How Much Do You Try To Dress Like a Local When You Travel?


Whenever I travel, I at least make the attempt not to look like a blatant tourist. There are some places that you visit, that you will invariably look like a tourist. China comes to mind, Ghana might be another place to come to mind.

But, despite that, I still try to do my best to fit in. Wrong or right, when I travel through the Middle East (as I have been liking to do, lately), I grow a beard. When I travel to most cities, I wear dark clothes, either suits, or at least dark jeans and a sports jacket, and more arid climates, I generally wear lighter clothes–kakhis, light shirts. Mind you, I’m not trying to fit in just to be cool, my reasoning is two-fold: (1) I want to reflect my respect for the people and culture that I am visiting, and (2) fitting in generally enhances security, whether from pick-pockets, or worse (a sad fact, but the way of life).
All that said, planning for my trip to Chile, I was reminded of a friend and my discussion some months ago, of his experience visiting Russia during the Cold War. He and his team were visiting Moscow, in a crowded market and were picked out of the crowd by the folks they were intending to meet for two reasons: (1) They were looking up (it was a sad time for Russia, so many were looking down), and (2) their shoes.
Often times, I think many of us, consider what type of clothing may be appropriate to wear in a particular destination, this may just be colors, or it may extend to fabric or style. But until the aforementioned conversation, I never really thought about my shoes. In hindsight, it’s total common sense. But, for me at least, it takes a lot for me to break in shoes, and I don’t give them up until they are falling apart. As far as the body language, that’s something that takes a lot of practice to adapt.
How much do you alter your attire or appearance to fit in when you travel?


13 thoughts on “How Much Do You Try To Dress Like a Local When You Travel?

  1. I share you feelings about trying to not stick out like a tourist. And I also agree about sticking out in China. Regardless of my dress, as a white guy I’m never going to look like a local. It actually frees me to not worry about it. In Europe I feel more pressure to dress the part because I actually could look local if I try.

    • @Mason – that’s another way to look at it… I find more often than not, if I can’t look like a local, I try to at least look more like an expat than a tourist…. but, there are some areas where I just don’t bother, e.g. Bali.

  2. The place I go most often is Italy, and I can’t look completely like a local, because women my age in Italy usually wear very high heels, something I’m not willing to do.

    OTOH, wearing a nice scarf around your neck (as a female) helps to fit in there. Since it’s something I enjoy doing, anyway, I always pack several to wear when I go out.

    For some reason, though, I do tend to be picked out as local. I have NO clue why, unless it’s because I tend not to LOOK as uncomfortable as I may actually be. One of my proudest moments was when an Italian man asked me for directions, as I was sitting and eating lunch near Trevi Fountain. I did my best shoulder shrug, so as not to give away the fact that I had no clue what he was asking, other than “Dov'” which means is “where?”

    • When I was in Italy a while back, I was mistaken as Italian multiple time, French once, and German once. Apparently I look really helpful to Europeans.

    • @MickiSue – sometimes the way you carry yourself matters just as much, if not more, to looking like a local, as compared to dressing like one. I usually channel my New Yorker upbringing (aka confidence with a determined look, to put it nicely), especially if I’m not feeling terribly confident in an area (like trying to find the right train platform in Delhi when there are tons of people trying to scam you).

      • Ha, that reminds me–last time I was in Manhattan on business and walking back to my hotel, somebody mistook me for a local and asked for directions to some random place. I was flattered.

  3. I found some products from Rohan I cannot travel without such as their travel pants. I have already 4 pairs and can’t imagine packing jeans…

  4. I still have the Jordanian keffiyeh I wore while exploring Petra and it’s one of my prized souvenirs. I wore it in downtown Chapel Hill one Halloween and in addition to a dozen or so “Hi Saddam!” / “Hi Osama!” type of comments, I was enthusiastically greeted by a Jordanian native who was happy to see someone donning his native headgear.

    • @pfdigest – hah!! I’ve had a similiar enthusiastic experience you mention happen wearing a Ghanaian shirt someone on a Friday… can’t remember where, but, we have a nice sized Ghanaian community in Northern Virginia.

  5. I am a woman who travels alone to developing countries. I am also tall and have red hair so fitting in in these countries is just not going to happen. I try to dress respectfully. Loose pants, long-sleeved shirts and I always carry a scarf to wear on my head if needed.
    I have often seen women tourists in these countries wearing very little and get denied entry to mosques, temples, churches etc. In fact, I was recently in Cambodia and they have very strict rules that require women to have covered elbows and knees in places of historical significance and a scarf wasn’t acceptable, it had to be a shirt or skirt/pants so I saw lots of women sitting outside while their groups where touring areas.
    I also try to purchase whatever the traditional native dress in a country might be as a souvenir and if I have an opportunity to wear it while in the country I always do.
    I will never fit in in the places I love to travel to so I just aim for respectful, non-descript dress.

    • @Beth, I am tall 6 footer brunette and in the 15 years I have lived in Asia: Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and now China, I have also simply been myself. As an ESL certified teacher, I dress respectfully adapting to the cultural ways of the country. It does not really matter where I am, I am always approached, mainly because of the height factor. I’m also a naturally friendly person and try to ask and answer questions irregardless of knowing the language. Shrugs and smiles work. A lot.

  6. Pingback: Chai Digest: Drawing Straws, Exaggerated GPS and more - Rapid Travel Chai

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