It’s Not Right But It’s Okay – Dressing for Respect

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what to wear tourist

After re-reading my post on what to pack for vacation, and reading some of the comments on my blog and on a forum that was discussing the post, a song by Whitney Houston came to mind.

It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay

In this song, Whitney was singing about a man who cheated on her, and how what he did was wrong, but she’s not going to let it define her or hold her down. The phrase can also be used for the attire of many Americans. While it’s not right to dress in tube tops and tiny shorts when visiting a house of worship, restaurant, or other public venue it has become okay to do so.

Just because it’s accepted doesn’t mean it’s right.

When many talk of dressing for respect, they mean to receive respect from others. When I write about dressing for respect, I usually mean to show respect. To thank the restaurant for the fabulous food and décor. To show gratitude for being able to enjoy the artists’ work in the museum. To honor another’s religion. To show love to a couple getting married. Yes, in this day and age many museums, cathedrals, theaters, and restaurants have a relaxed dress code, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to push it.

When I speak of modesty, I mean it to show respect and reverence for others. Yes, you can wear denim cutoffs and spaghetti-strap tank this summer as you tour historic locations. Of course you can wear your pajamas on a flight. And sure, you can wear that bright red bodycon mini dress to your cousin’s wedding. Most likely no one will say a thing to you (though you may get some stares and eye rolls). However, what are you saying about the place you are visiting? The people who are hosting the event? The other people who have to share the space and experience with you? Dressing in such a manner is not only disrespectful, but selfish.

It’s Not Right, and It’s Not Okay.

I am all for personal style, and I don’t believe everyone should dress as a carbon copy of one another. It is completely possible to maintain your personal style and still dress out of respect for the world around you. You are not an island; what you wear and how you act affect those around you.

If you don’t know, ASK. Google is your friend. Are you taking a trip to Italy? Google what to wear and you will find many a travel expert with tips on what to pack. Attending a wedding at 10am on a Sunday in a backyard garden? There are etiquette experts who know the polite thing to wear no matter the time, day, or style of wedding. You do your homework before buying a home, you do research before purchasing a car, why not do a little homework to know how to dress in a way to show that you care about the world around you and its inhabitants. A skirt to your knee or wearing a top with less cleavage will not kill your style or cause you to have hyperthermia on a summer day, but it will give peace to those around you who care about their business, home, or place of worship. And what a wonderful gift to give someone!

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  2.  I think this is a big reason why Americans have a bad rap – they feel that dressing in a respectful manner is repressive or anti-feminist.  Other countries (and parts of our own) may hold back women by their dress codes, but many women in those countries don’t see it as such.  Wearing too casual of clothing isn’t helping the women of those countries, if anything it is giving a clear example to those countries as to why a dress code is a good thing for their people. 

  3.  I agree Karen – why don’t we destroy all the negative stereotypes of Americans by showing how we can be tasteful, respectful, and stylish? I always admit I am American, and love it when locals are surprised by that fact. 🙂

  4.  Wouldn’t it be better to let them know you’re American so that you can be a shining example of a respectful individual of our country?  If all the respectful Americans say they’re Canadian then the foreigners will never respect Americans. (And everyone already loves Canadians 🙂 )

  5. Well, I think men have it a bit easier than we do in this situation since their wardrobes are more limited, and I also think that naturally their clothing is more respectful in regard to how much skin is showing. I personally think a person should be able to dress however he or she wishes, but when you visit another person’s house or country, I feel it is right to respect it and dress in a manner that is fitting the inhabitants. For men, they too should leave the denim shorts, the logoed tees, the sports jerseys and the athletic flip flops at home when traveling. Just as with women, it may be “okay” to dress in such a manner, it’s not right. And just because a person is a man doesn’t mean he shouldn’t dress out of respect for the place he is visiting. I mentioned before that a person wore jeans to my wedding, that person was a man. I see just as many men make crimes against fashion as women and they should realize they don’t get off scott-free purely because they have a penis. 🙂

