Fashion Disaster Relief

Posted on: March 14, 2012 Written by
Fashion Disaster Relief
      Photography by: Josef Philipp from iStock    

Turkish women know how to take care of themselves. They have their legs waxed, facial hair removed, eyebrows shaped, and their hair styled at the salon. There is a kuaför on every corner. They do their nails and have perfect pedicures. They pay careful attention to their makeup and wear nice clothes, shoes, and accessories.

This can leave a casual American woman feeling frumpy.

When I first came here in the early 90’s it did not take me long to realize that my denim skirts and tennis shoes looked downright dowdy next to the tailored skirts and black leather shoes local women wore. My tourist uniform was practical for walking around Istanbul, but I stood out like a sore thumb. I began to change the way I dressed, just to blend in.

Twenty five years later, weddings here are still a trauma for me because I never know what to wear. Many Turkish women have beautiful floor-length gowns. To my practical mind, it seems like a luxury to buy an expensive dress that I will wear only once or twice a year. Last year, I noticed to my horror that every picture taken at a wedding for the last ten years showed me in the same dress. I got rid of it, thinking I would be forced to buy a new one. I was wrong. I never seem to find the time or the extra money to go dress shopping.

Last September my husband and I went to a neighbor’s wedding. Just one hour before we were supposed to leave, I was feverishly pulling clothes out of a suitcase in the bottom of my wardrobe, looking for something to wear. To my surprise, I rediscovered a dress I had forgotten—and I found an old gift from a friend, a fancy necklace with rhinestones and enamelware that I had never worn. It matched my dress perfectly. For once, I went to a wedding dressed appropriately. I felt great, but I was still the only woman at our table who had actually done her own hair. I was also the only woman not wearing high heels.

How do I reconcile my casual approach to appearance with local standards? Compared with some of my local friends, I am a mess. I have, however, learned positive things about caring for my personal appearance from Turkish women, like the simple fact that I look a lot better on the days I wear makeup, do my hair, and throw on a necklace. I suspect that taking more care with my appearance is an important part of being a good witness here, but I do not want to be a slave to standards others set for me.

This week I came across a great reminder:

What matters is not your outer appearance—the styling of your hair, the jewelry you wear, the cut of your clothes—but your inner disposition. Cultivate inner beauty, the gentle, gracious kind that God delights in (1 Peter 3:3,4).

This assures me that I can be free to be myself, and that a gentle inner disposition goes a lot farther than any makeup ever could in making me beautiful. Just ask my husband. A shining, smiling inner beauty speaks a lot louder to encourage my local sisters than having the latest clothes and hairstyle. So, I am smiling today, even though my hair is a wreck and my clothes are wrinkled.

©2012 Thrive.

Questions to Get the Conversation Going: What are the local standards of beauty where you live? Have you changed to blend in with the local culture?

About the author

Most days Betsy C. feels blessed and privileged to serve in Western Turkey with her husband and two children, but once in a while juggling home school and church planting is enough to make her pull out her hair. She loves cooking, writing, and spending time with women friends. Her passion is encouraging Turkish women to spend time with God and to realize that they are dearly loved. Visit her at

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  • In China, people als tend to dress up more than I was accustom to — I remember my shock of going hiking with students and being the only one to show up not in high heels, looking more like a bum. Things are changing though, as I am now one of the “nicer” dressed teachers. I’m surprised how many of my colleagues teach regularly in jeans.

  • Love the blog

  • I’m in Nigeria. It seems they dress up for everything. Sometimes I think our house-help dresses nicer than I do. I’ve only been here 5 months so I’m working on the wardrobe. 🙂

    • Meredith

      Veronica, I’m in Nigeria too and feel the same way! They get dressed up to go to the marketplace just so they can come home with feet dirty with God-knows-what, and smelling like fish.

      My answer-all is the classic buba and wrapper, which is comfortable, practical, and is considered dressy. An alegorgoro is always ready at the top of my closet to pop on my head and look instantly coiffed. Silver pumps and purse, and sparkly necklace and earrings, for when it’s really serious.

      I was a Vermont housewife and used to think it a big deal to swipe on lipstick, but I’ve learned to enjoy paying a little more attention to my appearance so as to fit in better. We should try to be “all things to all people” as Paul was, without forsaking other values.

