Rule 1: Leave the Fanny Pack
What makes an Ugly American ugly? Is it the timbre of our voices? Or the way we travel in herds? Or is it (as we suspect) our love of sweatpants, baseball caps, and yes, fanny packs, no matter the occasion or place? While it can sometimes seem that the world has fallen victim to a sort of sartorial globalization, where jeans are welcome anytime, anywhere, the truth is-of course-more nuanced. What works in surprisingly laid-back Singapore will be greeted with looks of horror on the streets (or in the boardrooms) of Paris. And ladies, while you can (and should) pile on the gold and jewels in Greece, quirky and stripped-down is the way to go in Germany. So here are the rules on looking not just appropriate but actually stylish around the globe, whether you’re in a meeting, At a party:, or just walking outdoors. Plus: Tips on how to wear a head scarf, what to pack for safari, and how to play European for a day. Ugly American? Fuhgeddaboudit.
AFRICA/THE MIDDLE EAST
In general, coverage is key. But while merely clothing your collarbone is enough in Jordan, just an inch of shoulder skin could get you arrested in Iran; over in Dubai, you’ll need a brand or two to make it big. Men are usually fine in long pants, and women carry shawls for a quick conservative fix, but consider yourself forewarned: Style is a sensitive subject here.
At a meeting: Women’s pantsuits should be sheeny and glam; men’s duds are buffed, black, and paired with slim ties.
On the street: The mall, not the street, is the social arena. Here, girls in T-shirts (their shoulders covered out of respect and as a remedy against the freezing AC blasts) tote the latest Louis Vuittons. Carry a pashmina to cover up in case you find yourself in a traditional souk—although you’ll see miniskirts and shorts, they’re for people who know the city well enough to avoid ultra-conservative quarters. On men, reflective aviators abound, as do Gucci sandals.
At a party: Go glam to the gills: No Swarovski is too shiny and no Giuseppe Zanotti is too high. Men wear Y3 trainers and tailored blazers over graphic tees.
P.S. Put on clean socks if you’re going to a local’s house—you’ll leave your shoes at the door.
At a meeting: A long-sleeved ?button-down with slacks is acceptable for all but the most formal meetings. You might spot an older lawyer or professor wearing a tie, but ties and sport coats are almost obsolete. Women, on the other hand, always wear jackets over high-necked shells and loose pants.
On the street: Shorts are a faux pas unless you’re hitting the greens or playing squash at a sports club, and even then they’re wrong for women, who are better off in pants or long skirts (ankle-length jeans and khaki cargo styles are popular). Men always layer undershirts beneath polos, even on warm desert days.
At a party: It would be hard to underdress. Men are never turned away for wearing a smart shirt and slacks, even if others are wearing full suits. For women, a shoulder-covering black sheath is safe and sophisticated.
P.S. About 90 percent of Egyptian women cover their heads, but tourists aren’t expected to.
At a meeting: Men wear crisp Italian suits and shined shoes. A chador (hooded floor-length cloak) is needed for a woman meeting a clerical group, but for most gatherings, she should slip on a black manteau (a loose coatlike garment), low closed-toe pumps, and an Iranian hijab. Locally bought products drape best and look contextually refined.
On the street: Special police enforce the Islamic dress code, which requires women (non-Muslims included) to be covered from head to toe. The working classes wear full-length black chadors, but a manteau over jeans is an acceptable alternative. Hijabs are often patterned or pinned with pretty brooches. Makeup should be minimal, and while bright lipstick isn’t allowed, flawless eyebrows are an absolute must.
At a party: Wear whatever you want under your outer cloak; ?the young remove their voluminous robes to show off tight jeans and strappy stilettos at friends’ informal gatherings. Older intellectuals conceal elegant suits under their cloaks.
P.S. They’re credited with creating the first perfume, so it’s no surprise that the Iranians are scent savvy: Although women might be cloaked, they’re often doused in glam, sexy fragrances like Azzaro’s vetiver and pimento tonics.
At a meeting: Israelis take pride in dressing down: Jeans are more common than jackets and ties, and business formal often means no more than a button-down and khaki pants. For women, skirts are better than trousers for meetings with religious colleagues. But in liberal Tel Aviv, anything goes—particularly trendy dresses from boutiques on Dizengoff and Shenkin streets.