  6. I’m curious, Allie, as to what you think about the gendered aspects of dressing “respectfully”?

  7. I live in a city with lot of tourism (Barcelona, Spain) and being surrounded by tourists all the time is hard per se (groups clogging the sidewalks, walking slowly with a wide open map, stopping abruptly to take a photo …), even without disrespectful clothing or behaviour. But please, people, don’t use your holidays as an exuse – “noone I know will see me there, so I will behave as badly as I possibly can” – not a good idea. My advice: First of all, dress and act always as if your beloved, 80 year old conservative grandmother could see you. Second – observe how locals behave, and then upgrade their behaviour. Because it’s their everyday life, and if they have a bad day, they will stay to make it up tomorrow, but you only have a short amount of time at this place and should try to make a good impression during this short stay.

  8. Allie, well said!! If you give me permission, I’d like to translate it to Portuguese, to show some people how to dress when travelling.
    That’s true, people who dress with this “nonchalance” is, in fact, very selfish!

  9. I love this post.  When I have kids, I want to teach them this principle.  I work for my local government and we sometimes invite youth to public meetings for awards and such.  I am always astonished at the way they dress.  I feel a lot of it is lack of education as many adults in society don’t dress much better.   Shorts and tank tops have become so standard in society that nobody thinks twice about when this style is and isn’t respectful.  It isn’t always easy to dress more modestly.  Shopping can become a headache.  But it isn’t impossible.  

  10. Amen!  I recently attended a high school graduation and was appalled at what I saw.  Not only were many of the graduates dressed in skin tight micro-mini dresses with all manner of tattoos exposed but I even saw an attendee wearing white daisy dukes and no underwear.  I long for the days when attending functions used to require that people actually get dressed for the occasion.

  11.   ‘Dressing in such a manner is not only disrespectful, but selfish.’
    So true! I posted something similar a while ago as I used to work in Egypt so I would adopt local dress. I actually really liked wearing it and it really did help me fit in and not get the usual tourist hassle in the markets. However one reader got quite angry about it, saying it was repressive! I just think it is respectful to understand the country or even event you are kindly invited to.

  12. Allie, thank you so much for posting this!  I was in Thailand and had been told to wear long skirts, or pants, and blouses, etc that covered my shoulders.  I managed to find a small travel wardrobe that worked…long and loose is more comfy than short and tight.

    I was horrified that some of my travel companions wore shorts, tank tops (and didn’t bother to consider nipple coverage — the Thais are wonderful and one man actually thanked me for respecting his country. (we both spoke french).

    I’ve seen way too many weddings with guests wearing jeans — so insulting.  And though I dislike black at weddings, I know it can look chic but I hate when people just thrown on black with no thought to quality, fit or whether the garment flatters.  You are a great example of how to wear black to a wedding!

    I am a Canadian living in America and I’m often horrified about how unwilling some people are to consider where they’re travelling and how it affects their wardrobe.

  13. Allie,

    Thank you so much. Very well said!

    Until you brought it up, it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would think of dressing for respect as anything other than dressing in consideration of others. You’re right though.

    Reading the wedding stories made me feel quite sad. Not only do inappropriately dressed guests, whether intentional or not, show disrespect. Their actions may also inflict pain which can sting for many years.


  14. When I lived abroad, sometimes I would lie and tell people I was Canadian, because so many Americans acted badly, dressed poorly and behaved like clueless, rude idiots. Showing respect to others helps you earn respect from others.

    Great article. I predict massive repostings.

  15. I’ve travelled in Thailand quite a bit and am amazed by the ignorant tourists who show up to temples or other places of reverence in shorts, often with bare shoulders and open-toed shoes. The tiniest bit of research would have told them that while casual (or even sloppy) dress is tolerated, pants or skirts to mid-calf, closed-in shoes and a top with at least cap sleeves are essential. Luckily for them the Thais are used to rude Westerners and at major sites will have sarongs and other cover-up items for hire.

    We’re off to Malaysia & Vietnam shortly, and I’m reading up on customs and appropriate dress to avoid any embarrassment. 

    I would think that even if you were unsure of local customs, dressing modestly when travelling would be the sensible option. Swimwear and short shorts are best kept for the beach or hotel pool.