  • Ellie

    I solved the wedding problem by hitting Goodwill when I was home and getting a few bridesmaids dresses for $20 each. Took those to someone for some minor alterations, and now I own four gorgeous dresses for any spur of the moment wedding invitation. One was so nice that my mother-in-law even slipped me $200 to pay for “your nice dress” that I wore to a family wedding! I actually like the chance to wear them… we don’t get to play dress up in our culture much once we are married!

    • Wow, Ellie! That is a great idea! I’m going to check out Goodwill for sure. I know what you mean about enjoying “dress up!”

  • Wow! great article. I work in Mali, W. Africa where it’s really important to know what to wear when. I was a very simple, almost “no make up girl” when I came here and I often still am. However one thing that really made me sit up and think was a reported comment from an African, ” Why do westerners, who are rich, dress so poorly? ” I have learned that it is a respect issue here and that my Malian friends take as much pleasure out of me wearing beautiful Malian clothes as I do. So I dress up, praising God for how good it makes me feel and how reasonable the prices are compared to back home.

    • I have noticed that in Turkey, too, it is a way to show respect. Dressing up to visit someone shows that it is a special occasion, and is a way to honor your host.

  • Dawn

    People here do dress up a lot more than I am used to. We recently went up play in the snow in the mountains and local men were wearing suits and women wore high heels. I used to fret daily about what to wear. Since returning from furlough I’ve decided I’m American and they expect me to act like one. I still dress up more if I’m going visiting or a social event, but most days I wear my jeans. My local friend teased me one day in the market about my sensible shoes, but two hours later as we searched for a taxi and she hobbled along in her heels she told me we Americans were pretty smart about our shoes.

  • Kristy

    Your article brings back many memories of my life in Argentina. I realized how sad my wardrobe was the day a dear friend invited me to her wedding. After handing me the invitation she promptly told me “and now we’re going shopping to buy you something to wear to my wedding.” On my next trip to the US I dug out two old bridesmaid dresses from my parents’ attic and at the next few weddings I was even complimented on how nice I looked. I’m not sure if the dresses were really that fabulous or if the drastic change from my normal jeans caused the sensation, but regardless of the reason, it was nice to “fit in.”

  • E.

    Thanks for the encouragement! When I moved to Europe over ten years ago, I discovered that if I wanted to talk to anyone I had to look better. I found I enjoyed it…and now look funny in the US because of my fondness for heels and “smart” clothes. Oh well.:) (and thanks for mentioning that ladies go hiking in heels somewhere–I actually find them more comfortable, and always have people worrying that I’ll break my neck. So somewhere in the world I’m not completely crazy!)

    • Looking “funny in the US because of your fondness for heels and smart clothes.” That’s an interesting twist to the wardrobe dilemma!

  • Rae

    When I moved from the African Village to the capital city, my new single women friends at church didn’t take long to tell me and take me to another friend who was a tailor! They never said my wardrobe didn’t measure up. They just took me to the place where they could fix it!. Now I am much more careful about what I buy in the US to take back and how often I visit my friend the tailor. I DO NOT despite their increasing protests wear high heels. I’m on home assignment now and its seems from what I see in the shoe department “flats” are in. I can’t wait to get back to tell my African friends!

  • Carol

    I agree, weddings are the hardest. I really l needed the “kick in the pants” to go and buy a nice wedding “uniform”. I live in a poor area now so I find myself dressing down, but going into the city means taking it up a notch. Getting older and gaining weight doesn’t help me when half my clothes are not fitting. Our clothes wear out so quickly here because of how they are washed, but not many stores have “American sizes”. I am so glad we have short home assignments more often so I can replentish my wardrobe.

  • Sjannette Hagoort

    Here in Papua New Guinea where we minister with mainly grass roots people in the settlements (slum areas) most can only just afford to dress themselves and have one or two sets of clothing for during the week and one for church. When I look in my wardrobe (95% of which have bought here in 2nd hand clothing barns) I feel rich and laden with good clothing. Then an ex-pat invites you out somewhere and yes, you realise, you actually have nothing appropriate to wear, e.g. ‘Come to our cocktail party’. What you thought of as nice, pretty and respectable clothes suddenly becomes drab, dowdy and old fashioned. Even though I like to look nice I am thankful that God is interested in my heart and in my insides and not in what I look like on the outside. Panic or no panic, he loves me just the way I am.

  • GREAT article. I am suffering with the dress code in Kenya. Lord help me please.

