The Genteel
November 23, 2014
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Kurdish women in Turkey wearing the hijab headscarf. Source: flickr.com.

It was 50°C outside, air conditioning wasn't working, and I'd been sitting on the now-stalled Moroccan train for a total of eight hours….in trousers….and long sleeves. I sized up the women around me with a mixture of admiration and pure, painful envy; some wore hair-covering hijabs and head-to-toe dress, but others donned western-style gear such as capris and t-shirts. And then the tourists, well, for them all summer-wear was fair game.

Erin and a friend dressed in saris in India. 
Photograph courtesy of Erin Ridley.

This was the precise moment when I started to heavily weigh my decision to assimilate into what I thought was acceptable local attire. Not only were other foreigners doing no such thing, but neither were some Moroccans. As drips of sweat flowed down my back like a hot, sticky waterfall, I tried to make sense of this tricky fashion quandary. 

But there seemed to be no clear-cut answer. Should I put local fashion values above my own? Does my comfort or discomfort come in to play? What about whether I'm in a big city or a small village? When in more conservative countries, how does one - especially a woman - even begin to make the right decision based on these factors?

In a perfect world, it would be simple; we'd all respect one another's differences without judgment. As explains Joshua I. Miller in his study Fashion and Democratic Relationships, "The democratic ideal of mutual respect has at least two implications for dress. One is that people should generally accept, even appreciate, a wide range of others' dress choices; the second calls on people to dress with sensitivity toward one's potential audience." 

So it follows that when travelling we should consciously consider how our attire actually impacts those around us - whether it offends, shocks, arouses, and so on. And this is especially true in a culture to which we are not accustomed.

If only it were so easy.

Holly Khushal, a Dubai resident, is constantly on the lookout for cultural cues. "If people look at me oddly, I don't want that attention," she says, explaining that at bars she feels comfortable wearing slightly less conservative attire than at malls or in settings where the population is more Muslim. In doing so, she takes extra care to make sure she's covered up, whether with a shawl or a midi skirt. Holly even goes so far as to wear biker shorts under dresses lest they flutter up in the wind while she tends to her small daughter - all because, she says, "I don't want to offend locals."

Just as with those bars versus malls, the environment often dictates this decision - something I learned on my trip to Morocco, considered one of the world's most liberal Muslim-majority countries. With many eastern countries westernizing and becoming less conservative with their attire, metropolitan cities - from Marrakech to Mumbai - can be a mishmash of often-acceptable boundary-pushing fashion expression, making it that much more difficult to know the rules.

"When you choose an outfit for any occasion you must consider all factors when deciding on the final look," explains Psychologist Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. And this is something that shouldn't be any different when we travel. She adds, "The degree to which you assimilate [in another culture] is a personal choice and can vary from most to least restrictive, but you must consider the person, place, or function for whom/which you are dressing."

...the way we dress can reveal our understanding of a very foreign culture. It can subtly communicate to locals that we not only respect them, but are even interested in them.

Candace Rardon, who lives in New Delhi, India, thinks she may have found this nebulous sweet spot. By creating a mental "Venn diagram," as she explains it, Candace arrives at a comfortable crossover that works for both her and the culture in which she resides. In doing so, she prefers to blend her style by sporting garments like the salwar kameez - a dress-like tunic worn over pants - which she says, "transition well into my ordinary wardrobe."

Along these lines, Dr. Baumgartner also believes it comes down to more than just a mixture of comfort and respecting a different culture. "I think that being in another country is like being a guest in someone's home. As you would as a household guest, you should make efforts to behave as your hosts do, which includes dressing in a way that would make them feel comfortable."

Indeed, when in another country, the "democratic ideal of mutual respect" - as Miller explained it - isn't really a two-way street. We are in fact guests, and should therefore be especially flexible and sensitive to our hosts' opinions of, and reactions toward us. Adds Rardon: "As tourists and travellers, we're temporarily stepping foot into their home - and should demonstrate our understanding of that even through what we wear."

And maybe that's the most valuable lesson of all - more meaningful than how we feel, or what the context is; the way we dress can reveal our understanding of a very foreign culture. It can subtly communicate to locals that we not only respect them, but are even interested in them. Because, embracing local customs like dress, Rardon says, "feels like an important way of signaling to locals that I'm trying to recognise and respect their traditions and culture."

In the end, "it's all about building little bridges with people," she adds. And when it comes to travel or integrating into foreign cultures, that should perhaps be our top fashion priority. That way, we'll feel comfortable even when sweating on hot, broken trains.

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