On the street: It’s South Beach style in resorty Eilat and Tel Aviv, where cotton shorts and tank tops are de rigueur during the hot summer months. Everywhere in Israel is fairly casual, but Jerusalem, Galilee, and Tiberias get colder winters and call for more conservative dress. In these places, long skirts are ideal for women, and everyone covers up at Jewish and Christian religious sites, with high necks and long sleeves.
At a party: Secular celebrations call for jeans and nice tops; for religious ceremonies or weddings, cover past the elbows and below the knees.
P.S. Far from frumpy, Israel’s a burgeoning fashion hub: Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz and designer Yigal Azroel hail from the Holy Land.
At a meeting: Suits and shoes should be simple, and dresses work for women provided they’re shin-length and sleeved. Big hair is not for the Jordanian boardroom: Tie long locks into chignons and keep short dos neat. The “Hillary Clinton look” is a woman’s best bet, according to John Shoup, author of Culture and Customs of Jordan.
On the street: Rich red embroidery is popular, so Western women can don detailed tunics over loose trousers (many local women wear pants) or black cotton dresses embellished with traditional needlework. Men wear khakis and collared shirts.
At a party: King Abdullah II is a sartorial guide; he’s almost always dressed in navy suits for nighttime (gray for daytime) and a light-colored silk tie. Queen Rania set a haute new tone by sporting Lanvin, Dior, and Elie Saab to evening affairs, but the first lady covers her shoulders and legs (with couture) when she’s out in Amman.
P.S. The veil’s a release of sorts for trendy young women, who can show a little more skin as long as the head is covered.
At a meeting: Newscasters like Rima Maktabi set female fashion mores, making straight skirts, fuchsia jackets, and big hair (never a ponytail) the look for any sort of meeting. Men favor two-button Hugo Boss in navy or black.
On the street: Beirut is fashion-forward, but the city’s poor Shiite majority dictates a conservative look. Since the stylish set don’t do much walking, women shuttle around in Audis wearing light dresses or caftans. Men are ostentatious in Hermès belts and loafers, and carry crisp bills folded into platinum money clips. Be warned that such liberal style won’t fly outside the capital city.
At a party: Anything goes on weekend nights in the nightclub district of Ashrafieh, but fancier parties demand draped, flowing gowns by local designers like Rabih Kayrouz and Krikor Jabotian.
P.S. Women express themselves through their accessories, which are often over-the-top: bright scarves, gold bangles, glittery clutches, and neon satchels from local favorite Sarah’s Bag (100 Liban St.; 961-1-575-585).
At a meeting: Casual Friday hasn’t arrived in these parts—women and men are invariably formal in suits.
On the street: “You see styles of the twelfth century and modern urban wear” when strolling down any Moroccan street, says Joel Zack of Heritage Tours Private Travel. Some women still wear head scarves (they’re no longer required for Muslim girls), but Zara jeans and trendy tops are the popular style du jour.
At a party: Hand-piped tunics, bright floor-length djellabas, and elaborate caftans outfit crowds of locals and émigrés who gather in ornate riads. French expats come in a chic Little Black Dress (LBD), and cover up en route with a light cotton shawl.
P.S. Moroccans are particularly averse to shorts and everything Lycra (which, in our opinion, should be universally shunned).
At a meeting: A suit for men; women wear smart skirt ensembles (never trousers or slacks).
On the street: Although tight jeans and bare midriffs aren’t unusual in hip Damascene hoods like Salahiya, you’ll have to search hard to find a Syrian woman over 40 wearing pants. Older women wrap the head in a hijab—or an Hermès scarf—when shopping in marketplaces downtown, although this isn’t required of tourists. Do remain respectful by covering arms and legs before going out.
At a party: Syrian socialites idolize First Lady Asma Assad, the London-raised Deutsche Bank alum who beat out Carla Bruni to become French Elle‘s best-dressed political lady in 2008. Assad loves an LBD or a curvy suit by Valentino or Chanel. Her husband, President Bashar al-Assad, is always perfectly pressed in a two-button wool ensemble.
P.S. Don’t worry about bringing a covering to tour a religious site: If a mosque requires women to wear abayas—which leave only face, feet, and hands exposed—it provides the wrap at the door.
You’ll need a myriad of outfit options for a transcontinental Asian trek. Miniskirts and monochrome black are safe bets from Jakarta to Japan, but women in India and Pakistan cover their legs and sport vibrant, rich hues. In fact, very few styles would work in every country: Flip-flops, for instance, are trendy in Singapore, verboten in China, and, in Indonesia, acceptable only for shower wear. Here’s how to prep before you pack.