  • Stephanie

    Great article! I also have struggled with this issue in Lesotho, Africa. I try to dress up for church, special occasions, but usually am still not dressed up as many. Fortunately here for weddings, the national dress (seshoeshoe) is what many people wear. I just had a new one made (after wearing one for 8 years), but my friends told me I should get “pencil heels” to go with it. I did not, because I had perfectly fine shoes. Why would I waste the money?

    For me it’s also a difficult thing–I don’t have money to buy lots of new outfits. I feel that it is a stewardship issue too. It can really bother me to see people with their new hairstyle, shoes, and outfit for weddings, knowing that they have spent lots of money, but then later the churches are asked to give towards projects and nobody is willing to give. For the most part, our people are poor and I wish they would not go into debt or go “all out” for special occasions. I know that confronting that is not the answer though, so I try to dress up some, and still let my life set an example of stewardship and frugal living. And, like most of you said, God is interested in my heart, and not the outside! So glad for that. I enjoy your articles. Thank you for your encouragement to us!

  • Karen

    I love this article. Thanks for sharing. I face the same dilemma each time I’m invited to a wedding here in Cambodia. The locals love to dress up, and that includes the hair and make up. I just realised I’ve got a bridesmaid dress from my sister’s wedding sitting at home that would be perfect! Yep, I might just have to dig it out and bring it back with me (if I can fit into it). Great idea Ellie! Thanks for the tip.

  • Mary Beth Banning

    Clothing for weddings, graduations, big events, even being the speaker is a problem for me also in the Philippines. Have to think of modesty, sweat stains showing, possible wind blowing, etc.Conferences are another clothing dilemma. My first year, without any written conference dress code mentioned, I wore casual clothes while ‘everyone’ else arrived wearing professional style clothing. So the next conference I brought professional clothes, but everyone else was casual! There is an underground of information. Now, I don’t sweat it so much, I am American and will be thought different.

    • That is interesting that you had two different dress codes for conferences! I can imagine how I would have felt! I’ve also tried to learn not to sweat it so much if I’m dressed differently than everyone else.

  • Alicia Macedo

    I have lived in Brazil for 27 years and yes, the dress code is a real challenge, especially for weddings and special events. On a day to day basis nice jeans get by just fine – even for most church services. But one thing that helps is to have a good basic black dress made of good material (!) in a style that you feel comfortable in and suits your figure. Black is always in fashion here as in many counties around the world and you can change your accessories with with the current fashion.

    • Maggie Van Slooten

      When I go to the field this time, I’ll keep all this fashion advice in mind. I find that a simple, colorful scarf will dress up about any outfit and it’s lightweight to pack. We think we’ll be in asia somewhere.

  • Carolyn Kerr

    The same thing happened to me in Costa Rica. It isn’t that I am just super casual, but rather that I have never really figured out fashion anywhere. We had been in the country only a few months when a neighbor came to the house and told me that I needed to dress more carefully because of the position I would be expected to occupy in society. She said that I must never even think of leaving the house without nylons on, for example. She bought me a dress she thought would make me fit in, and she was right about that. I still haven’t got the hang of make-up, but somehow the Lord keeps using me anyway.

  • Once again I am thankful to live in a more casual place than where many of you serve. Thanks, Betsy (though you’ll always be Olive to me), for the wonderful words today. Great article. I’m loving all the responses, too.

  • Wow! I’ve really enjoyed reading all of the responses. It’s interesting to see how many of you face the same issues and a learning experience for me to see the different ways you handle it. I liked what Stephanie said about finding a balance between looking nice and giving a positive testimony about stewardship as well. And the black dress suggestion is a practical one: always stylish!

  • Ann

    I went from a midwest US city style to an extremely casual culture, where men wear jeans to weddings. I would so love an opportunity to dress up like a princess, even if it was a resale bridesmaid dress. I grew up in a church that mandated skirts, so when I found jeans, knew there would be no turning back, but now I stick out in any skirt, even at a wedding. Great article and comments to show how different cultures are in this aspect. “Wanting to Be Her: Body Image Secrets Victoria Won’t Tell You” is a somewhat related book that helped to shape my thoughts on fashion…something rarely discussed in our Christian circles as having to do with our faith.

