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.