Episode 58 – Fashion and fashion faux pas while travelling

I come from a very mixed fashion culture.

My mother graduated from the Chicago School of Dress Design via correspondence in the 1960’s. I vividly remember watercolour paintings of designs being rolled in tissue paper and gently inserted into cardboard mailing tubes, and the anticipation of waiting for the critiques to come back. The long table in our basement was almost always (except when being used to stretch strudel dough!) covered with a cutting board and the sheets of tissue paper Mom used to make her own patterns, and there were bolts of fabrics in our cold cellar on the shelf above the homemade pickles. My favourite was a roll of apple green satin-backed crepe that was eventually turned into a New Years Eve gown with marabou feather cap sleeves. During my formative years, mom was always coordinated and stylish, even at home, dressing more like the moms on TV than those in our neighbourhood.

My father, though, was a bit more stereotypically German in his fashion sense. While he always owned at least one stylish tailor-made suit to wear to church (along with his highly polished black leather dress shoes), his day-to-day style was the source of great humour to my brother and to me. Socks in his sandals was the least of it. Picture my Dad in the late 1970’s looking “sharp”: all 5’9” of muscular, stocky German in plaid polyester pants, a paisley shirt (in coordinating colours of course!), white leather belt and white patent leather shoes. Or maybe you’d prefer the baby blue linen leisure suit with the flowered wide-collared shirt and jade bolo tie? Eye-rolling and suppressed giggles were a pretty standard reaction to Dad’s fashion choices.

I guess I could have gone either way. The 1980’s were certainly not a good decade for me. Velvet blazers with huge padded shoulders and a selection of jumpsuits in velour and slinky jersey were mainstays of a wardrobe best forgotten.

Travelling to other countries has made me stop and think about what we wear in a different way. Clothing is part of what makes a first impression, and we don’t want our first impression to scream “TOURIST!”….. nor do we want to inadvertently offend our hosts. Bare midriffs at the grocery store, and form-fitting leggings (unless covered to knee level by a tunic) worn in public are distinctly North American styles for females, as are tee shirts, track shorts, and running shoes for men.

I’ve seen plenty of advice online around “trekking” through Europe in Patagonia jackets and cargo pants, with a sturdy pair of shoes and a large backpack, the idea being that if I swap that out for a linen shift (artistically wrinkled from being rolled in the backpack, I guess), pashmina and sandals – and Ted puts on a long-sleeved white linen shirt – we could get in anywhere. That’s not us, nor is it acceptable city wear in most places unless we want to be identified as aging rich hippies – or maybe environmental ecotourists. Neither are bad things, but they’re not who we are.

I’ve also seen plenty of advice online that outlines, for example, the key elements in the modern stylish Parisian woman’s travel wardrobe, but fashion-forward sunglasses, skinny ankle pants, ballet flats and an “all purpose” silk wrap is not me either – and I cannot picture Ted in the men’s equivalent, despite the fact he has adopted a jaunty “chapeau” as his signature headgear.

Instead, we’re trying to incorporate our own observations into creating a pared-down wardrobe.

In Germany and Austria, we learned that “trainers” (running shoes) are not acceptable city wear and that, even in a country where nude beaches are prevalent, covered up is better than bare in public places. We also learned that blue jeans are for leisure time, not work or travel…..and worn looking blue jeans on anyone over 40 are only for gardening.

In England, we learned that sensible footwear actually makes practical sense. Forget Duchess Kate’s pumps and think more of the Queen’s low heeled footwear for navigating cobblestone streets. We also learned that hooded raincoats are better than umbrellas, as well as being more manageable in crowds.

In France, we learned that accessories are key to stretching a small wardrobe. Huge North American style walk-in closets are not the norm, nor are huge wardrobes. Better to change up your scarf, jewellery or hat and spend your money on café au lait, croissants, marons glacés, and the theatre.

In Scotland, we learned that layers make sense. It rains a LOT in Scotland. A little rain can’t stop us. Nor, apparently, can a lot of rain. Ted and I are fully appreciating our “jacket in a pouch” TresPass shells as both windproof and waterproof. I’m also loving my longer length lined Columbia jacket, which has kept me dry and warm, and dries really quickly. Shoes are another story, and this is why we pack at least 2 pair each. Once they’re wet, they take 24 hours plus to fully dry. Rain boots were never an option (too big, bulky, and sweaty). Does anybody have comfortable (and at least a little bit stylish) waterproof shoes to recommend?

In South America, we learned that when it’s really hot, less is not necessarily better. Loose long-sleeved or full length clothing that lets the breeze through works better than sweating through your sunscreen. I also – finally – succumbed to the need for a hat to protect my head from the sun. Too bad I haven’t figured out how to pack my new Panama hat efficiently while we travel around Europe. Don’t even suggest that I wear it in Germany at the Christmas markets!!

On our first ever cruise we learned that when the restaurant dress code for men says “no jeans”, they mean it – even if they are not blue, and even if you try to fancy them up with a dress shirt or jacket.

In the southeast U.S. we learned that anything goes…. as long as you are staying in the southwest U.S. (and yet golf courses still require collared shirts on men – it’s a strange world).

In Arizona we learned that you don’t walk barefoot, or wear open sandals, in the desert. (And don’t grab a cactus for support – OUCH!)

In Texas we are learning that, when in Texas, cowboy boots go with everything – even a wedding gown!

I’m sure that Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus will have more lessons for us next year.

So in the end, here’s what’s working for us… so far:

Jeans, yes, but they are new dark unfaded ones without worn knees, and they are supplemented by a pair of dressier pants and a pair of lighter weight pants for each of us. Ted REALLY likes his mosquito-repelling pants from Marks) For me, also 2 packable dresses (one short and one long) and a scarf that can double as head covering if needed.

Running shoes, yes, but only for the fitness room or hiking – not to be worn downtown or into restaurants. I actually prefer my walking boots to runners, since they don’t have mesh that can let sand into the footbed, and I don’t use the gym anyway! We each need a pair of “sensible” walking shoes, since tiny heels and slippery soles are just asking for trouble on cobblestones. Flip flops get packed for public pools and the beach. One pair of pretty flats or sandals needs to be enough for me for dressier occasions. Sigh. Life is tough.

Tops that are modestly cut (forget spaghetti straps in public) so they’re acceptable even when sightseeing includes religious sites – and in quick-dry fabrics that can be rolled without wrinkling too badly. A few collared shirts for Ted, since crew neck shirts are not acceptable in all the places we might want to eat or take in a show.

It’s all about being both comfortable AND appropriate.

I purged a few more items post-cruise while we were in Arizona, so we now have a small suitcase labelled “cruise” that contains Ted’s lightweight suit, my white linen pants and silk tops, a couple of long dresses, and a pair of dress shoes for each of us. I don’t expect we’ll use those items except on cruise ships, but we’ll lug them back to Canada and hang on to them while son #2 has room to store the suitcase. We loved our first cruise, so more are definitely in our future…

…. and hopefully our fashion choices won’t be the source of too much amusement for those around us.

3 comments

  1. That was so much fun!!! I forwarded to a few travelers for fun, hints and information. I sent it to Jenn. I figured if anyone knows where to buy something, she would! Love you

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  2. Wow, An extensive well written knowledge of what to wear and not in each country.

    The formal wear that were synonymous with cruising e.g. black tie and tux and formal dress prior to 2000’s, to today of casual wear for dinner. A clean long shirt for guys and sport jackets – no tie and a simple dress for gals.
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