  • Maligirl

    Thank you all. I live in Mali, and came face to face with the fashion question. My husband in is from Burkina Faso, so I had to learn how important it was to him that I dress nicely. But now, nearly two years after getting married, I am finally getting the hang of fashion, and he is getting casual!! Thank you for all who shared, I am glad to know I am not the only missionary confronted with the challenge between being oneself and honoring those around me on the field. I had someone tell me the following which really helped me. “in your culture you dress for yourselves (what is comfortable, what you like) we dress for the other person (what will honor them, what is appropriate for them, what they want to see on us).” I don’t have the quote exactly right, but that is the idea they shared.

    • I love that quote from your friend, about dressing for the other person. Interesting. I see many Turks do this when they come to my house: dress up to honor me and show that time with me is a special occasion. Interesting.

  • Debbie

    After 20 years in Budapest, I can attest to the challenges of cross-cultural dressing. Here women dress nicely to go to the movies or to the mall (but wear minimal makeup and jewelry). Rarely a sweatshirt and tennis shoes unless going hiking. I’ve learned to wear nice pants and a sweater or blouse almost all the time. Non-Christian women often dress very provocatively. Christian women either do this as well or go the dowdy route. I’ve found that as an American, what I wear is often noticed. My challenge is to show my Christian sisters that they can be attractive without being super-sexy.

  • Andrea

    Our family has been serving in the bush of western Alaska for thirteen years, where casual, practical attire is the order of the day. I most vividly remember during our first year here, singing at a wedding in a tiny, drafty church in a Native village, trying not to giggle over the fact that I was doing so while wearing hiking boots and long johns (out of necessity) under my khakis and kuspuk (Native shirt/blouse).

    We’ve adapted quite nicely to the fashion “standards” and find it quite normal now. That is, UNTIL we find ourselves back in our supporting churches in the lower 48. The first week back we always have to scramble to purchase dress clothes for our four children, get my husband’s sport coat out of storage, and hit the shoe store for “Sunday shoes” all around (sorry kiddos, folks down here don’t leave their boots at the door and wear socks in the sanctuary!). 🙂 During this past fall’s home assignment we did a five-day missions conference at a very formal (to us) church and I found myself near tears, trying to find a way to “appropriately” dress my family without blowing the budget on clothes we would likely never wear at home. Between thrift stores and borrowing from family members (thanks, Mom!) we pulled it off. Our daughter enjoyed the change most, but my boys were very glad to return home to their wardrobes that include “play jeans” and “church jeans.”

    At times I felt quite frustrated over having to spend so much time and energy on how we all looked. This is not at all a high priority to the people we serve, and has become quite low on my list as well. While we were traveling, I had to really guard my heart against judging people for what seems to me an overemphasis on appearance. The circumstances did give us wonderful opportunities to have discussions with our children about the difference between dressing to fit in/impress others/be someone you are not, and dressing to show honor, respect, and deference to others. What a growing experience for all of us!

    Sorry to ramble on so…I really appreciate hearing about other missionary women learning and growing in the challenges of ministry life that are different, and very much the same as my own.

    • Ellie

      Hmm… some of us can solve that dilemna of what to wear by wearing “national dress”. I’d love to see you show up in your boots and all (leave off the long johns or you’ll be sweating!), and say it is the “national dress”. 🙂

  • Nancy

    For me, it took 15 years of living in my host culture to recognize that I had the wrong attitude towards the dress code. In every other area I tried to be culturally sensitive, yet when it came to “dressing up”, I prided myself on not having to! I somehow thought that my home culture’s more casual approach to church attire, for instance, was somehow superior. Once I made the shift to try and dress as formally and elaborately as the locals, I realized just how out-of-line I had been with my casual dress code. I’m sure it was appalling to others that I had actually let my children attend church with flip-flops while others were dressed as if attending a wedding. I regret that it took me so long to see my blindness in this area!

  • Lorraine

    I arrived in Central Asia a little over 8 months ago. I have never felt the need to improve the way I dress as much as I do now since arriving in my new home. It hit me one day when I went to the bathroom at the university where I am studying language. As I was standing in the bathroom surrounded by beautifully made up and well dressed young women who were attending classes there, I realised that what I was wearing did not really cut it! Since then I have been trying to make more of an effort to look smarter – even if I am just sitting in a classroom for 3 hours! How you dress, wearing making and presenting yourself well are very important in this culture. However, I don’t think I’m up to walking to and from university in 6 inch heels just yet!

