Practical travel clothing – how to not look like a tourist
December 1, 2016
Tips for neutral dressing while travelling. To help you blend in, have more authentic experiences, and avoid negative attention.
There are a lot of travel articles on how to dress stylishly while travelling and I’m all for encouraging confidence and self-expression. There is a time and a place for cute summer dresses and strappy heels but for me backpacking is not it. When I dress for a backpacking trip my number one goal is to be invisible.
I want to put a disclaimer here, women should have the freedom to dress however they want! I am not suggesting that you must follow these rules to stay safe, or prove your virtue. The fact is countries have different levels of progressiveness towards women and choosing to respect local customs will go a long way to making your trip more pleasant. These are techniques I have developed over years of solo travel. Feminist, maybe not, but it is an easy way of connecting more with locals.
There are a lot of reasons you might consider dressing down while travelling. Fitting in and flying under the tourist radar has a wealth of benefits. Including meeting more locals and observing customs outside of the usual tourist sphere. As well as making life easier by minimising negative attention and not being a target for thieves.
Here are four reasons to avoid standing out and some things to consider when planning a neutral travel look.
Don’t be culturally inappropriate – In some countries there are religious associations to certain clothing. Showing respect for your host country’s customs will help you avoid negative attention. Try doing an image search to see what kind of clothing is being worn. Most guide books will have tips on what to wear. For instance in Muslim countries it is usually expected for women to cover their shoulders and knees in public. To fit in with locals you can buy clothes at your destination. Even if you dress modestly you may still receive stares in some parts of India but be more accepted if you are wearing a shalwar kameez. A quick internet search before you leave should give you a basic guideline to dressing respectfully.
Don’t dress like a tourist – It’s hard not to stand out as a tourist but putting in a little effort here is a great way to see a different, less transactional side of your host country, meet more locals and have authentic experiences. For instance, in many parts of Europe white runners and socks are not worn outside of sports and are a great way of branding yourself as a tourist. Shorts are considered for children in many parts of Asia and immodest clothing will make you stand out in the Middle East. Another thing that makes you stand out is branding and slogans on clothing. Flags, sports teams, universities and inappropriate slogans or symbols all scream tourist.
Don’t attract sexual attention –From just a bit intrusive to downright scary sometimes, we could do with less attention. Unfortunately how we present ourselves can affect our safety. I also find even in my hometown the more dressed up I am the more my perceived intelligence goes down. Appearing gullible is not something you need in an unfamiliar location. So I tend to save the cute outfits for when I am comfortable and familiar with my surroundings.
Muted colours are good to blend in, as are slightly loose fitting and modest clothing. It doesn’t need to be long sleeved, or nun-like, just not as much cleavage as you might be comfortable with at home. Make sure you are aware of the local clothing customs and carry a scarf in case you need to cover up. Even things like simplifying your hair and makeup can keep you under the radar. You need to find the happy medium between your own self-expression and respect for the cultural norms of the country you are travelling. Local women will also appreciate that you’re making an effort and be more likely to approach you if you are seen as respectful.
Don’t look wealthy enough to rob – When you’re backpacking you are often carrying everything you own in the world on your back and being robbed can be devastating! Not standing out as a tourist or showing your wealth makes you a much less attractive target. You can dress neatly and attractively without wearing designer brands and styles associated with the wealthy west. Don’t wear flashy jewellery and consider how you will carry your camera so it is not obvious when not in use.
How you carry things can also help. Fluffing around under your shirt with a money belt is a prime giveaway, take only the money you need for the day and lock up the rest of your valuables back at the hostel. I usually use a standard wallet but keep it in a zipped or inaccessible pocket. I also often ditch the day pack for a simple plastic bag, so I can carry essentials without looking like I have anything worth the bother of lifting.
If you are going to an all-inclusive resort or a city getaway with your girls, by all means, dress up to show off your sexy self but there are times this is just not appropriate. I once saw a group of young European women in downtown Cairo in spandex booty shorts. This is just disrespectful! Somewhere between the yoga Barbie and homeless look is a happy medium where you can feel confident.
My personal look leans a little towards homelessness, I know this because I have had random strangers hand me bags of food. For me, this is where I am most comfortable, almost completely invisible. My typical travelling gear involves no makeup, sneakers, baggy khakis, a light fleece or baggy black t-shirt, sports bra, beat-up fedora that I stuff all my hair up under and a backpack that has definitely seen a lot of the world. All well maintained and clean (at least when I set out). In this outfit people don’t try to sell me things, they don’t try to rob me, or grab my ass but I can still ask politely and get directions, or use a cafe's free Wi-Fi without stares of disgust. I don’t wear this every day, I have options but when in transit this combination makes me feel secure. It is physically practical for the rigours of travelling and doesn’t attract untoward attention.
When you’re planning a long trip, think about the practicalities of your wardrobe. Pack a mixture of cute outfits and practical modest pieces that can be layered depending on the needs of your environment. I’m not suggesting you go full homeless like me. With a little research you can discover what is appropriate in the countries you will be travelling through and mesh those needs with your own personal style to create a packing list that is the best of both worlds.