What Not to Wear – Respecting Local Customs Of Dress When You Travel

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The recent uproar around the world over a group of international travelers (including Canadian, Dutch, and British folks) who brashly posed naked for pictures at the top of Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia (considered a sacred summit) – ignited a hot debate that divides civilized people in to two camps. I’ll respectfully (well mostly respectfully) call them the “naively entitled” camp and “the gentle traveler” camp. Neither are terrible people but the “naively entitled” seem to hold the belief that if you are not physically harming someone or something, that what you wear around the world (or don’t wear for that matter) should be of no consequence to anyone else.

Obviously of course, not everyone agrees, as seen by the response of the Malaysian officials who detained the travelers for several days.

“Gentle travelers” on the other hand – do their best to be a welcome visitor in someone else’s country. Now I’m not suggesting that all the traditions and customs of all countries must be upheld by travelers to that place. Those that truly result in harm or outright oppression should not be accommodated with ease anywhere. But when it comes to showing respect for your host country by keeping your naughty bits covered, particularly in spots held sacred by locals – I can’t respect the lack of class or maturity it takes to do otherwise.

The golden rule of travel is that blending in and conformity are a form of flattery,” says Lisa Grotts, author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette. “Most countries will not expect you to be an expert on the nuances of their culture, but they will appreciate a show of interest in matters of importance to them.

If showing off your twig & berries is a travel must-do for you – there are plenty of places that will happily accommodate you. Here are a few general pointers to aid you in your travels (and your travel planning) on what is commonly acceptable where.

Countries With Places You Can Happily Go Starkers

Exhibitionists and naturalists can let loose and enjoy a cool breeze on their junk in a variety of public spots within a few liberal countries. Spain has no laws against non-sexual nudity and so beaches, parks, pools, saunas, (and of course any designated naturist areas) are full of people resplendent in their natural glory. Germany as well is quite relaxed about public nudity, as are most enthusiastically the Nordic countries (Denmark, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden), where they appear quite happy for you to drop trou (non-sexually of course) in various similar locales.

Designated naturist or clothing optional areas (mostly on beaches) can also be found in many other countries including Canada, the US, France, Brazil, Australia, Croatia and the UK. Going topless for women is a-ok legally anywhere in Canada, and in many states in the US as well. Brazil has many topless beaches (though there are very few overall in South America), and at least a few designated topless or “topfree” beaches exist in most European countries. 

When In Doubt - Cover These Two Bits - And Everything In Between

In “conservative” countries generally – the best rule of thumb is for both sexes to keep your knees and shoulders covered (and of course everything in between) when in public. This includes many African and Asian countries including Malaysia, India, and the United Arab Emirates and other countries with large Muslim populations, for example. When traveling to these countries  - leave your daisy dukes, ultra-minis and/or gangsta baggy-ass pants at home or in your luggage. Conservative dress will make sure you are not overtly attracting unwelcome attention, and will make you more friends in your host country than dressing too provocatively or casually will.

Even in so-called liberal countries – when visiting many traditional or historical locations, and specifically for any religious or “sacred” space (shrines, mosques, temples, etc.) – this guideline may well be enforced. Some great ideas from International Travel Chick - ”.. buy breathable tunics from Old Navy (most are 3/4 length sleeves), long flowing skirts, loose capris and convertible cargo pants”. That basically sums up my entire travel wardrobe (except the daisy dukes I keep for wearing in North America, of course).

Egypt / Morocco / Quatar / Jordan (& other Islamic countries)

In Islamic countries (where sharia law plays a dominant role) visitors should take extra care to dress appropriately. Only in Saudi Arabia and Iran are dress codes legally imposed. For foreigners, this means that women must wear an abaya (or long coat) in public.  For all local women covering your head is considered very important here, and as a visitor it can help you draw less attention and also demonstrates “modesty”.

An interesting report from The Atlantic shares the results of University of Michigan research on “How People in Muslim Countries Think Women Should Dress“.  While responses varied by country, there is predominant agreement that the head should be covered (except for notably the apparently wild and crazy Lebanese).

The bottom line is – a trip where you are welcomed with open arms, by locals who appreciate the respect that you’ve shown for their country and their beliefs (whether aligned with your own or not), will be a trip where you can encounter, and be immersed in, an authentic experience of a foreign culture. When all is said and done, isn’t that one of the main reasons why we travel?

But that’s just my opinion, and I’d love to hear your perspective. Talk to me.

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