  • I grew up in a fancy suburb where a mani/pedi was a normal social weekend activity. Initially I thought God would have me give up all extra pretty things. They were unnecessary or a waste of time/money. But in His infinite wisdom, he put me in Congo where fancy and glittering toes are completely normal! I think letting them advise me on a good tailor or my nails has opened a lot of doors in relationships for me. They like pretty things just as much or more than I do. So fun to be fancy!

  • So nice to see that I’m not alone! As a new missionary in Peru from super casual California, i’m facing a similar struggle. And I didn’t really come prepared to dress up more often. Yet it’s hard to go spend money on clothes when i already feel like I have so much more than those around me. It’s good to hear from others processing the same issues all around the world. : )

  • Living in PNG among village people, my version of dressing up for church is making sure my meri blouse has sleeves and is decently clean! It’s so hot and humid that makeup would just sweat off and anything “nice” by Western standards would be ripped or dirty or moldy within days…as a result, clothes that seem reasonable to me now are rather horrifying when I step back and look at them through Western eyes!

    My greater challenge with returning to Western clothing styles is feeling horribly immodest and scantily-dressed, even when I know intellectually that my clothing choices are fine.

  • Linda M.

    This is a great article and it is very interesting to hear all the replies from all over the world! Here in Guatemala City I have noticed that many women dress up more than is my tendency, even though I’ve been here over 20 years! Then there is also another “dress code” rural villages, though I am not out there very often. My husband has been very sweet, though, to make sure I have something appropriate to wear for more formal occasions (as in, “Do you need a new dress?” occasionally). Betsy, thanks for sharing and starting this dialogue – we met once here while we were both dating our husbands, who were close friends at that time… it was good to see him again a year or two ago while he was here for a visit.

  • Heather

    I had to laugh, I could relate after living among Turks in North Cyprus. I arrived in N Cyprus after living 6 years in India, where the native dress was my daily grind. I learned quickly that I was very out of ‘style’, when my neighbor said to me, isn’t that last years fashion. LOL What she didn’t know was that is was that is was much older than that. 🙂 I didn’t succumb to the biweekly blow dries at the salon and stilettos, but I did learn to smarten up my wardrobe, which I did over the years when on furlough. I laugh at the many changes I made to blend, but am so happy I did~ because of it many people listened to things I shared and it made a difference in mine and their inner beauty of the years.
    Good Will was a life saver for me!

  • Rae

    When I moved from the bush into the capital city, my Ugandan friends informed me that one of them owned a tailoring business–it was a not so subtle hint that my khaki and denim skirts so appropriate in the village did not make it in the capital. Over the years the problem of purchasing a new traditional tribal dress for every occasion was taken care of when the mother of my 7 sister friends let me know that I too was her daughter and her biological daughters gifted her with new tribal dresses all the time and I was free to just let her know and come and pick out a “new” one each time I needed one. What a blessing this godly woman was to me. I still have not met their standards of wearing heels with these dresses however 🙂

  • Becky

    Here in Iraqi Kurdistan, ladies & men dress to the nines…just to go to the grocery store! Ladies wear 4 inch high heels, sequin-bedecked outfits, and thousands of dollars of (real) gold jewelry. The men wear suits, with ties & shiny, pointy-toe dress shoes. They also dress their kids to color-match the whole clan. It was a HUGE adjustment for my lumberjack hubby, who loves flannel plaid shirts, work boots, and worn jeans — and farm-girl-mom-of-4-me, who lives in t-shirts & sport pants.
    We invited our neighbors to our daughter’s 4th birthday party, and they arrived in suits, sequins, heels, with a trail of perfumes and colognes to boot. My hubby and I were in jeans & t-shirts. Oops. I’ve since learned that dressing up in your best shows respect to your hosts, and we’ve adjusted to the point, I can ALMOST get my man to wear a tie and sport coat to a picnic. (he wore the sport coat but not the tie and still resists elfish pointy dress shoes).
    My girls now look forward to “dressing up for a ball in princess clothes” every event we attend. I now dress up much more, think “is this dressy enough?” and still agonize over weddings, which locals attend in ball gowns. Ug. We are NEVER as dressy as they are. And it seems like my kids always get spills, tears, and spots on their good outfits, before we get to the event. Big sigh. How do they keep their kids looking so immaculate?
    On another note, I always agonize about CLOTHES when going back on furlough, too. It always feels like I’m the fashion disaster! Thankfully, I can rely on my sister to help me shop for what’s in style. I feel weird trying to wear shorts or sleeveless blouses again–and I am always surprised by the skin & cleavage we see in the US.