Clothes make the Man/Women

Friday, August 28, 2009

Recently at dinner a friend regaled me with stories about his vacation to Europe. He & his wife had a good time but complained about rude treatment in some of the restaurants. Later during the meal he revealed that he always wore his baggy short pants everywhere. “They’re comfortable,” he exclaimed.

In my book travel+PHOTOGRAPHY: Off the Charts, I include a chapter on clothing. What you wear is a very important component of travel. Not only does it declare your nationality but it also reveals your economic class, political viewpoint & sense of humor. Often travelers feel the ability to voyage gives them license to wear the most outrageous garb. Pith helmets, fishing vests, Hawaiian shirts, cruise wear & white belts are just a few of the fashion faux pas tourists have foisted upon the world.

"It is long accepted by the missionaries that morality is inversely proportional to the amount of clothing people wore.
- Alex Carey"

But the issue is more subtle than that. We all have our personal style & we need to be comfortable. But at what expense? If our apparel insults another’s sensibilities, it not only gets in the way of our picture taking but it can be an impediment to all kinds of social exchanges. Some societies insist that women cover their heads or, at least, not expose their arms or legs. To be a feminist in those situations is your prerogative but you risk offending customs at your own peril. You may have very little recourse if you are insulted.

Years ago in West Africa I ventured tentatively into a cemetery. It was very picturesque. I made sure that people saw me & acknowledged my intentions of taking pictures. A friend happened by & saw me & strode boldly into the graveyard. The reactions to her presence were incendiary. Women, at least, inappropriately attired, were not allowed but she stood her ground & protested. We both were summarily escorted out.

"A hat is a flag, a shield, a bit of armor, and the badge of feminity. A hat is the difference between wearing clothes and wearing a costume; it's the difference between being dressed and being dressed up; it's the difference between looking adequate and looking your best. A hat is to be stylish in, to glow under, to flirt beneath, to make all others seem jealous over, and to make all men feel masculine about. A piece of magic is a hat.
- Martha Sliter"

To wear clothing that is nationalistic can incite individuals who may hold a grudge. I leave all my clothing that has logos or insignias at home: no New York Yankees baseball caps, Gucci bags, military surplus gear, college/fraternity decals or Nike sneakers. I shop for things that match my tastes but are more generic.

Covering a heated political rally in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I was physically lifted up onto the podium by the crowd surrounding me. It was against my will. I spoke no patois but I finally gleaned that my tee shirt read Washington Post. It was a present from my sister who worked for the newspaper. They thought the publication was covering the event. This time it worked in my favor because I got front row access to the action. It could just as easily gone the other way. I never put a logo in my suitcase again.

"I've got my fishing rod, compass, bum bag and walking shoes - the lot. How geeky is that?
- Hannah Sandling"

Besides the uncooperative treatment from your photographic subjects, you may encounter cold treatment from shopkeepers, restaurant staff or average citizens & you invite being targeted by thieves &/or terrorists.

Stay away from new or hip stuff. Anything that is fashionable in your local neighborhood will be foreign outside it. Even colors are important. I leave my
international orange jumpsuit & fire engine red golf pants at home. I find neutral colors work best. We used to advocate earth tones but that is too easy. You have to learn to recognize the local palette. In some countries the citizenry are famous for colorful costumes.

When I first started to travel a Frenchman educated me by revealing they could tell
where you were from by looking at your shoes. Try it. Look down. It does not take long to categorize strangers by their feet. This piece of advice initiated my eternal quest for the Perfect Travel Shoe. It is probably as futile as the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Let me be clear. You cannot hide. Natives will always detect you are different. When you enter a large public space, something resembling a shock-wave precedes your movement. Everyone is aware of you presence several meters before you “arrive”. No disguise can prevent it. You can only ameliorate it a little by not drawing additional attention to yourself. It would be difficult enough to take pictures even if we were invisible. We carry so much expensive equipment that further broadcasting is just exacerbating the unobtrusive demeanor we wish to sustain.

"I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. Everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large.
- Charlie Chaplin"

Now do not get me wrong. You should be proud of you nationality. Your dress may be a part of your ethnic identity. You may want to advertise a new piece of clothing. Or you may look good in fuchsia. Just do not be naïve. And be prepared to accept the consequences. Otherwise if you get off the plane & notice no adult males wearing shorts, you are probably not in Bermuda.


