To Blend Or Not To Blend

Vera Smirnova 0 Comments

There is a certain controversy on the popular topic "How to dress for European travel". Basically, there are two camps: one with the fashionable and somewhat demanding  motto: "blend with locals!" and another which proudly declares: "who cares, I am a tourist!"  The truth is to be found, as it often happens,  in between.
And yes, it is quite possible to dress in a most appropriate way and still be comfortable while walking all day on cobblestone hills.

Lucca, Italy

Let's take a look on what people really mean when they talk about comfortable clothes. First thing that comes to mind is probably something like yoga pants completed with t-shirt and hoodie. And sneakers, or maybe even flip flops. This means body comfort. But there is one more thing - oftentimes overlooked, but still very important. I would call this "appropriateness". Here is an example: imagine yourself wearing that relaxed yoga  stuff while walking your dog in the park. Would you feel comfortable? Yes, of course!  Now, imagine yourself in the same outfit, entering San Francisco Opera House for a premier of "Tosca". You look around and see ladies wearing evening or cocktail dresses, gentlemen wearing suits and shiny leather shoes. Are you still comfortable? Or maybe you feel somehow out of place?

That's the key. There are, probably, folks out there who would feel quite comfortable wearing pajamas for their friend's wedding party, but even in that  case there will be some uneasiness surrounding such a person. Underdressing too much for the place or event oftentimes is viewed as an offense, as an insult to hosts. The language of clothes speaks by itself even when you are silent. So when breaking the rule of appropriateness, be ready for  some strange looks or  unwillingly service you may receive. At least you will know where it comes from. Remember that in European culture dressing appropriately to occasion plays important role in social interaction.

So what are the best outfits for European travel? Here is the answer: Those that are comfortable for  your body  AND appropriate for the place or occasion. And here comes the tricky part. We all know our own bodies, but sometimes  more information on what is considered as  appropriate at the particular place or event would be helpful. Buckle up,  you are in the right place to begin the European "fashion journey"!

But before we take off, remember: you are the boss! Which means that only you will decide what tips and suggestions to follow.

So many fashion blogs and travel magazines call for "blending with locals" and  warn us to stay away from looking  "touristy". Most of them explain this suggestion as a safety concern, because tourists are easier prey for pickpockets to compare to the  local people who speak the language and can file a police report. I partially agree with this, but I think tourists are an easier target simply because they are more distracted at any given time. They photograph those nice second floor balconies, they admire tall church doors or stained glass ornaments, they try to find their way in unfamiliar city, they struggle to read the train time table in the language they do not understand...
There are a few precautions to remember, which will add to your wallet's safety much more than wearing the right clothes.
Such as:
do not carry too much cash with you on any given day. Think of what amount you might want to spend today. Stash most of the cash into some inner or at least zippered pocket and keep a bare minimum in your wallet. Keep the wallet either in a deep pocket close to your body or for ladies - in a zippered purse. No open top purses, please!
Same with credit cards. Carry one that you plan to use in your wallet and leave the others either in the hotel safe or very well hidden in a deep inner pocket.
No money or documents in your backpack, please! If you'd like to know  more about travel money tips, read Ten Tips To Make [Any] Trip More Enjoyable.

Now back to the travel fashion!
I am not going to proclaim strictly: "Wear this, not that!" or make a long list of "dos" and "don'ts". I would rather give you a tool that will allow you to come to the best decision depending on your goals.
It is obvious that before we make any decision we must first gather information on the subject.
So what is the "touristic" look and how it is different from  the "local" look?
If you ever happened to be in  popular European cities, you've probably noticed flocks of folks wearing hiking boots, gym sneakers or hiking sandals like Keens or North Face, waterproof kayaker's hats  with the back flap, convertible  pants or gym shorts, and other nice outdoorsy staff from REI stores. Complete this look with water bottles dangling from day packs and be sure you spot a tourist, most probably from US. Their outfits scream: "I am a tourist!"