At a meeting: Twenty years ago, “Chinese fashion” meant dark Mao pantsuit uniforms; today, work clothes are still homogenous suits and ties, even on the hottest summer days. Businesswomen go without makeup and jewelry, and everyone shies away from conspicuous consumption to show they’re focused on the business at hand.
On the street: Arms, chest, and back should be covered, but “China is not puritanical,” says Qin Herzberg, co-author of China Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps. “Dressing unconventionally won’t offend anyone. It’s a question of presenting oneself in the best light.” Although Chinese women wear conservative cuts, shirts are sometimes transparent, leaving the bra in full view.
At a party: Exaggerated styles and silhouettes by Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela, and Yohji Yamamoto are currently hot (in a monochromatic palette, of course).
P.S. “Chinese women would be loath to wear any footwear without straps, because it shows too much of the foot,” says Herzberg. “The style also reminds them of flip-flops, which are seen as cheap.”
At a meeting: Hillary Clinton, you’re in luck—pantsuits are okay anywhere on the Indian Subcontinent; choose cotton or linen in summer, and accessorize with a colored scarf or dangly earrings to keep up with vividly dressed locals, who wear bold diaphanous saris to boardrooms in Bangalore and Mumbai. (Men, don’t be afraid to wear color, too—you certainly won’t feel out of place).
On the street: Unless you’re here to visit a Bollywood star, designer clothes aren’t right for Indian city streets. A sari won’t work, either: “Western women look silly because they can’t wrap or tie it right,” says Barbara Crossette, author of India: Old Civilization in a New World. Instead, wear drawstring pants, leather toe sandals, and a nice cotton tee. Men can go super-comfy in a kurta, or knee-length tunic, usually worn with cotton or linen bottoms; the women’s version is called a kameez.
At a party: Since beautiful silk is readily available, women commission local seamstresses to make sleek knee-length tunics with side slits and legging-like pants worn bunched at the ankles. But your jewels are what you’ll really be judged by: “Indians have their jewelry made to order; no one buys off the shelf,” Crossette says. Men wear short-sleeved button-downs, slacks, and loafers.
P.S. Sandals are easiest when touring, since you can slip them off quickly before entering temples. And a word to the wise: Ankle bracelets are out.
At a meeting: “I’ve never seen a tie in Indonesia,” says Virginia Gorlinski, a Northwestern University music professor who has traveled to the country dozens of times. Modesty’s more important to Indonesian moguls, who wear batik button-downs with khaki pants and closed shoes. Women sport ponytails, plain dresses, long sleeves, lipstick, and blush, and leave any notable jewelry at home.
On the street: Flip-flops? “They’re what you wear in the bathroom,” Gorlinski says. “Never out in town.” Pair heel-covering sandals (like gladiators), sneakers, or ballet flats with Levi’s or Lee jeans—American denim is revered in Jakarta and its surrounds. Wear some kind of collar (a polo shirt, perhaps) as a sign of respect.
At a party: Men swap jeans for khakis and sneakers for loafers. Cotton’s not formal enough to wear out at night; to Indonesians, synthetics hang best and are worn in vibrant prints. Because the typical man measures five feet two inches (women average four feet ten inches), you needn’t bother packing heels.
P.S. In rural areas, naked bathing’s a bad idea, no matter how private your stretch of the river feels. Some locals are so modest that they don’t even strip down in their own bathrooms.
At a meeting: “The Japanese word for dress shirt, wai shatsu, comes from the English for ‘white shirt,’ which gives you an idea of the range of colors worn at work,” says Dan Rosen, professor at Tokyo’s Chuo Law School, who recommends basic black suits. In 2005, the government launched a Cool Biz initiative meant to lower AC costs by encouraging lighter work attire; it’s been met with fierce resistance by the jacket-and-tie-loving Japanese working class.
On the street: For Tokyo youth, nothing’s too studied or over-the-top, so the laissez-faire American norm is seen as slovenly. Women should wear heels, makeup, and a dose of frills, and men must be clean shaven and must spend time on their hair.
At a party: Agnès B. and Louis Vuitton are the easiest icebreakers, since the Japanese love labels—along with the stylish shapes by local designers like Yohji Yamamoto. No sweat suits, please!
P.S. Planning to shop here? Note that Japanese sizes run significantly smaller than those in the States. If you wear a medium in the United States, a Japanese XL might be a squeeze.