Anonymous,  August 30, 2009 at 8:43 PM  


I found your commentary to be a very valued observation that will serve anyone well, with the understanding, everyone is going to do as they please. That said, being sent to Kenya to conduct business, in general, I found them to be more British than the British. Without a three piece suit and attache case, one can get stone walled very quickly without knowing what's going on. Shoes, have long been an international ID, first observed through airports, marketplaces and any public venue. Speaking of shoes, cities like Paris and even Toronto & Ottawa, Canada, the vast majority are shined

A lot depends on an individuals level of sensitivity to the people, the culture or the lack and disdain thereof. Dressing for international photography is a learned skill and depending how high up the chain an assignment takes you or how deep into the system you may have to access, your comfort level and life can have a correlation to the attention you attract.

There are times, I want to separate myself out but not as, "arrogant" nor the old, "ugly American profile" which still runs rampant even through countries with sizable Muslim populations. As an African American, photographing abroad, I'm often amazed by the cumulative negative affect in place, upon arrival, based on previously skimpy clad, rude, sometimes loud behavior contributed to other Americans.

If it's respect you are looking for than being able to show it, is picked up by many. One might say, "well, I'm going to be myself where ever I travel" and this is understandable. I guess, I've come to appreciate the range of attire I can wear and feel totally comfortable while experiencing a myriad of photographic situations.

Arni Cheatham,  August 31, 2009 at 8:21 PM  

My Father said to me, "You have 60 seconds to make an impression that you will spend the rest of your time improving on or trying to repair. Appearance, grooming, attitude all form that first impression. The fellow in the shorts said he was comfortable. I'm never comfortable when I think I've given someone an opportunity to dissaprove of me without reason. You are correct and well stated. Respect others and carry yourself in a manner which enables others to respect you.

Jay Johnson,  September 1, 2009 at 8:28 AM  

Maybe it's a coincidence that I read your post within a week after seeing "Lawrence of Arabia" again.
I think the key is balance. We should be proud of who we are AND sensitive to the places/people we visit. And I think you conveyed that idea well.

Jim Budrakey,  September 1, 2009 at 8:07 PM  


You always give the best travel photography tips. As I have told you several times, your Travel+ book is the hands down best taavel photography book I have ever read and this blog posting continues in that tradition.

I'm looking forward to working with you again.

Anonymous,  September 2, 2009 at 6:19 AM  

Lou, Deb here, Id like to sum it up..with prose

Let the teacher speak, Listen Pupils and learn.
Stop not at the mirrow unless you "undress" first!..Clean yes, be subtle , speak simply dont step on anyones toes. They will notice you, You are not alone,Though the days dim the lights, This journey has not ended, Tommorow is another exciting voyage.

Terrell September 2, 2009 at 9:24 AM  

attire means alot, home and abroad. Because attire is so commplace we can easily forget how important this element is and what it says about the person wearing the attire. Great post. Now, where are my Levis jeans.

pat wj,  September 3, 2009 at 7:55 PM  

I'm not one who spends much money or time on clothes, but i agree with your comments and i understand how much i communicate with my clothes. Especially when traveling, i try not to offend with my clothes - particularly in Muslim towns, i feel this is a way to show to respect the people, as i'm a guest in their country. As a photojournalist/documentary photographer i need to be trusted by the people whose photos i'm taking - really important as an American, whose country has funded the bulldozers and barbed wire fences and Wall, which are destroying a way of life there. I bought a beaded bracelet hand made by Palestinians in their colors, from a boy on the street - i often wear that in West Bank cities and villages, but push it up under my sleeve before engaging soldiers at Israeli checkpoints. And i don't wear it in Jewish neighborhoods, so as not to offend people there.
I was in Israel and Palestine for two months - and brought the most comfortable shoes i've ever worn, dansco's - i can stand all day and night, squat, and run nearly as fast in those as i can in my sneakers, if needed. I don't know what message my dansco's give - but i packed shoe polish and 2 rags, in double baggies, to make sure nothing else in my bag got "polished".
thanks for the great comments, photos,and quotes
And i'd like to see you in your international orange jump suit and red golf pants . . .

Anonymous,  September 6, 2009 at 8:09 PM  

Attire for women is always more complex than for men. A woman is expected to look attractive. What is attractive in one culture is sometimes/often offensive in other cultures. Crossing cultures is definitely more complicated for women. A woman's presence/behavior in certain situations (such as a driving a car in Saudi Arabia or being outdoors alone)is considered inappropriate or illegal. Foreign women, although often allowed greater latitude in traditional cultures, are also viewed as easier targets for lascivious males. Women beware when traveling alone abroad.

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.