for a night at the opera in Greece.