At a meeting: Tunics, fitted jackets, and even low-cut (but not décolletage) blouses work for women, who must always cover their legs—preferably with loose pants. Men in corporate fields like banking wear ties (and jackets for real conference room affairs), but media types don’t.
On the street: Loose jeans and a tunic-like top (shirts should reach the upper thigh) make for perfect daywear when layered with a bright embroidered scarf. In the south, men and women wear vibrant colors and breezy cotton layers. The country’s northern half is cooler and requires heavier, darker duds. No shorts, tank tops, or above-the-knee skirts.
At a party: It’s culturally atypical to walk to events at night, so you can wear whatever you’d like to private parties: Bright young things don body-hugging Hervé Léger dresses and strappy stilettos, and their male counterparts put on T-shirts and Gucci loafers. At Karachi’s plethora of glitzy charity balls, style runs the gamut from Eastern saris to fancy Western frocks. Women wear gold bangles, large earrings, and glittery nose studs.
P.S. Makeup’s vital for girls; heavy kohl is worn around the eyes.
At a meeting: You wouldn’t think so, given Singapore’s rules—happy reputation, but business meetings are actually super casual here (well, dresswise at least). Jackets aren’t required, ties are rare, and both sexes wear oxfords and slacks. For women, trendy peg-leg pants are often permissible.
On the street: Those in their 20s and 30s strut in tank tops, hot pants (board shorts for boys), and flip-flops. A polo shirt by Fred Perry or Ralph Lauren is a popular option, as well as anything from casual mass-market stores.
At a party: “A Marni dress with Giuseppe Zanotti sandals for house parties,” says Aun Koh, director of Singapore-based Ate Consulting. Brands are important to upper&-class dames, who competitively collect Hermès bags. Men wear designer jeans from the likes of G–Star Raw and Dr. Denim.
P.S. Hems are worn high at every age—get your gams ready.
If there’s one hard and fast sartorial rule in Europe, it’s this: Shabby is never chic. And no one, whether in London or Leipzig, likes the American travel-comfort gear of clunky sneakers and shapeless skirts. That having been said, style varies wildly from country to country. The mullets that will make you a star in Moscow won’t fly in peg-leg-trousers-crazed London or sleek Paris. So how should you dress? Just stay simple, look to the locals, and follow a few basic rules.
At a meeting: Dark, tailored, unflashy suits by Dior Homme or Jil Sander for both women and men (who need not wear ties).
On the street: Avoid bright colors—even kids’ clothes come mainly in cream, navy, gray, and brown—and take care to shun the plethora of other offenses: pleated chinos, walking shorts, sport sandals, baseball caps, golf attire, loud logos, sneakers, T-shirts, and sexy clothes. “In France, it’s always best to keep things simple, neutral, and classic rather than too trendy,” says Miles Socha, European editor for Women’s Wear Daily.
At a party: On a normal night out, overdressing’s okay, but if it’s black-tie, underdress: Men should wear business suits sans ties, women should slip on cocktail dresses, and for a normal night out, femmes should keep it simple, silky, and black.
P.S. “One’s shoes and belt should always match,” advises François Delahaye, former general manager at Paris’s legendary Plaza Athélnée. But, he adds, a man’s tie should never mirror his silk pocket square.
At a meeting: German men wear the tweedy jackets you’d expect, while female professionals—who hold only 15 percent of management positions—strive to be staid in dark suits, discreet jewelry, and loaferlike shoes.
On the street: Germans run the gamut from wildly fashionable to definitively frumpy—with an intellectual in-between group that pairs their sack dresses with edgy haircuts and bold jewelry. Although nothing’s verboten, the perpetual cold dictates sensible coats, which, for the stylish, are asymmetrically zippered or bat-sleeved and made of wool.
At a party: “Restrained flash” is the ideal, according to Jenny White, associate professor of anthropology at Boston University, and Henrik Vibskov’s bias-cut patterns are the perfect approach for both sexes. At a hipster shindig, women add an eclectic twist with Buddy Holly glasses and colored tights.
P.S. Anything shabby will be noticed; people will cluck at a scuffed shoe and gape unrestrainedly at a hanging hem or soiled shirt.
At a meeting: Men, you may never look as good as a Greek does in a suit, pressed cotton shirt, and Hermès tie, but you might as well try. Women, forego glitz and gold buttons for dark Armani suits, strappy heels, and smart leather bags.
