After serving in two foreign countries, I have realized that part of adjusting to a new culture is adjusting to their fashions. Some of this comes simply out of necessity. You are no longer surrounded by familiar stores and fashions, and, depending on the culture, you may be required to adhere to certain standards of dress. Some of this is simply part of attempting to blend in with everyone else, to look less like the foreigner.
I briefly served in a wealthy area of South Africa, and during the first ladies’ Bible study I attended, I quickly realized that I needed to make sure that I always looked cute and that I painted my nails before heading to Bible study. That first morning I felt as though my appearance did not quite meet the cultural standards.
One evening while I was serving in Portugal, my roommate and I stepped into the elevator in our apartment building. The Portuguese woman who was already in the elevator began apologizing profusely for her appearance, because Portuguese people rarely leave their homes dressed in pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt, which is what she was wearing. She had forgotten something in her car and had just taken the elevator down to the parking garage, intending to get quickly back to her apartment. I found myself empathizing with her, because there were countless times when I felt underdressed walking the half-block to throw our trash in the dumpster.
No one had to tell me that there were certain fashion expectations in South Africa and Portugal. In fact, no one did. However, after attending church events and observing people in the shops, I learned what appropriate dress was for various occasions. Even for a girl who grew up in California, becoming more fashionable required effort. A sweatshirt and jeans was not acceptable grocery-shopping attire. Long pants and a cute sweater with a jacket was appropriate winter attire for church in Portugal.
For me the fashion dilemma is not necessarily figuring out where to purchase clothing or what clothing to wear in certain situations. It is rather learning how to put together outfits that look like everyone else’s outfits. In my experience, Europeans are not nearly as concerned with matching as Americans are. When I purchased a complete outfit from a European store, I wore the outfit like an American would, not like a European. No matter how hard I tried, I rarely looked European.
When I come back to America, I have the opposite problem. Skinny jeans, cute top, boots, and a pea coat seemed like an appropriate outfit to wear to the Bible study for twenty- and thirty-something American adults that I was attending. It was not. Instead, I felt over-dressed and a bit too fashionable. As I left, I mentioned to a friend that maybe I had become too European. She assured me that I had not, and that even she thought that running shoes were slightly casual for Bible study.
I am preparing for life in yet another country, bracing myself for all of the adjustments that requires, including adjustments in fashion. I wonder if I will be able to figure out how to blend in, or if I will always look slightly out of place. At this point, it does not matter what country I am living in—I always tend to stand out.
© 2013 Thrive.
Questions to Consider: Do you find it hard to adjust to the fashions of your country? Do you feel as though you stand out because of how you dress? Modesty and cultural standards aside, should we even consider fashion when attempting to assimilate to a new culture?