The Most Stressful Aspect of Traveling Abroad

What do I wear?

I enjoy following the blog and the feeds of The Sartorialist.  I love seeing the raw presentation of how humanity dresses every day on the street.  It's not showing the looks designers push on the on the runways and in fashion magazines.  It's not trying to sell me anything.  It's showing me what people wear in all its chic and ugly and beautiful and weird glory.  I joke when I get dressed in the morning, I do so with an eye toward being caught on Scott Schuman's camera.

One day I was browsing through his Instagram and saw he had pulled this post from the blog archive, expressing admiration for this woman's outfit.  The photo is from Paris.  This chic Parisian woman is wearing a pair of shorts.

If there is one piece of advice I always read on travel websites is one should never wear shorts abroad.  Shorts are a dead giveaway that you are an American tourist.  Shorts are tacky and casual and no self-respecting European would walk the city streets in shorts.  One must wear capris or lightweight pants or skirts.  Shorts will cause you to be banned from decent establishments at worst and secretly the cause of laughter at best.

I guess there are chic Europeans who didn't get the memo.

I made a comment on the feed asking if it was now acceptable to wear shorts in Paris.  I received two replies.  One fellow commenter said, "No, never."  This photo was an exception (the subject of the photo is young, thin, and beautiful after all).  Another commenter replied, "Of course it's acceptable.  Wear what you want."

As a general rule I prefer not to travel to Europe in the summer.  It's too hot and too crowded.  I would rather make European trips in the spring and fall. It's easier to dress appropriately in these seasons.  When Kevin and I went to Paris, Amsterdam, and the Danube River Cruise, I wore jeans and sweaters during the day with comfortable oxfords, ballet flats, ankle boots, or black, non-athletic sneakers.  In the evening I swapped the jeans with dress pants a skirt with tights, or else  I swapped the entire outfit with a dress if the occasion called for it.   My outwear was always a simple trenchcoat.  If it's not hot outside, clothes won't be sweaty at the end of the day, so it's not offensive to wear the same clothes from day to night or wear something twice.

It is unfortunate that I don't always have a choice for what time of year I travel.  If a family member is paying for me to take a European vacation in August, I'm not going to give that equine gift a dental exam. That means I have to decide what to wear that will feel comfortable in hot weather, but still not brand me as being a tacky American who can't dress respectfully.

As a general rule, these are the articles of clothing Americans are supposed to avoid wearing in Europe to avoid looking too American:

T-shirts with any logos or graphics on them
Brands common only in the US (Coach, North Face, etc.)
Fanny packs
Cargo pants
Travel vests
Baseball caps
Bucket hats
White sneakers
Athletic wear and athleisure, including leggings
Puffy down parkas

(When Kevin and I were in Paris, he dressed as impeccably as he always does with his expensive shirts and shoes, but his American was always showing due to the fact that he carried his camera in a backpack and warded off the chill on rainy days with a hoodie.)

There are other rules we have to remember like making sure our shoulders and knees are covered when we go inside a church.  Also, while there are no hard and fast rules regarding dining out (unless the restaurant has a stated dress code), never assume your casual outfit won't bar you from a restaurant even though you know the restaurant wants your money.  European businesses care as much about appearances and behavior as they do about making a profit (unlike American businesses who almost always want to take your money).

Every time I travel abroad, and especially a summer trip, I start making packing lists a month in advance (not hyperbole).  I plan every outfit down to the day.  I have to consider how often I will be eating in an elegant restaurant.  I have to make sure I wear a knee-length dress with sleeves if I plan to visit a church.  I have to check the weather and decide if I should ignore the rules and put on shorts anyway because the weather is going to be in the high 90s.

In the summer of 2015 I went on a Mediterranean cruise covering various locations in Italy, Greece, Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia.  It was a ten-day cruise, so I packed my suitcase full of the most tasteful summerwear I owned.  I kept a cardigan in my bag for churches.  I made sure I always had a clean dress or skirt available for dinner (cruise ships have rules about what one can wear in the dining room).  Most of the time I was acceptable.  I got away with wearing shorts and wasn't turned away from churches or restaurants.  In 2016 I went to Prague and also had two days of extreme heat.  I was not the only tourist in shorts, and it wasn't only the Americans who were dressed in shorts in general.

So far my only fashion faux pas happened in Corfu when I was on the 2015 cruise.   The cruise didn't offer any decent shore excursions, so my family booked a private tour through a local operator.  I thought I didn't have to worry too much about being properly dressed on a resort island like Corfu. I had a private guide looking out for me as well.  I would be in a van with only my family all day.  I wore a conservative pair of Bermuda shorts and a sleeveless top.