On the street: Jackie O’s legacy lives on in the legions of Greek women wearing linen trousers, nice tees, sweaters tied around the shoulders, and oversized shades. Both women and men “aim to look like a Gap ad,” says Olga Merck Davidson, a Brandeis College professor who spends part of her year in Greece. Mr. Onassis has his own followers, who wear jeans and Ralph Lauren shirts, sleeves rolled to the elbow.
At a party: Clothes are secondary to jewelry, especially the chunky, dark-gold baubles and bangles worn by so many Greek women. If you can look past the sparkle, you’ll find skirts, tailored to mid-thigh, under fitted jackets. Scentwise, women strive to smell like rosemary, not like roses: They’ll only use organic products (such as the locally made Korres). Men wear dark pants and starched shirts.
P.S. No baseball caps, no Birkenstocks, no billowy fake-hippie skirts. Ever.
At a meeting: While Italians can pull off anything at work—from Bermuda shorts to bustiers—Americans should avoid such sartorial sprezzatura (on us it doesn’t look cool, it looks crazy). Still, shirts can be low-cut and vibrantly hued; men’s suits must be perfectly tailored.
On the street: Young people pair tight Dolce & Gabbana tops with Diesel jeans, while sophisticates sport slim three-piece suits, always matched with the right hat or narrow knit tie.
At a party: A woman won’t leave the house without her Dolce & Gabbana dress and heels (four–inch minimum). Men look good in navy suit jackets with blue shirts buttoned all the way up.
P.S. Think brands, brands, brands—and preferably Italian: Versace, Gucci, Cavalli, or Armani.
At a meeting: You’d be hard-pressed to get hems higher or necklines lower than those of Muscovite businesswomen. While Americans shouldn’t try to keep up, they’re expected to spend time on their hair and makeup. Men accessorize mullets (a trend!) with double-breasted suits, preferably pin-striped.
On the street: Scanty outfits require tights and fur coats during frigid Russian winters; men flash as much Dolce, Versace, and Armani as possible, along with acid-washed Italian jeans. Sneakers draw incredulous stares.
At a party: “The average Russian woman has higher cheekbones and longer legs,” says Peter Savodnik, a Russian-based journalist. You can catch up with stilettos (worn 24/7) and local fave Stella McCartney. Men have it much easier, Savodnik says: “Brush your teeth, use some product, tie your shoes, don’t make eye contact with cops, and everything will be fine.”
P.S. “Super Euro cologne—and especially anything Armani—is the height of hip; the more the better,” says Savodnik.
At a meeting: Neither men nor women should go without manicures, since Turks are known for being perfectly groomed. Hair should be trimmed, suits fitted (jackets and pants need not match), button-downs left open and worn without undershirts peeking through. Tailoring is a primary indicator of class, so no matter how cheap the suit, it should fit well.
On the street: “I once heard that a woman had trouble getting a tea-man to serve her because she dressed like a frumpy housewife,” says White. So dressing down is not an option. Men and women cultivate a studied casual look in designer jeans, Tod’s loafers, and ironed high-end T-;shirts (like James Perse)—never shorts.
At a party: Visible brand names are seen as cheap and low-class. Truly chic women wear Matthew Williamson florals rather than triangle-stamped Prada, and accessorize with one large statement bauble, like a giant cocktail ring by Turkish born Sevan Biçakçi. Hair is tightly pulled back. Men wear open shirts under light jackets with dark pants (or vice versa).
P.S. “Never wear a long raincoat,” White says. “Even when it’s pouring, a secular Turk will wear a short coat so as not to be mistaken for a conservative Islamist.”
At a meeting: The downtown banking-and-newspaper bustle calls for a suit and tie (no tie on Fridays), but you’ll be laughed out of Soho or Kensington ad agencies in the same getup: There, cool execs don a uniform of the newest Nikes and skinny jeans.
On the street: Quirky Kate Mossinspired London girls throw on a high-low mix of Top Shop and Temperley; they’re freer and less polished than other city style–setters. Men wear peg-leg trousers in primary colors with plaid shirts or tees. Don’t opt for chinos and polos—the preppy look won’t fly in London. At a party: Skinny jeans take a girl or boy from meetings to a cutesy mews (switch from heels to Chuck Taylors) to a Shoreditch pub crawl (back to heels).
P.S. Wellies might be as British as it gets, but they’re really country wear. Do take them off if you’re lounging indoors.