An Open {Fashionable} Eye Abroad: A Note on Cultural Cues

Rachel McCave is an undergraduate student at NYU majoring in Anthropology with a double-minor in French and Politics. She has studied abroad for three semesters in Italy and France and hopes to further her travel after college. She aspires to work in the Foreign Service in Diplomacy or with the United Nations in International Development. Her interests lie in culture, music, literature, fashion, and foreign languages and her work experience is an array of fields consisting of PR, Education, Computer Science, and International Relations.

One thing I’ve learned from extensive travel is the importance of observation of dress: paying attention to how I style myself, in addition to the attire of local citizens, is key to understanding my place in a new country. Even if integration into a culture isn’t at the top of your to-do list when traveling, a surprising amount of information can be portrayed in your choice of clothing. Even regarding fundamental safety precautions in certain regions of the world, standing out as an American tourist can put you at a higher risk for pick-pocketing, more serious theft, or in extreme cases abduction or victim date-rape drug use. Feeling like a local extends far beyond the purchase of a beret or printed scarf to blend in with civilians in your country of choice, however the first step is noticing on how others dress around you and how you choose to dress yourself as a foreigner as a result of that. Specifically focusing on Europe, my preconceived notions prior to stepping foot on the massive continent dabbled between flashes of Valentino and Chanel, to flashes of jeans and sneakers because ‘everyone knew Europeans walked a lot.’ As a student on a budget, I worked to shape my attire based on these prior ideas, however my experience greatly shifted when I arrived…
Istanbul as my most (extreme) example of social costume clash in Europe proved to be the most challenging when it came to considering the local culture when I got dressed every morning. Short summer dresses, low-cut tops, bare shoulders and arms were an immediate NO when I caught glimpses of people staring as I roamed the streets. Evidently I was viewed as a tourist unaware of wardrobe customs, often affiliated with religion and tradition, however I felt just as uncomfortable as I made the locals around me when I showcased a long bare leg with matching naked arms decked out in bracelets: a scarf was not a large-enough accessory in this scenario. Although considered a widely Islamic country, Istanbul as a city is very cosmopolitan and upcoming; however the dress of the locals (even non-Muslim women) was not on par with young women in D.C. or New York, places I was accustomed to. I’m not arguing that prior cultural knowledge is vital to your travel style, nor am I saying that it’s completely necessary to change your entire ensemble upon stepping outside of the airport after taking a good look around: certain countries, even cities abroad, have established customs and styles of dress that enable American women to easily stand out and it’s important to be aware of these, while remaining true to your personal fashion.
Florence had more subtle differences in cultural fashion, although I was often scrutinized and criticized when wearing a crop top, or shorts with tights. Jeans and sneakers proved to be a relatively true stereotype in this piccolo citta when observing the locals and their garb of choice. Real problems arose when it came to dressing for night life: my advice for any young woman traveling abroad is to take caution when slipping on a tiny bodycon dress matched well with a pair of pumps when going to a bar or nightclub in a foreign. Although you’ll see a fair amount of other young women on a club mission in very similar styles, they’ll most likely be other American students who will later wonder why they’re harassed and catcalled so frequently. There are many ways to “dress up” without undressing, the best way to go out at night in an unknown country: a pair of heels, paired well with a jumpsuit or jeans, crop top and blazer still provide the amount of sexy with a hint of sophistication that’s often found in Italian nightclubs.
Paris as the notorious fashion capital of the world had mixed vibes: living in Saint-Germain flooded my line of sight with designer and haute couture, my perception was married to my preconceived notions of the style of Parisians. However, after taking a closer look, I noticed the diversity of style roaming the cobbled streets and boulevards. One unifying feature of Parisian style was the hue of color- generally speaking, everyone wore darker colors. In addition, heels and clubbing dresses were a large NO to the nightlife scene for most places; it was very relaxed but still a high-quality look to wear some sort of dark pant and a nice shirt for a night out. A few visits to Zara filled my attempt to look Parisian and blend with the local je ne sais quoi look found amongst average strollers. Eccentricity was another vital component of many passers on the street- unlike Istanbul or Florence, there would be a handful of mismatched patterns or oversized coats that added to the mix of Parisians.
That being said, as a strong advocate for individualism, I praise representing your own style and nationality wherever you travel in the world; however, a sense of understanding of how your clothing style interacts with that of the local one is the best accessory to add to your international wardrobe.

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