There is absolutely nothing wrong in looking foreign. The "foreign" style could be really chic if it is assembled tastefully and is not insulting local residents.  And if it is appropriate for the place or event.  In other words if it doesn't make a fool of you. No, really, brave safari hikers in the center of Prague look strange, to say the least... Locals do not take them seriously and look to them with a mix of pity and laugh in their eyes. Believe me, I was a local there for a number of years!

Here are some insights on European fashion (keep in mind that it actually differs from one country to another.   Generally in the countries with stronger religious roots people, especially as they age, tend to cover more of their body). European fashion is  less sporty, less unisex and a bit more conservative than American. But the difference is not huge. Actually, if you wear something other than workout or hiking outfits, you'll be just fine, at least during the daytime. Dining out, though, calls for  a bit more formal attire, especially if you dine in upscale restaurants.

Summer in Genoa (Photo by Vera Smirnova)

Commonly, in Europe the footwear style  plays  very important role in social impression. I do not know why it is so, I do not even know whether anyone knows, but this is how it is. Somehow people tend to look at your shoes and either forgive you any and all the silly clothes you wear on the rest of your body, or pin your name on the list of so-so folks. Rules? Very simple: Shoes should  be  clean, neat,  in a good shape, coordinate well with the rest of the outfit and be suitable for the occasion. And leather shoes are still on top of the fashion list.


Different kinds of shoes serve different purposes. Mountain hiking shoes are very comfortable for long walks in Sierra Nevada, but on Champs-Élysées they will look completely out of place. Hiking boots are meant for hiking, gym shoes for workouts, flip flops - for the beach. You might want to break this rule, but you need to know it first, right? And chill out:  Yes, Europeans do wear sneakers in the city, too. In a past few years "fashion sneakers" are flooding Europe with great success.  They are quite similar to the gym shoes,  bringing the same level of comfort to your feet, but  their colors are more neutral, not screaming, and they do not bear large logos of sportswear companies.  So, ladies, pair  fashion sneakers and nice skirt or  dress and you are ready for a day of sightseeing! There is no need in torturing your feet with high heels during the day if you do not feel like wearing them.  Save heels for dining out or visiting opera house. Men in Europe wear  city sneakers, too; however they still prefer neat leather shoes.

Few tips for your feet well-being

Shoes are the most important part of a traveler's outfit. They are the tools of the trade, so to speak. So they need to be comfortable for your feet. No one wants to travel to another country just to spend the time in the hotel room. And as we already know, shoes happen to be maybe the most important part of the impression that we leave on another people. So these comfortable shoes should, ideally, be attractive, or at least not too far out of place. Start looking for travel shoes at least 2-3 months before departure. It may take some time before the right ones will be found. Take into account the weather at your destination, planned activities, and the style for the rest of your outfit. Once you think you've got the right shoes, try to wear them as often as possible so that by the time you take off they are  broken in. And by the way, toss some band-aids, moleskins and blister pads into your day bag. Because even nicely broken-in shoes might give you a hard time if worn day-by-day for a week or more.

Paris, summer 2018 

Traveling to Europe gives a wonderful possibility to explore fashion and develop your own unique style, or maybe add some notches to your existing look. You can wear a great diversity of outfits without feeling "overdressed". In fact, the fear of being overdressed is blooming in the US, but almost non-existent in Europe. Thant's why Americans oftentimes refer to Europeans as "snobs" and Europeans are shocked to know that in the US people can go outside the house wearing pajama pants and slippers. In American fashion for any age there is a lot more of body exposure than overseas.

