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The question of what to wear while traveling can be fraught.
When my boyfriend Nick visited me in Mexico several months ago, he wore the most comfortable clothes he had, not giving anything else a thought: chacos, camo shorts made of technical fabric, and a hip bag — which was meant for cycling but too closely resembled a fanny pack for everyday wear, in my opinion.
Despite my better judgment reminding me that no one cares, I worried this would make us stand out. I didn’t want to be one of them. Tourists.
Travel writer Valerie Stimac understands. The connotation of being a tourist — which Stimac describes as “someone who doesn't necessarily get outside their own culture while traveling, even in other cultures or countries” — is enough for her to want to avoid looking like one.
Growing up in Alaska, Stimac could always tell who was visiting from out of town. “They had brand-new white sneakers and stood on the corners of intersections looking confused,” she says. “Anchorage, Alaska, is not a big town, and they usually stay right in the heart of it.” Today, she refuses to buy white tennis shoes. “I also try to be respectful of the correct attire when traveling, when possible. I usually go for European neutrals. Loads of black items with a couple colors mixed in, a leather jacket, and a scarf.”
Having decided to live in Mexico for four months, and being an American-born Mexican, I did something similar. I wanted to blend in. I didn’t want to look too sporty, or too flashy, or like I was trying too hard. Instead of buying new clothes, I brought most of my tired-out wardrobe with me, consisting of jeans, neutral tops, and plain dresses — nothing too conspicuous. No fanny packs.
The stereotype of the khaki-shorts, white-sneaker-wearing tourist is one that many of us try to avoid. Travel blogs seem to unanimously share the goal of helping readers avoid looking like a tourist. “10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad,” declares Smarter Travel. Condé Nast Traveler even has a series of articles focused on how to not look like a tourist in specific destinations.
For decades, the tourist trope has been depicted in media. It’s something many of us have noticed when we’re traveling abroad. It feels like you can spot tourists from a mile away, so of course that’s the last thing we want for ourselves.
Despite the economic power of tourism — the fact that entire countries and regions often rely heavily on tourism as the basis of their economy — somewhere along the way, tourists got a bad rap. We tend associate them with being uncultured, unwilling to go on the “path less traveled,” and generally being uncool.
In fact, our aversion to being (and looking like) tourists has gone so far as to give birth to a replacement term: travelers. CNN’s Lilit Marcus wrote about this in July. In the case of tourism, it's hard to not judge a book by its cover. How you look, and specifically how you’re dressed, conveys things to the outside world about who you are.
Mariellen Ward, a Canadian blogger who now spends half the year in India, knows this firsthand.
“Right from the beginning, I wore traditional clothing,” says Ward, who is white. “I get a very good, warm response from people. The clothing gives them a clue that I’m a little more serious than maybe a backpacker who just got off the plane.”
Before traveling there for the first time 12 years ago, Ward spent a year doing research by reading travel blogs, where she took a suggestion to buy a Punjabi suit, a traditional three-piece outfit that comes from the Punjab region and is widely worn by Indian women.
“We have a huge Indian population [in Toronto], so I bought two Punjabi suits to take with me,” she says, “and I went shopping almost immediately when I got there.”
In India, she has friends and a family she stays with, and is treated, for all intents and purposes, like any other Indian local. Her clothes, she told me, has a lot to do with her experiences.
Tom Wahlin, who tests and reviews travel gear at his site, Packhacker.com, also avoids what we considers tourist clothing. “I think cargo pants are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to traveling. You see people and you automatically know: That guy’s traveling or that guy’s a tourist.”
He’s been on the road working remotely for a year and a half in places like Sydney, Bali, Las Vegas, and Warsaw. Living out of a 40-liter backpack, he has learned a lot about travel clothing, including what qualities are best for both looking presentable and blending in with locals.
“I look for things that are versatile, that I can wear to dinner but then go out on a trail,” he says. “I ask, ‘Is it lightweight, does it look good, and is it functional?’” One of his favorite brands is Outlier, which he says makes options that look like normal everyday clothes but are more durable than most. “I think Outlier is a good example [of what I look for]. I would say it’s a little bit fashionable, but they look like normal pieces of clothing, yet they have high functionality.”
There’s a hyperspecialized segment of travel clothing brands that everyone I spoke to is weary of: the cargo pants that convert into shorts, money belts, and anti-pickpocketing gear that you might find at online stores like Magellan’s.
