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#15 Dressing like the locals

January 21, 2011

This guest post comes to us from a reader named James.

A sure way to win the hearts and minds of your local colleagues is to dress like them. Or how you think they should dress… or how they used to dress before they started dressing like you do back home. By adopting their dress, not only are you showing your affinity with them, you are also respecting their country and culture. No matter that you’re half the height of Sudanese men, that jalabiya doesn’t make you appear small and ridiculous. No matter that you’re twice the size of Vietnamese women, you still look graceful and elegant in that ao dai. And you will be much more likely to blend in. The giggles you hear are the locals’ way of showing appreciation, and the stares are looks of true admiration.

Dressing like a local is a great indication of where you have lived once you’ve left. Who can help but notice the colleague in the canteen in New York, in her stunning salwar kameez? On closer inspection, you notice it’s tastefully complemented by huge wooden zebra earrings and matching necklace, hand-crafted by a Kenyan women’s cooperative; silk slippers made by a Pakistani disabled-persons’ NGO; a Cambodian krama scarf sewn by amputees; and a bag hand-woven by Guatemalan street-children. With one glance, you immediately know every country she has ever worked in, and she didn’t even have to open her mouth! “Oh, you’ve been to Cambodia too?!” you might ask her. The ensuing conversation will immediately enlighten you as to what a kind, good-hearted person she is — a true humanitarian.

More local than the locals, even.

So dress like the locals. As many have learnt, it’s the best way to connect with the local population, build lasting friendships, and show real appreciation and respect for the country you’re living in. Once you leave, your appearance proves immediately to everyone that you are a true citizen of the world.

Tip from Shotgun Shack here: If you’re embarrassed to ask the locals how to wear their clothes properly, eHow has some helpful advice on wearing African clothing and headwear, Abayas, the long dress that Muslim women wear and dressing in Asian styles.

It’s also a nice gesture to do some research on local dress if you find upon arrival to a new country that the locals have forgotten how to wear their traditional clothing (See #11 Explaining local culture to locals). For just a few hundred dollars, your church group or NGO can set up a small project to help the locals dress like locals. This helps them reclaim the cultural heritage and traditions that were lost in the past due to colonization.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Saskia permalink
    January 27, 2011 7:58 pm

    I find this article a bit lame. What’s the argument here? Are you saying Westerners should stick to ‘their ethnic clothes’ of jeans and tank tops made in China, wherever they are? Isn’t that just as essentialising?

    What exactly is wrong about women’s cooperatives, disabled-persons’ NGO s and projects employing amputees?

    And is the main objective of clothes always to look “elegant and graceful” and anything but “small and ridiculous”?

    The article has exactly the arrogant ‘been there done that’ tone that the site is mocking.

  2. Cristina permalink
    January 29, 2011 7:42 am

    ahah I love it!!

  3. Barry Funk permalink
    February 9, 2011 12:26 am

    Oh Saskia – lighten up. It’s a great article and well illustrated by the photo of the dude in rural Africa looking like a fool. The article doesn’t mock local clothes, it mocks the reason why foreigners wear them while travelling/working. They think they’re fitting in while they clearly aren’t – and doing so to seem better than the next expat.

    Sometimes western bodies are best covered by western clothes.

    I don’t think the author is suggesting that everyone should prance around in Beer Chang tanktops a la Kao San Road. Quite the contrary, those clothes are made for foreigners by locals (or outsourced to China) while the foreigners think that they’re fitting in.

    Chill out :-)

  4. February 13, 2011 3:18 pm

    So true. There’s time and place for everything. Including wearing local clothes. I used to wear local-style dress over my jeans not to get hit on every ten seconds (local men thought girls in jeans were easy) whenever I had to work in the villages, but would wear my usual Western garb in town. That said, I did go overboard when I came home… Got a bad case of I-used-to-be-an-aid-worker nostalgia and tried wearing African headwear to the office. Took me some time to get over that one.

  5. March 31, 2011 12:20 pm

    It’s not so much trying to dress as the locals do, but coming up with new outfits blended together. Like in India, you see so many expats wearing a bindi, ali baba pants, and linen shirt, but they will never wear a sari or a fashionable salwar kameez like the locals. Just sayin

    • Sarah permalink
      November 20, 2011 12:51 pm

      There is so much nuance to Indian clothing… but its so simple! pants, shirt, scarf. Done. So much shenanigans to trying to ‘appear to be a global citizen’ that they forget that they are somewhere. So I will wear the fresh off the presswalla salwaar kameez from the non-touristy side of town (better prices! and tailoring! and heck, its like wearing essence of pants, and it covers the fact that you have to wash your butt with water, and left a wet spot!) and I will wear jeans when I get home (I will wear what the locals wear!)

      I did wear this outfit (as usual) to the movies and my hindi speaking friend recounted the conversation across the way… “Is she American or Indian?” And I’m interested in that question… and if I had the Hindi (soon) to make the reply to the Indians wearing my culture in their country… “Are you Indian, or American?” might be the reply. And India is changing so fast that my culture may soon be their culture, if they wish it, but it still will be seriously sparkly, and still tailored, and fitting beautifully than most things the average American can afford.

  6. July 13, 2012 6:41 am

    This is spot on. The expats don’t realise that the local clothes are not a costume, and do have trends and do’s and don’ts like which kind of shoes go with which kind of clothes, etc. There was someone in our office wearing an emridered salwar kameez with a Tshirt underneath the top, with canvas running shoes!!

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