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The Well Dressed Traveler 

Q. I was recently at a Broadway play, and I was looking around, and I realized that most people were in T-shirts and shorts. While I understand that some plays are more casual than others, shouldn’t one dress up at least a little?

A. Yes, one should. But they don’t – those unspeakable masses from across the Hudson who make the Visigoths look dapper. Unfortunately, civilization ended, with no announcements of any kind being made, sometime in the 1970s. Since then, the tourists who frequent New York City and its theaters favor T-shirts in sizes beginning at XXL, along with shorts, fanny packs, and hiking sandals. They are accommodated almost everywhere as if they were properly dressed. I’ve heard that in some European cathedrals, attendants stand by the entrances handing out paper coveralls to these hulking, half-nude American tourists, attempting to mitigate their appearance to the degree that it doesn’t constitute sacrilege. But I think the taste level of the Heavenly Host is being underestimated. Americans have become global eyesores. (GQ, Glenn O’Brien, page 181, October 2006)

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Take the advice of the founder of the Lonely Planet budget travel guide series, who takes a jacket with him when he travels to give the impression that he is visiting countries, not arriving to mow their lawns. Another publisher, John Fairchild, has observed that 90% of all travelers wear sneakers, and thus end up looking like Minnie and Mickey Mouse.

Trekking through the Amazon? Then those pants, hiking boots, tee shirt, and jacket are perfect. But not for touring European Cathedrals. It is a sad commentary on Americans that European monks have to stand outside monasteries to tell Americans to remove their caps before entering. You’ll also be shocked to learn that even in the boiling, savage, and generally casual metropolis that is Bangkok, the locals will not appreciate it if you wear shorts and a tee to their shrines and temples.

The phrase “ugly American” was originally meant for the overbearing manners and arrogance that Americans exhibited outside their home country, but it could just as easily be applied to the way they looked. Look upon travel as an opportunity. Sometimes, if you decide to change a habit or a way of life, it’s easier to do that when you are not involved in your normal routine, and travel can be just the break you need to release your inner gentleman. Start with your outer gentleman. You don’t need to look like the locals, you just need to not look like the other Americans; which means lose the sneakers, warm up suits, and baseball caps if you’re not exercising; you will need comfortable walking shoes. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, or pack extra clothing when you travel. In fact, most Americans pack a lot and still look bad. A single sports jacket can go a long way, even dressing up the jeans that you insist on taking.

Its really not too hard to dress nicely, and certainly takes more taste than money. Just think about what your parents wore when traveling. A generation or two ago, it was standard for people to look their best when getting on a plane; men were routinely in coat and tie; even the boys. Women wore dresses; even the little girls. Now everyone arrives at the airport dressed as if their taking the garbage out or going to a jammy sleep over. Dressing well is both about respect for yourself, and respect for others, and the latter is especially important when traveling abroad. You might be surprised to learn that your absolute personal comfort is not the alpha and omega to others that it is to you. You might think that Americans are hated throughout the world because others are jealous of our wealth or power, or object to US foreign policy. I think it has a lot to do with the invasion of loud, ignorant slobs. Americans disrespect the countries they visit by dressing in their usual “slob casual” when going to the beach or when visiting important historical and sacred religious institutions. So respect yourself and your hosts; make an effort to look better than required. Maybe you’ll be mistaken for an Italian.

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