17 Apr 2015

Avoiding Fashion Faux Pas in Different Cultures

Britain offers some of the world’s strictest codes of dress – in certain situations at least. Whilst the country that inspired punk has high tolerance of straying from convention when it comes to streetwear, that tolerance stops at the entrance to Royal Ascot or the Regatta at Henley, in private members clubs, on the court at Wimbledon or any bowls club in the country.

Women attending Ascot are instructed that their dresses should have straps at least one inch wide and that they must wear hats. Furthermore, these hats must have a headpiece with a base of at least 4 inches (10cm) in diameter.

Whilst Wimbledon recently relaxed the dress code for tennis spectators, at the same time the organisers issued new rules about what competitors should wear on Centre Court – including regulations about underwear colour for both sexes.

Britain’s combination of high tolerance and rigid rules about dress may seem rather eccentric but it is at least helpful to occasionally be provided with a set of rules for dressing appropriately. It’s often difficult to know what to wear in an unfamiliar situation, and nowhere is that more the case than when you are in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar climate and culture.

Fortunately, the world has come to a high level of agreement on what people should wear for business situations. Outfits should consist of a business suit and (for men at least) a tie, in a dark conservative colour, and paler coloured shirt, with (for women) minimal make up and accessories.

The same is true from Japan to Nigeria, from Australia to Brazil. But you will find some minor differences. In Brazil it’s a bit of a faux pas for women to wear their hair down at work, whilst in Japan it’s less acceptable for women to wear trousers or high heels.

Certain items of dress tend to inspire strong opinion, especially ones associated with various religious affiliations. But on this the world cannot agree: the headscarf is banned in some parts of the world and mandated in others.

Despite this difference of opinion when it comes to which parts of the body should be covered, there are relatively few countries that will enforce laws on modesty on the average traveller.

Dressing to suit the local custom is more about feeling comfortable and finding it easier to interact with people on equal terms. If you’re travelling on business, dressing appropriately is an important way to present yourself credibly.

It’s easy to understand how to dress when the country enforces dress rules. In Saudi Arabia it’s wise for women visitors to buy or borrow an abaya (long cloak) and for men to stick to a long suit that covers the limbs. What’s harder to understand is the unwritten codes of dress. Watch and learn is usually the best bet – although that can be difficult if you’re heading straight to the meeting from the airport.

In most cases, for formal business, standard business wear is de rigeur. That’s your standard male business suit in a dark colour (though usually not black), button-front (but not button-down) shirt in a pale colour, usually with a tie unless you’re in a very exciting industry, and the female equivalent of skirt suit and sensible footwear. You can take this look into most of the meeting rooms in the world. But of course, there are a few exceptions…

Japan’s jolly shirts

In Japan, office wear is dark coloured and informal. It’s better to be over than underdressed but essential to look understated rather than showy. It’s best for women not to hear high heels to the office, or wear too many accessories. The formal dress code relaxes somewhat in the south of Japan during the summers. Here, even members of parliament wear the Kariyushi style shirt – a rather jolly short sleeve shirt with open collar. It’s important not to tuck it in though.

Brazil’s neat nails

How a person dresses is taken seriously in Brazil and it’s considered important to present yourself and your company well, and often be up to date with fashion. It’s less acceptable for women to wear their hair down in the office and women are also expected to have manicured hands. It’s considered a faux pas to wear the colours of the national flag, yellow and green.

Iran’s dislike of ties

In Iran, it’s important to be smart and conservative but it’s rare to see people wearing ties. That’s not because of the heat – ties are a political item of clothing and they have been prohibited by the leadership as contributing to the spread of western culture in the country. Whilst wearing a tie in Iran is probably going to be interpreted as a sign of dressing with respectful formality, you may prefer to go without one just to fit in.

Rigid codes persist

Whilst fairly conservative, formal dress is the norm in a business environment worldwide, it’s true that it’s relaxing in many parts of the world, especially in more creative or cutting-edge industries such as the startup scene, tech and advertising. This trend doesn’t apply to staid industries such as finance and law where a risk-averse approach is valued and conservative styles of dress are still very much favoured the world over.

The internet occasionally regales in laughter when a stuffy legal practice or venerable financial institution accidentally leaks a memo on office dress. This one from Berwin Leighton Paisner advises trainee lawyers that patterned tights look cheap, dresses should end ‘no more than a Bic biro’s length above the knee’ and tells men that black suits are for bouncers and ‘skinny ties are for Hoxton bars, not the office’.

To some extent it could be argued that you should dress for the industry rather than for the country, as certain industries have a tendency to share similar values whatever country they operate in. However, this isn’t always true and you shouldn’t always assume the same standards of formality or informality apply to your industry in a different country.

It’s also the case that dress styles vary even within one country. As a general rule, the further West you go in the United States, the more informal things get. In Saudi Arabia you’ll find the western coastal area of Jeddah is far more relaxed than Riyadh, and abayas tend to be more brightly coloured there.

When to break with the dress code

If you’re travelling on business, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution. Wait and see what everyone else does before you decide what to wear. In few parts of the world is it a mistake to go overdressed to a meeting, so it’s usually better to dress up than dress down and shows that you’re taking things seriously.

When the Queen travels she often includes a reference to the host country in her clothing. Visiting America in the eighties, she wore a dress with Californian poppies stitched on. It’s a trend that’s been continued by the new generation of royals. The Duchess of Cambridge incorporated the symbol of the maple leaf into her hat on a visit to Canada.

This approach is probably best left to royalty. People will think you’re bonkers if you walk round with maple leaves on your head on your own visit to Ontario. However, in some parts of the world you might consider wearing the local customary dress as this is often considered a charming gesture.

So in India consider getting a salwar-suit if you’re a woman or the kurta-pyjama if you’re not. Women could also try a sari although learning to tie the thing properly might take longer than you plan to stay! You might note that the way this is tied often varies according to local preferences, so you might like to match the style of that particular area.

Michelle Obama chose not to wear a headscarf on recent visit to Saudi Arabia when she went with hair uncovered. This didn’t seem to cause much debate in the Kingdom, non-Saudi, non-Muslim visitors to Saudi Arabia aren’t obligated to wear a veil or headscarf, however it’s thought she may have been greeted with a bit less enthusiasm in the reception line up. As the New Yorker wryly commented: “Some people tweeted about immodesty; some people always do.”

Whilst visitors are usually not obliged to obey local conventions, you need to think carefully about how you present yourself on a business trip if your appearance is to help or hinder your goals on that trip.


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