  16. Great, great, great post.  We are forgetting that we are not just seeking respect, but offering it too.

  17. Thank you, thank you, thank you! As a teacher, I try to reinforce this idea to my students (especially when trying to enforce the dress code) and often, they just don’t get it.

  18. I love this line : “
    When many talk of dressing for respect, they mean to receive respect from others. When I write about dressing for respect, I usually mean to show respect.”

    I’m going to save it and use it when my girls are teenagers !

  19. Yes I absolutely love this and agree.  I would also say that in my experience, dressing a little better than the crowd gets you better service everywhere.  

  20. A few years ago I went to a city in the middle of China for five weeks, and for the first week I wore tank tops and sometimes shorts, because it was summertime. But then someone discreetly pointed out to me that the people in that part of China never wore shorts or tank tops, and that they felt it was disrespectful to show your shoulders or your thighs. I felt so embarrassed! I immediately started wearing longer skirts, pants, and blouses, and because of that I now always check before traveling somewhere to see if the people there dress differently than I do.

  21. Great post, I completely agree. I would also say that dressing appropriately for the time/place/event/venue shows respect for yourself also. It shows that you care enough about conducting yourself in a courteous and thoughtful manner to take time to make appropriate choices. It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or be fashion forward, it just means you have to choose pieces that aren’t offensive. 

  22. This is so true! And my pet peeve is disrespect at funerals. I live in an area that is mostly rural, and these good-hearted folks show up to funerals in jeans and too-tight dresses. I realize not everyone can afford suits, but I have seen clothes at WalMart that would make outfits in better taste! A big part of it is thoughtlessness. Just like being prepared for travel abroad, it’s a good idea to be prepared for funerals. 

  23.  I was a member of French Chic, a Yahoo Group and learned so much from those fabulous women.  I also really like the forums associated with Angie’s site YouLookFab.  The forum discussing my post isn’t one I would ever recommend.

  24. Great post! I totally agree with you. Sometimes, getting dress is not about yourself, but about others. There’s a time for selfisheness, and a time to show some consideration to others. I am an atheist, but I clearly respect the dressing code when I visit a church or any other religious building. Doesn’t hurt me to dress appropriately, and it clearly shows respect to those who don’t share my religious non-beliefs.

  25. Could not agree more!  My husband and I had a church wedding; my brother in law showed up in ripped jeans, old Adidas, and a Slayer shirt with a pentagram on it.  Sure, I knew he wasn’t a Christian and thought getting married in a church was stupid, but it was MY WEDDING not his!  I told the photographer not to take a single picture of him.  Not only that, but they brought my infant nephew in a ripped, stained, white onesie with carrot stains on it.  I would have loved to have a picture taken with him, he was an adorable baby.  But they dressed him better for daycare than they did my wedding.  It’s been 18 years since I got married, and I still think back on how rude and disrespectful they were to me on my day.  Oh, and while I’m thinking back; both MIL and SIL wore white dresses without telling me.  I pretty much hate most of my wedding pictures.

  26. Amen! Can you shout this from the roof tops?! In the last week I have posted what to wear to graduations and summer weddings. I cannot believe what some people will wear. And I love your distinctions between the different types of dressing for respect!

  27. I totally agree with your take on this! I also agree with your suggestion to do some research. A few years ago the printed travel guuides I read said that wearing jeans in Italy would mark one as a clueless American tourist. Then I got there and found all the locals in jeans. Obviously that wasn’t a problem but it would have eased my packing if I’d known the real situation!

    And I’m not trying to say jeans are appropriate everywhere!

    You mentioned a forum discussing the post: are there any fashion forums you recommend?

  28. I had a person show up at my wedding in jeans. I don’t think the person knew better, for that person did adore us and was happy for us. However the jeans did get a lot of side eye from other guests and I had a few friends ask if the person was a wedding crasher. 🙂

  29. Love this post, Allie. One of the guests at my wedding, a close
    relative, showed up in a VERY casual, short, spaghetti strap dress with
    her hair in a lazy ponytail. It was very strange, and hard not to take it personally because she clearly put no thought into her outfit.

    I often like to show a little cleavage, but I also know when to cover up.

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