Clothes selection, obviously, will depend on your itinerary. Are you planning to spend a lot of time on the beach? Are you going for a day long hike? Or it is mostly museums, shops and theaters? Or everything above? Are you fashion person that likes to be noticed or you prefer stay low? In what type of clothes you feel really comfortable (do not forget about "appropriateness")? As funny as it sounds,  in European fashion age also must be taken into account. It is not ageism in any way,  it is more of a status thing.  A rule of thumb  could be described as "the older - the more conservative and more expensive".  Generally it means  more coverage and more stylish "adult" clothes. So  if you want to blend, leave those Mickey Mouse t-shirts, short shorts  and baseball team caps for kids...    
In the US you can oftentimes  spot grandmas with their elementary school granddaughters, wearing the same outfits: leggings, spaghetti strap top and gym shoes for almost any occasion. You see grandpas wearing shorts and flip flops on chilly February morning with mid 50-s of Fahrenheit. Here it is normal, nothing wrong with that. But in Europe people do not dress in such a way. Men usually save shorts for a beach trip, otherwise they wear trousers. Most women would wear skirts rather than  shorts.  Note that as life goes by, style does not idle, too. In the cities on the hot summer day you'll see more and more  men wearing shorts (not gym ones, though! And only in summer). Usually shorts are paired with moccasins, not with flip flops. In reality, flip flops are quite inconvenient for walk on crowded sidewalks or entering and exiting buses and metro trains, so think twice if you are planning to wear them on European trip.  And yes, jeans are absolutely fine, as long as they well fitted.

Menswear shop in Rome (Photo by Vera Smirnova)

I also am going to bust another myth that is traveling from one blog to another, to another...  If you happened to read packing advises for European travel, you probably remember "stick with neutral colors" statement. Well, you may stick with neutral if it is your thing, but in reality, in summertime there are lots of colors on the streets and in the shops. In the summer 2018 all northern Italy wore different shades of pink, for example.  And Paris wore blue, and golden... Do not be afraid of colors.  Just be sure to build well-matching, well-fitting, not too flamboyant outfit. And retrain from graphic t-shirts with slogans that might be considered offensive or silly. Better no slogans at all.

Here are some tips for those who wants to blend: Casual comfort is the key. Look for comfortable clothes that will make you feel good wherever you go. I will post some suggested packing lists for those who prefer more defined guidelines, but I am pretty sure that after reading this overview of European fashion and defining your goals everyone will be able to pack accordingly.

Summer in Paris

Before deciding what to put into suitcase, take some time and check European fashion magazines or stores to get an idea what is worn now. Here are few shops that represent well current trends:

La Redoute         C&A        Promod      Artigiano       Styloose    

Gentlemen, you  look great in woven shirts or nice polo shirts! Let European travel become great occasion to take a break from  team or tech t-shirts and fleece hoodies.

Note: in churches, shoulders and knees should be covered, otherwise you'll not be allowed to enter. Some fancy restaurants will refuse to serve men and women wearing shorts. We may agree or disagree with it, but that's how it is.

If you see men wearing baseball hats while sitting inside at the restaurant's table, you may be pretty  sure  they are tourists from the US. At least any time I saw the hat guys, they spoke perfect American English. And if I told you that you can break the rules when it comes to shoes and clothes, please do not break the hat rule! In most European countries it is considered very rude for men to wear any kind of hat at the dining table, especially inside the building. It shows disrespect to the host. Waiters would feel that they are not respected and that may affect, to some degree, their behavior. So gentlemen, in order to make the best out of your dinner experience, please take off your hats.

Dining out is an occasion to dress up. Not dramatically, compared with day outfits, but still. You won't see European women wearing  gym clothes  for the dinner. Same for men. Dining out is not about just eating  food, it is a social occasion, a fact that is reflected in clothes selection.

Now you understand better why and in which way Europeans tend to dress differently than Americans.
You can use this knowledge when deciding what to pack for the trip.  Do you just want to take a look on the attractions you are visiting, or do you want to taste, to immerse, to live a piece of local life?  I always travel for the second cause, but this is a personal decision for everyone. Whether your goal is to blend with local crowd, or to make a clear statement: "I am a tourist!" or anything in between, there will be far less surprises or misunderstandings.