As I was packing for my recent trips, I realized that, of everything I was taking, my clothes were using up the smallest amount of space in my suitcase. I keep my wardrobe as simple as possible when I travel; I go for function and practicality over fashion. While I respect people who like to travel in more fashionable attire than me, I get a bit prickly over the suggestion that “real” travelers dress to blend in with the locals. You know you’ve heard this before; some stylish friend, just returned from Paris, explaining how one must never wear American gym shoes in Europe, or some highfalutin travel blogger declaring that one simply cannot go shopping in Milan without the most on-trend jeans and boots.
To that I say: Pshaw.
One of the things I like about living in Washington DC is that there are so many international tourists here. It’s part of what makes this city interesting; it’s like visiting another country without actually going anywhere. I particularly like to hear other languages as I walk down the street (and play the “name that language!” game), but it’s also fun to see what people from other countries are wearing. I don’t ridicule the sartorial choices of our visitors, I just observe them with interest, like an anthropologist of the Metro. I wouldn’t want them to try to dress like me while they’re here. So why shouldn’t that be true everywhere in the world? Why, in this teeming melting pot of a world, do we think we need to look like everybody around us?
I imagine this desire to blend in comes from some mixture of discomfort and insecurity, arising from being a foreigner in an unfamiliar place. Unfortunately, a little bit of discomfort comes with the travel territory. The trick is not to try to eliminate the discomfort, but recognize it as a sign that you’re not in Kansas anymore – so it’s time to absorb and enjoy the cultural differences around you.
Granted, there’s something to be said for not looking too much like a tourist, simply to avoid making yourself an easy target – but honestly, we make ourselves look like tourists more by our behavior (i.e., staring up at monuments) than by our clothes, and there’s really nothing we can do about that. And sure, sometimes it can be fun to dress a little more “local,” like throwing on a scarf when you’re in Europe. And sometimes you have to adjust your wardrobe to be culturally respectful (think head scarves in some Middle Eastern countries). But ultimately, and this is the most important point, you can only be yourself. If I fool someone into thinking that I’m Parisian because I’ve got my scarf tied just right, the gig will be up as soon as I open my mouth and my mangled French falls out. Frankly, I’d rather not fool people into thinking I’m Parisian at all, because – obviously – I’m not. I’m me. If that means a shopkeeper turns his nose up at me and my practical shoes, so be it. Take me or leave me, with or without my scarf.
Travel should allow you to be more like yourself, not less. And how can you be yourself if you’re dressed like someone else?