We all know that stereotypical tourist outfit: multi-pocketed cargo shorts, white socks, running shoes, souvenir t-shirt, sunglasses. I'm sure we can all agree that, while there may be benefits to wearing this clothing, it is not the most fashionable of attire.

And when I went on my first solo adventure, backpacking through Europe, I dressed the same. After reading numerous websites and guidebooks and after scouring all of the local travel gear shops, I thought I needed to purchase a ton of "travel clothes": heavy hiking boots, special 'breathable' t-shirts, cargo pants that zipped into shorts, the works. I innocently packed all of these things into my backpack and set forth on a four-month journey that began in Amsterdam.

Guess what? By Venice, I had ditched most of it.


I absolutely hated those clothes. Sure, they were practical, but I felt awful and unfashionable wearing them, and I cringed when I looked at photos of myself. I do not consider myself vain or superficial, but I love fashion and I love feeling confident when I travel, so I promised myself that, from that trip onwards,

I would wear only clothes I loved, clothes I felt good in, and clothes that allowed me to express myself.

Dress From Nicaragua, Bag From Guatemala, Belt From Belize
Dress From Nicaragua, Bag From Guatemala, Belt From Belize

I soon learned that the absolute best way to do all of those things was to wear local clothing, and to incorporate local fashions into my backpacker wardrobe. Now, I eagerly look forward to shopping for clothes, shoes, and accessories when I travel, and I put aside part of my budget for this very thing. Dressing like a local is not only fun, it often endears you to the local people themselves; it's a great way to show that you're interested in and appreciate their culture. Here's how you can dress like a local, too:

1. Research the fashion of the country you're visiting.


Bright Colours in Colourful Cuba
Bright Colours in Colourful Cuba

I always try to research how people dress in a certain country before I get there. Sometimes it is easy to imagine, of course (think saris in India), but often I don't know the nuances of certain cultures' wardrobes until I arrive. Do a bit of research online before you visit, as this will help you pack appropriately and will give you an idea of the kinds of things you can purchase when you're there. Wikipedia and Google Image often have lots of photos and descriptions of traditional clothing.

2. Be observant.

Matching the Local Women in India
Matching the Local Women in India

This may seem obvious, but, when you actually arrive in a new country, take some time to sit and people-watch. Even though there may be a certain style of clothing for sale in all the tourist shops, that may not be what the local people are actually wearing. Spend a day walking around and taking note of the local fashions; you'll soon start to notice patterns and trends in fabrics, styles, and colours.

3. Ask where locals shop.


Getting Advice From Locals in Nepal
Getting Advice From Locals in Nepal

If you see someone wearing something you absolutely love, don't be afraid to ask him or her where you can purchase something similar - it will be seen as a compliment! Ask at your hotel or hostel where the best markets and stores are, and ask other travellers who have been in the area for a while if they've seen any cool places to shop.

4. Start small, buy accessories.


Jewellery Collection From Around the World
Jewellery Collection From Around the World

It can be daunting to arrive in a country and immediately don the local clothing, especially if it is clothing you've never worn before. Start off slowly, buying local jewellery, bags, and scarves; not only are these items usually light, they can instantly spice up your existing clothes and add a little flair to a potentially drab backpacker wardrobe.

5. Mix and match local pieces with your clothes from home.

Coat from Canada, Fake Fur Hat from Russia
Coat from Canada, Fake Fur Hat from Russia

As you start to purchase a few more local pieces, try to mix and match them with the clothing you already had in your bag. You don't need to wear local clothing from head to toe to look authentic; wearing, for example, a dress you bought while travelling with a cute jacket from home can create an entirely new fashion statement, totally transforming the clothes you already own.

6. Experiment with fashion.

Belly Shirts and Genie Pants in South Korea
Belly Shirts and Genie Pants in South Korea

While you may never have considered wearing a certain type of clothing before, jump on the opportunity to experiment with new fashions while you travel. Not only can you get away with wearing things that you may feel uncomfortable wearing at home, one of the reasons to travel at all is to try new things, including fashion. As they say, when in Rome...or Zanzibar, or La Paz, or Rangoon, or...

7. Rework your clothing.

First a scarf
First a scarf

then a shirt!
then a shirt!

As anyone who has travelled for a while knows, you can easily become sick of the clothing in your backpack, as you wear it so frequently. That scarf you fell in love with in Thailand may seem impossibly dull by the time you get to Cambodia. Instead of discarding it or sending it home, try to rework it into your wardrobe; for example, a sarong can easily become a skirt or a dress, and a scarf can become a shirt, a head wrap, or a kimono. 

