In 1980s classic film, National Lampoons European Vacation, Chevy Chase doles out peronsalised monogramed berets to his family to wear whilst sightseeing in Paris (resulting in cruel ridicule from locals and a sausage dog jumping off the Eiffel Tower – it’s hilarious, check it out if you can). Those berets were quite clearly un grand faux pas as far as tourist etiquette is concerned.
On a recent trip to Tokyo, I decided to put to the test whether it’s ever ok to don the local traditional dress in one’s enthusiasm to embrace the local culture. Cue the kimono…
We’ve all been there – seriously considering buying fisherman trousers in Thailand, or a cheongsam in China. What is it that makes us think that we can get away with wearing the offending item (a) in-country, and/or (b) in real life at home?
For me, it comes from a feeling. Each time I visit a place and I have the most memorable, exciting and beautiful experiences, I get a feeling specific to that place and time. Tokyo, for example, gives me a unique feeling of exhilaration and fascination that I only get in that beautifully buzzing city. The Greek Islands give me a feeling of peace and contentment like no other sun-drenched location on earth.
So to completely embrace that feeling in situ and to keep it alive after we’ve left, we take the dress or the hat or the drink (buongiorno, Aperol Spritz) or whatever it is that symbolises the place and wear, sip or consume it, like a total tourist.
I tested this recently in Tokyo with the most divine vintage kimono I could find, resplendent with embroidered dragon on the back. The test involved me wearing it out to dinner and drinks with my achingly hip and ridiculously cool Japanese fashion friends, and take a vox pop of their reactions to it.
“Suzanne, you look like a boxer” was one response. Fair enough, although when I tested this concept with the utterer, I was informed it was more Sylvester Stallone than Hilary Swank. Not sure about that one…
“If you wore a traditional kimono with obi belt, you would look like American tourist.” Good point. I also sensed I might not be invited out in public again if I went the traditional kimono, wooden flip flops and all.
“I like this style – open kimono with jeans and t-shirt underneath. A lot of girls are wearing this style now.” So they’re telling me I got away with it (apart from the dubious Rocky Balboa reference). I’ll take that, and I’ll run with it!
The results of the test indicate that full-scale traditional dress is a major faux pas to be avoided at all costs. By mixing it up with everyday pieces (jeans, t-shirt and and pool-slides) I got away with the kimono in a social setting, and in fact have even sported the look on a recent trip to Paris and back in London.
Ultimately, don’t go full traditional. Keep it current. That’s the tip you should take away from this little experiment with local dress. I am all for keeping that travel feeling alive especially if it involves stylish vintage (or delicious cocktails) – it’s what makes life so bloody amazing and sustains us in between each yearned-for travel adventure. But never, ever wear monogrammed matching berets in Paris s’il vous plait.