Full Incognito Mode: pros and cons
In my past life I was a style blogger about nifty things to do with fashion and the like. By no means does that qualify me to set any rules, but for those who know me well, fashion and style has always been a topic I feel strongly about. On my travels this year I've developed some opinions on what I'm terming 'travel style' and the fine line between standing out like a sore thumb and Full Incognito Mode.
First things first:
Why do so many people dress like absolute dags (Australian term meaning 'dork') while they're travelling? In the past five months I've seen too many crimes against fashion that are simply not excusable by the fact that one is travelling.
Sure you want to be comfortable and pack light, especially if you're moving around a lot, but unless you're hiking Mont Blanc or through the Andes there is no reason you should be wearing quick-dry pants and hiking boots.
For all the warnings of pickpockets on the metro in Rome and in your trusty LP (Lonely Planet) guide, you're making yourself more of a target if you look like a tourist. When I was in Japan, I stood out like a sore thumb purely from the fact of being a gaijin (foreigner), but I spoke enough of the language and adopted some of the Japanese style of clothing - read: wide culotte shorts - that I could blend in slightly more than other tourists. Sometimes I would even forget that I was a (relatively) tall, white, fat (by Japanese standards) foreigner. But at the end of the day, my caucasian complexion gave away my secret, which often afforded me extra help and patience from Japanese people (they're also generaly just all too nice for their own good).
Which brings me to the question: why can't you just wear your normal clothes when you travel? This is a philosophy I have adopted when travelling to destinations in the developed world in particular, which can pay off quite well if you want to fly under the radar.
But it can also get awkward when you look so Belgian that people talk at you, expecting you to respond, but you can't because you don't speak French. This is what I call Full Incognito Mode. While it's nice to pretend that you're part of a different world, successfully blending in to the daily fabric, this can quickly unravel when confronted with a foreign phrase to which one simply cannot respond. And then the precariously balanced house of cards comes tumbling down.
All that being said, I still advocate for adopting more of the Full Incognito Mode end of the spectrum than full-blown, head-to-toe Kathmandu/Mountain Designs branded, money-belt-stuffed-awkwardly-near-your-crotch-wearing tourist purely from a travel safety and authenticity angle. By all means, pack sensibly out of the clothes you own and leave the stilettos at home, but just because you're travelling doesn't mean that general style should be compromised.
p.s. Some tips for young players when packing your travel wardrobe:
Rule 1: Pick a base colour scheme that you like - grey is my default and navy is my number two. They also look great together, which is lucky for me. Some opt for black with pops of colour, but that's not really my thing since I'm not huge on wearing black - just a personal thing.
Rule 2: Separates are your friend. Having a variety of coordinated separates means you can have more outfits. I wish I'd taken my own advice many moons ago and packed more separates - I'm slowly accumulating more as I go, but it was a big mistake to bring as many dresses as I did.
Rule 3: Check what fabrics clothes are made from. I am always the person in the shop looking at the inside label of clothes to find out the composition of cotton/polyester/wool etc. as these materials all have different benefits. If travelling somewhere warm/hot, pack clothes made of cotton as cotton breathes where polyester will leave you sweating. Another tip for hot weather packing - single colour clothes will show sweat marks more easily than those with patterns! Nothing worse than having your grey t-shirt turn a darker grey in certain spots.... Polyester and wool will keep you warmer in cold climates, so stock up on socks with some wool content and an icebreaker or two if heading to a winter wonderland. Final tip: Rayon/viscose/modal/lyocell are all semi-synthetic materials which will not breathe as well as cotton when it's warm.