“You can buy clothing that’s specifically designed to prevent being pickpocketed, but you don’t want to get pickpocketed in New York or in your hometown either,” says Abe Burmeister, cofounder of menswear brand Outlier. “We avoid that kind of stuff.”
While Outlier isn’t travel clothing per se, the brand uses lightweight, water- and odor-resistant, and quick-drying fabrics. Merino wool, for instance, makes for great clothing for everyday and travel, Burmeister says. He doesn’t like the idea of clothing that’s specific for traveling. “From our perspective, everyday clothes and travel clothes are really the same. You shouldn’t wear anything traveling that you wouldn’t wear at home.”
Nevertheless, a demand for travel-focused clothing brands has emerged that caters to people seeking to not look like tourists. Kate Boyer, founder of the brand Anatomie, says she thinks the market for stylish, travel-friendly clothing is growing. She might be right, given that the number of international tourists is expected to grow to 1.8 billion in just over 10 years (and more than half of international trips are for leisure rather than business).
Setting out to reimagine the perfect travel wardrobe for women, Boyer and her husband launched Anatomie in 2006. “We wanted to create a brand that was timeless, comfortable, and stylish so you don’t feel like an American tourist in your white sneakers and your Lululemon leggings,” Boyer says.
Anatomie aims for its customers to blend in while feeling comfortable. The brand’s clothes are designed with technical, easy-care fabrics — which mean no shrinking, no dry-cleaning, and no wrinkles — that are breathable, moisture-wicking and UV-protective.
“And they’re appropriate for travel because they pack so light,” Boyer says. “Fifteen pieces are 7 pounds, and for a weekend getaway [wardrobe], six or seven pieces are only 3 pounds.”
The color palette is neutral, she says, “and they’re easy to dress up or down, which makes them more versatile for any kind of travel.” Pieces range from $68 on sale to more than $300.
People who travel will often tell you that every destination draws a certain type of person, so it’s no surprise those visitors dress a little different, too. In Arizona’s ranch resorts, they dress up in Western wear. In Hawaii, they dress in brightly colored aloha shirts and shorts. In Oaxaca, Mexico, where I currently live, which draws tourists with its textiles, food, and culture, tourists dress a little more earthy, wearing Palazzo pants or hand-embroidered shirts they just picked up from local artisans.
“You can always tell the tourists because they have these crisp, brand-new traditional shirts on,” my roommate says. She’s lived in Oaxaca City for a year. “And they are carrying around these huge daypacks that make them look like they’re on an expedition.”
The truth is that standing out as a tourist can have negative implications. During her time in India, Ward recalls how tourists were treated differently depending on how they dressed.
“I was staying at a guesthouse in Bundi, Rajasthan, and was sitting on the steps one day when a young woman came up with her boyfriend,” she says. “They were middle-class Australians, slumming it in India. They were wearing soiled, rumpled hippie clothing, and [the owners] turned them away. At first I thought it was because they were out of vacancies, but they didn’t want those people to stay there.
“Indians are the most modest people, but they also take so much pride in being clean and well-dressed,” Ward says.
Doing research on your destination and understanding the culture, customs, and, yes, even the local dress codes goes a long way in respecting the locals and keeping from sticking out, she says.
But in most situations, it’s not all about the way you dress. Sometimes your race can be a dead giveaway that you’re not a local. CNN’s Marcus wrote: “If you're a different race or ethnicity than most of the people around you, you'll probably stick out whether you know the proper way to drink coffee or not. If you don't speak the local language and can't get to know the residents, people may not care how far you went out of your way to avoid major tourist attractions.”
That’s true, Ward says. As a white woman in India, it would be hard for her to blend in, but the traditional Indian clothing she wears signals something to locals. “I don’t get jumped on the way other tourists do. There’s a lot of con men, rickshaw drivers, and vendors who go after tourists. That doesn’t happen to me, and part of that is the clothing,” she says.
Perhaps the biggest fear we have about looking like tourists is that we don’t want to be associated with bad tourist behavior. Regardless of what you’re wearing, locals can sense this type of behavior, writes everyone’s favorite travel guide Rick Steves: “Those who are treated like Ugly Americans are treated that way because they are Ugly Americans. They aren't bad people, just ethnocentric… You'll see plenty of Ugly Americans slogging through a sour Europe, mired in a swamp of complaints. Ugly Americanism is a disease…”
A good place to start when traveling is to not be an asshole who expects everyone in a foreign country to know English just to accommodate you. From there, how you dress is up to you. In the end, it didn’t matter what my boyfriend wore during his time in Mexico. Once he made conversation with people, clothing was secondary.