Study Abroad Fashion 101

 milan fashion

Welcome to our new series: Study Abroad Fashion!  In these posts we will give you advice on how to dress and pack for studying abroad.  We’ll highlight fashion blogs from cities around the world, give you shopping advice, and help you navigate trends abroad. Our posts will cover fashion for men and women, no matter where you are going, for a variety of seasons and sizes.

Why should you care about fashion abroad?  Whenever I’m abroad I do my best to blend in to the crowd.  This helps me feel more confident in a place where I’m unsure of cultural norms, but it also helps me look less awkward when I’m navigating unfamiliar streets or jumping into a taxi.  Blending in can help you stay safe.  If you look like a tourist, you are more likely to be targeted by pickpockets and beggars.  When you visit markets, shopping streets, or restaurants, you are more likely to be approached by people who want your business if you look American.  Also, even though it is rare, sometimes Americans have a negative stereotype abroad, and you might get strong reactions or negative comments from a stranger. Instead, it’s better to try to look like the locals when possible.  The key to blending in is to look confident, but it helps if you are dressed appropriately for the culture you are in.

Of course, I didn’t always know that this was a good idea.  When I backpacked through Italy and France in the winter, I made some major mistakes. I had the wrong shoes, the wrong outerwear, the wrong bag, strange gloves, and was just generally an obvious tourist.  I got loads of attention from people trying to sell me things and everyone spoke to me in English first because they knew I was an American.  The next time I went abroad, I worked a lot harder to fit in.  I also learned to dress better for the weather.  The greatest compliment you can get abroad is if someone addresses you in their language instead of English first–it generally means that you’ve been mistaken for a local.

What not to wear:What not to Wear

So, what’s wrong with the photo above?  First of all, let me just say that this was 2006. Skinny jeans were just hitting the shelves. Even so, I’m wearing baggy black pants, horrible tennis shoes (be glad you can’t see them), a huge khaki bag, and a bright, lime green coat.  The torn out guide book pages and camera are definitely helping this look, right? (No. Definitely no.)  Also, I hate birds, so this was never going to be a good situation.  I’m not coordinated. It’s a problem.

How do I know what to wear? So maybe you aren’t normally concerned with fashion. That’s cool. I get it.  I’m not exactly a fashionista.  Even so, I still like to look presentable, and when I’m abroad, I try not to stick out like a sore thumb.  Some great advice for anyone is to pack lightly and go shopping once you reach your destination. Most countries will have some affordable clothing brands that you can try, and you’ll see what people are wearing before you buy. (This is a great excuse for people-watching!)  Certain clothing brands are fairly ubiquitous and trendy no matter what country you are in–especially Zara, Levi, and H&M.  With a little research you can find out what brands people your age are wearing in your destination country and buy a few things online before you leave.

What to wear instead:  If I could do it all over again, I would wear an outfit like the one below for winter sightseeing in Europe.  I stuck with a black palette because in Europe, you can almost never gone wrong with black.  I’ve been to a wedding in Spain and I was the only one not wearing black. (Again, lesson learned.)  I chose fairly affordable pieces, although investing in a decent coat and a pair of jeans you can wear over and over again is a good idea.  Choosing to wear mainly black clothes also means I can leave the brown boots, brown belts, and other brown-coordinating accessories at home.  I have two different coat options here, but I wouldn’t pack two coats.  Instead, I’d consider the climate, my own personal style, and what type of activities I’d be doing and choose a coat that fit those needs.  I’d also only bring one purse.  Instead of a daypack, fanny pack, or large messenger bag, I’ve chosen a simple purse. Don’t take an expensive purse abroad. Instead, choose a bag with a cross-body strap (makes it harder to steal) that zips up.  Try to choose something that will coordinate with your outfits and outerwear.  A larger bag may be annoying to carry, but you can stash your guidebooks, e-reader, camera, lunch, snacks, and other necessities away without a problem.

European Winter Sightseeing
For men:  For men, the best advice for European traveling is to wear a slimmer cut of jeans, leave the running shoes at home, grab a plain, dark colored backpack, and wear darker colors.  Below you’ll find an example of a simple outfit with pieces that would be easy to wear or mix & match with other basics.  I’ve included two different coats and two different pairs of shoes.  Choose something that fits your style best.  (Consider leaving those super bulky coats at home, though.) It’s definitely important to get the shoes right, as men tend to wear different styles in Europe than in the USA.  You might also want to leave your bright t-shirts at home or wear them as undershirts during the winter.  Those KU basketball shirts may help you blend in while you are in Lawrence, but abroad you’ll be easy to spot as an American.  On backpacking trips, consider outfits that are a bit  more nondescript.
European Winter Sightseeing Style for Men
Finally, my #1 best tip: If you are going to be in Europe, pack a black jacket or black coat.  Europe is usually colder than Kansas, no matter the season.  A comfortable, wearable black jacket will work in London in April and a black winter coat will look great in Berlin in November.  This is true for women and men.  When in Europe, black is best, and a black coat is essential. Don’t be like me! Leave that lime green ski coat at home, and look for fashionable alternatives that will help you stay comfortable, safe, and confident while you are abroad.