It’s great to dress well when you travel. It opens doors – quite literally.
Dressing well doesn’t mean dressing up. It means dressing appropriately. It means looking good, and being able to do more than if you dress down.
Most of us, when we relax, get a bit more casual. That extends to our travel wear – we are on vacation, after all. But there are many good reasons why you should dress better when you travel than you might at home.
When you travel a bit you start to realize how much better dressed people are in many other countries. The French are proverbially stylish, but even in the rest of Europe most people dress well. The same is true in Japan and, increasingly, in China.
You can call me a fashion snob, and you might be right if all I was talking about is how to dress in your home environment. You can suit yourself when you are hanging around your home town, but my advice is to dress up a little when you travel.
Why? Here’s five good reasons.
1. You can sit in the lobbies of five-star hotels
One of my favorite places to kill time or hang around or people watch is in the lobbies of five-star hotels. I rarely stay in these expensive establishments, but their public areas are great places to sit around and relax, to work on your laptop, to make phone calls, or to meet people.
Their food and drink is ridiculously expensive, but you can usually buy nothing at all, or sit on a beer or a coffee for more than an hour, and they almost always have free Wi-Fi. They also have good toilets (though these are sometimes locked in the paranoid USA).
You can feel like you’re travelling in luxury, even if you’re staying in a cheap dive down the street. I often waltz into a five-star hotel and have the door opened for me by a uniformed flunky, nodding at him as I glide pass as an acknowledgement of his obsequiousness. He doesn’t know – or care – if I’m staying there or not. I sit in an unobtrusive spot in the lobby lounge (they usually have great chairs) and mind my own business. I read a book or catch up on my email.
Sometimes I engage strangers in conversation (I do this a lot, it’s my favorite thing when traveling). If a hotel operative asks me if I want anything, I order something cheap or I tell them that I’m fine for now and I’ll order when my friend arrives (amazing how often my ‘friend’ still hasn’t turned up an hour later).
No one minds. Hotels like their lobbies to look busy. But you must be well-dressed and look like you belong. You must pass for someone who is staying in the place, even if you’re not. I do this all the time and have done for decades, and never once have I been queried, let alone asked to leave. I just hang around and enjoy the luxurious ambiance.
It’s never a problem because I am always well-dressed and polite. I once spent two hours in the reception area cafe in the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, a wonderful place (pictured), chatting to a nice Greek doctor and his wife and spending about $5 on a single glass of Coca-Cola. I wrote a whole chapter of a book in the lobby of the Sheraton in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
2. You will feel better
You simply feel better if you’re well-dressed. And it gives you that extra feeling of security. You know that nobody is going to challenge you or look down on you. As with most things about travel, it’s just common sense. It’s easy to look good without spending much money, and it makes a lot of other things just that much easier.
And when you’re travelling, ease is everything.
3. You will not be disrespectful
Many Western tourists wear short pants in Asia, particularly southern and Southeast Asia where the weather is warm. My advice is not to do so. Always wear long trousers. Shorts are regarded as very casual in Asia, or are the clothes of peasants and manual workers.
Sometimes you won’t be allowed into a temple if you’re wearing shorts. Same thing with bare upper arms. Sleeveless T-shirts for men or women are regarded poorly in most of Asia. Wear a collared shirt, and cover your legs and upper arms.
4. You will look less like a tourist
In most countries you are likely to visit, the natives dress better than we do. The worse you dress, the more you will look like a tourist. Take some pride in your appearance, and show those French that we can be as chic as they are.
5. It’s easier!
Paradoxically, it’s actually easier to dress well than to dress sloppy. All you need to do is follow a few simple rules. You don’t have to go overboard. It depends on whether you’re male or female, and whether you are in a hot or cold climate, but is really not hard.
When I travel (except in some of the stickier parts of Asia) I simply wear only black. I travel with five identical black travel shirts (drip dry non-crease), a good black sweater, a pair of black jeans and pait of black tailored trousers. And five pairs of identical thick black woollen socks. I wear only black shoes – high ankled sneakers and slip ons and good leather boots are my default (see separate blog on the importance of good shoes when you travel). My heavy winter and light summer coats are both black.
That way everything matches. Black is the new black. It never goes out of style and it always looks sharp. Doesn’t show your weight as much, either.
It’s only a little more difficult for women. Shaz follows a similar rule. All black, with color provided by scarves and necklaces and earrings, which are lightweight and take up hardly any room and really dress up an outfit. Scarves are also handy as head coverings (and sometimes culturally necessary).
Don’t like black? Try some color combos where everything goes with everything else, like navy and gray. (and a bit of black, of course!)
Once you start mixing it up too much it becomes much more difficult. It’s really easy to dress well if you don’t have to worry about color coordination and you have good accessories.
It’s good to wear a hat, too. They can look very smart, and when you travel you are outdoors a lot and you don’t want too much sun or rain on your head. I bought a great Homburg in Vienna once for 50 euros, and I wore it everywhere, until I left it on the roof of my car at the airport as soon as I arrived home. Now I have a sturdy and attractive hat, a bit like an American Stetson, that I bought on the west coat of Ireland for half that price. The brand is Jack Murphy. In Asia I wear a lightweight Panama hat.
I’m not going to advise women on what sort of headgear to wear – the choice is too personal. But keep it simple, and lightweight.
In our book Third Age Travel Tricks, Tips and Techniques we look into all matters of dressing for travel – and how to pack – in greater detail.