When I quit my job to adventure, there were a lot of things I wanted to see. Beautiful temples, distant lands, the faces of new friends. And of course, food. This is why people travel. (Well, that and we’re hard wired and get depressed if we stay put. But people get angry when I trot that one out.)
One thing I didn’t set out to see was fashion.
People use clothing very differently from country to country. In the United States, it’s a uniform. From business suits to the 30-something geek’s pithy T-shirts, every person has a narrow range of acceptable clothing based on their age, occupation, and position in society. You can vary the colors or brands but basically, dress code is mandatory and your friends won’t recognize you if you break step.
This might not sound like the oft-eulogized land of the free, but think about it. Can you wear leather pants and a see-through tank top to your staff meeting? Can you wear a polo shirt and khakis to hang with your emo band? To both questions: yes, but get ready for a shitstorm.
It may seem like the tyranny of the corporate system, but it goes beyond that. The U.S. is a consumer culture through and through, so we express our personalities through brands and trends. Unemployed non-conformist 19 year olds are just as rigid in their wardrobe as married project managers. They cleave to a different narrow mold, but a narrow one all the same.
Asia Ain’t So
In Thailand, I was struck by the diversity of styles on the street. Not just different groups but individuals with their own unique look. In the US if someone is sporting a unique look I make a point to go up and compliment them. Had I done that in Chiang Mai I’d never get 100 steps.
Without a doubt T-shirts and jeans were ubiquitous in Chiang Mai, like anywhere. But a substantial chunk of the population takes the time to build their own personal style. For a people with relatively low income, fashion statements seem to be a spending priority among the younger generation.
At its root, this is no different than the American impulse: spend money on clothing that says who you are. It’s the execution that’s different. Americans buy into a brand or group: Nike has this, goths wear that. Thai 20-somethings seem to disregard all lines of brand, style, East and West to make something that says “this is me.”
Chiang Mai was not my favorite place, but this really impressed me.
I can’t explain this phenomena. Have you ever watched anime? Each major character, good or bad, wears a unique style that extends to their accessories, hair style, and tattoos. For a long time I resisted making the anime comparison because, well, “OMG Asia is like anime!” does not sound like the worldly traveler sound bite of the month. But art/life/inspires, you know the deal: they consume a lot of anime there, and anime is in part based on actual youth culture.
Bottom line, people in Chiang Mai are using fashion as a canvas to express their individualism in a way no US high school rebel has ever matched.
What About Mexico?
The difference between US and Thailand was easy to see. It’s drastic, and they’re almost total opposites. But Mexico makes my head spin.
Again, I’m not talking about T-shirts. Sure, those are everywhere. And walk into any business district and you’ll see suits and professional attire. No surprise there.
But it’s in more informal settings I’m surprised. Frequently I see men in vest, tie, jacket and dress pants just out walking their dogs. Not only older men, but men my age too. Women build themselves up: tall boots with tall heels, flaring jackets with high shoulders, so much hip sway they take up two lanes. It reminds me of a cat puffing itself up to scare off bigger animals.
People dress like this to go to the corner market.
I’ve got an ascot. I’m going to start wearing it.
What cultural differences have surprised you? Jump in and tell us a story. Did fashion statements surprise you somewhere you visited? Did you change your own style afterward?
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By the way, did you know I’ve started my own business? And I make beautiful things? That are magic? Fuck yeah. Click on over and check out altmagic.com.