Mexico City, Thailand, Travel

Fashion Around the World

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.

Consumer Uniforms

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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21 thoughts on “Fashion Around the World

  1. Lorri says:

    I get that Europeans have a different look than most Americans. Slightly different but you can sometimes look at someone and say “they look European”. When I was in my twenties I found myself in a club in London. I was with a friend and we met up with some people there. I remember one of them saying to me “before you spoke, I never would have thought that you were an American”. So he had decided that I was a native by the way I was dressed. I remember that pleasing me, though I couldn’t say why…

    • Soliwo says:

      Which is funny to Europeans since Italians dress way different that the Dutch for example.

      However, I am quite shocked by seeing American students go to university and sweat shirts and flip-flops. Or go to the supermarket in their pj’s. I am not saying this is what Americans do … but some do … and I am not used to that. In my country doing that will probably get you labelled as lower class.

      We Dutch do not dress up much, the most of us do not care to much for high fashion, but neither do we feel that comfortable. There was this song about Walmart with a video clip showing what people would wear whilst shopping. I was mortified!

      • Lorri says:

        Unfortunately, a lot of Americans, teens and twenties, do wear pj’s and sweats out and about. I like to dress nicely on a regular basis and I have received as many negative comments as compliments. It’s strange that our clothing has become such a statement-perhaps we should all just wear our birthday suits!

          • Lorri says:

            I work in an office but it’s in a rural setting and our manufacturing facility is in the same building. People at work (and sometimes friends outside of work) ask “why are you all dressed up?” or i get “how do where those shoes?” or similar. Not really digs I guess but sometimes a mild disapproval about dressing up when I don’t “have” to do so. I have also had comments from other women about wearing makeup and doing my hair…but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, as it were…

      • Janneke, you are totally right and sadly it is not just a few college kids but almost all of them! I remember being mystified by that even when I was in college. I will dress casual at times but pajamas somehow don’t do it for me.

    • I used to live next to a Canadian Army base where Brits used to come to train. When you saw them around town in their civvies you could tell: stand up collars on their jackets (whether or not they had soccer team logos), they rarely wore jeans, always slacks. And their shoes were usually “tennies” not cross-trainers like North Americans.

      The differences were very subtle. Took me a long time to clue into it.

      On a related note, a female British ex-pat tells me that N. American clothes are very poor quality compared to what sells in Britain. Anyone care to share stories?

      • I wouldn’t be surprised. I think Americans treat clothes (and most possessions) as disposable, whereas in Europe it’s more common to see them as a long-term investment. My Italian ex-wife certainly viewed clothing that way.

  2. Yeah, you’d rock the hell out of an ascot (now that I’ve looked up what it is!) And you’re 100% right about how we dress here in the West. I have 0 idea what kind of style I have, because basically I don’t think I have any style! That’s kinda sad…

  3. We have uniformed dress codes in New Zealand too. When we first came to our current city, we laughed at how alike the teenaged girls were – every single one of them dressed in shorts/miniskirt with a tank top, maybe a lacy cardigan over it, and long straight hair. Now of course my own daughter dresses like that, and I’m laughing on the other side of my face.

  4. Soliwo says:

    P.S. When I was in Spain, I could often easily identify fellow countrymen, especially women. White capri’s were a definate sign.

  5. Pingback: A Life Without Mondays « Rogue Priest

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