Using a pair of scissors and a few safety pins, you can create a whole new set of outfits for the road.


A Sarong as a Skirt in India
A Sarong as a Skirt in India
8. Open your wallet.

Dress Made From Recycled Indian Saris
Dress Made From Recycled Indian Saris

Obviously, buying new clothing and accessories will require you to spend a bit of money. As I said earlier, I always allow room in my budget for this; think of clothing and jewellery as souvenirs that you can enjoy on the road AND at home. I occasionally spend quite a bit of money on a really beautiful, one-of-a-kind piece, but I never regret it - not only would it be extremely difficult (and even more expensive) to find at home, but it means so much to me that I bought it while on the road, actually in that country.

9. Continue to wear the items at home.

Skirt and Bag From Istanbul
Skirt and Bag From Istanbul
Just as when you were travelling, try to incorporate the articles of clothing you purchased from abroad into your day-to-day wardrobe. Not only are they fantastic conversation-starters, you'll be able to carry around a little piece of your adventures with you, a portable memory to remind you of what incredible experiences you had.

10. Be confident.

Why Not?
Why Not?

This is, perhaps, the most important thing to remember when trying to dress like a local. Don't be afraid to take a few risks with your fashion when you travel, as now is the time to be especially open-minded and ready for new experiences. Embrace the culture you're in; you won't look silly or out of place, you'll look like you truly appreciate your surroundings and respect the local people, therefore enriching your travels. 

Confidence really is the best accessory you can ever have.


Dress From Indonesia, Necklace From Belize
Dress From Indonesia, Necklace From Belize

Yak-Wool Scarves in Nepal
Yak-Wool Scarves in Nepal

You don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on "travel clothing" before you leave for your trip; bring a few basic items and plan to purchase some local clothing as you travel. Often, the local clothing is even more practical and comfortable than anything you bring, as you won't be able to exactly anticipate what it is you'll need when you arrive. For example, I didn't have a jacket before I hiked through the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal, and so I bought a yak-wool scarf to wrap around me instead, just like the locals. I was completely comfortable and warm the whole time, and that scarf became a staple of my winter wardrobe last year.
After a Full Day of Shopping
After a Full Day of Shopping

In conclusion: be confident, have fun, and take risks! 

I guarantee you will never regret buying a few local pieces of clothing or jewellery; in fact, I guarantee that, like me, you'll completely embrace the idea. Your travel wardrobe will never be the same again.

Main photo caption: Hanging Out In Thailand- Jewellery from Morocco, Belt from Thailand, Skirt from Sri Lanka, Bag from Japan

Brenna Holeman of This Battered Suitcase is our newest contributor for Sole Sisters! She has been on the road since April of 2006, travelling through all of the continents but Antarctica. She is currently based in Central America, with plans to write and to study Spanish. She is eternally single, unemployed, and homeless, but happy and loving her life. Follow her gypsy life via facebook and twitter.
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8 Responses so far.

  1. The Chronic Vacacionista says:

    Great piece! Plus I would totally agree. :) esp. the part where you start by accessorizing.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Lois! Can you please check your email regarding the edits that were made to this article?? There are a few grammar/spelling mistakes that weren't in my original piece! :)

  3. SheyDraw says:

    great post! All those ensembles were beautiful!

  4. You couldn't be more beautiful or fashionable! LOVED this post!!!

  5. carm says:

    fantastic read. il keep what uve said in mind everytime i travel :)

  6. Belinda says:

    Thank you for the great post.....i am planning to buy a backpack for a year RTW and just wondered what size bag you chose? I love clothes & fashion but i want to pack light, aiming for 35L size daypack.....am i crazy?! Thanks in advance, Belinda :)

  7. oh I feel you. I'm always excited to wear something I just bought. Good idea on the scarfs and sarong! And also there's this traditional Vietnamese top I bought which I haven't worn yet back at home, and your suggestion makes me think I should wear it soon before I outgrow it. hehe.

  8. Mythjen Trias says:

    Best to do research on the places where one plans to go. Standing out in a foreign crowd is a cool thing but it can also attract unwanted attention, including those of the devious and dangerous kind. Clothing alone is a big indicator. Dress styles of Europeans are distinct from those of Americans or the more conscientiously clean Filipino. Good luck in your travels.

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