The tour took us to the major sites on the island including the Achelion Palace and the Paleokastritsa monastery.  It was at the latter site where I ran into trouble.  At the entrance there is a table where greeters sat and evaluated your clothing.  If your bottoms were too short, they would give you a skirt.  If your shoulders were bare, they would give you a shawl.  I was surprised my shorts were considered acceptable (they stopped right above my knees, but they were shorts regardless).  I still had to wear a shawl.  The skirts and shawls were pretty, so I didn't mind.  My niece had to cover up completely.  My sister-in-law had to wear the shawl.  The rules only applied to the women.  It seems a bit sexist to me, but I guess the monks didn't want to be tempted (although I never saw any during our tour).

I witnessed how under-dressed Americans are treated when the last day of that cruise took us to Venice.  I booked a tour that I knew would cover the Frari (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari to be exact) cathedral.  I wore a knee-length t-shirt dress that was in a light and comfortable cotton.  There was another family on the tour who typified ugly Americans.  On the boat trip to the center of the city, they talked incessantly while the guide was talking, making it impossible for me hear how to return to the ship after if I chose not to return with the tour.  The mother and teenage daughter were not dressed in anything I would consider appropriate for an Italian church.  The daughter in particular was dressed to be denied entry in a spaghetti-strap romper with her butt cheeks hanging out.  When we entered the church, she was not denied admission, but the greeters handed her two large paper scarves and instructed her to cover her legs and arms.  It was fun watching her try to keep those things wrapped around herself as she walked through the church.  Serves her right.  The cruise ship gave enough warnings about dressing respectfully in churches on shore excursions.  Don't assume you won't be turned away because you are a paying customer.

So this summer I am heading to Spain. I know two things about Spain.  One is that it is scorching hot there in the summer.  The second is that it's a fashionable and somewhat conservative place.  Dress codes are enforced.  I doubt I will give my shorts much of a workout unless I'm heading to the beach in Barcelona.  I can pack my bag full of summer skirts and dresses, but being a thick-thighed woman, I have to consider how comfortable it will be to walk around with my bare thighs rubbing together in 90+ degree heat.  Will I be as comfortable in capris as I will be in shorts?

Regardless of whether or not my clothes are in the forbidden category, I doubt I could avoid looking like an American.  Women in European cities favor black and other neutrals. I love bright colors.  At the other extreme is the bland interchangeable travel wardrobes in practical packable fabrics they sell on travel websites.  Those are probably a dead giveaway for any tourist.  It's not easy to look respectable and conservative and still be chic.  Sometimes tourists try so hard to blend in, we end up sticking out.  Those plain black pants and microfiber tops with the black slip on shoes may not turn any heads for bad taste, but they don't reflect the local flavor and fashion trends.  They still scream, "American", but a less tacky American.

Another dead giveaway for tourists are the bags we carry.  I am paranoid about pickpockets, so I always wear cross-body bags and own security purses made of fabric that can't be slashed and have steel-cable-reinforced straps that can't be cut, along with locks on the zippers.  They may be theft-deterrent, but they aren't the cute purses local women are carrying.  I wear bags made to avoid pickpockets, but those bags make me look like a tourist, and tourists are pickpockets' favorite targets.

The final issue to consider is how much to pack.  I don't want to be burdened with a giant suitcase while going from the airport to my transport to my hotel.  I also have to consider baggage fees.  How do I pare my wardrobe down to the essentials?  This creates a whole other conundrum.

There are a hundred travel fashion blogs out there encouraging us to create a "capsule wardrobe" for traveling abroad.  The idea is to take ten items that can be mixed and matched together to create several different outfits.  These clothes can all fit in a carry-on bag, so you avoid the baggage fees.  This sounds like a good idea in theory, and will likely work in cooler months, but is it realistic for summer or winter travel to warmer climates?  Clothes get sweaty faster in summer.  If I am on a more adventurous vacation at the beach or the mountains, I can't wear the same clothes for the day time when I go out to dinner (too casual or likely too dirty or sweaty).

If I can't fit it into a carry-on bag, I have to pay the baggage fees.  The other option is to pack only a few articles of clothing and hope I can wash them while I'm away.  Some hotels have laundry rooms for guest use.  Others have laundry valet service.  Is it cheaper to pay a baggage fee than it is to pay for a laundry service?  If the hotel has a self-service laundry room, do I want to waste part of my vacation doing laundry?  I can also take my travel detergent and hand wash clothes in my room.  Will I pack enough to do all the laundry?  What if the laundry detergent can't be packed in a carry-on bag? Doesn't that defeat the purpose?  If I do manage to fit it all into a carry-on bag, how much will I have to fight the other passengers for that precious overhead space?  I could end up having to put my bag in the hold after all.

Somehow I will figure out a way, because in the end, it beats staying home all summer.


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