Business travel: How to dress appropriately in different climates
If “apparel oft proclaims the man”, how does what you wear translate when overseas? How can you adapt your business suit to 30˚+ heat? And is your business attire really proclaiming what you think it is?
Dressing for the local conditions has two important aspects: the practical, and the cultural.
And just to make things more problematic, the practical – “oh, it’s hot, I’d like to wear my shorts” – doesn’t always cohere with the cultural – “locals are going to find my bare knees offensive”.
It is important to respect local culture and expectations, and your clothes are no exception in this regard.
There is no point getting off on the wrong foot during a business meeting, simply because you didn’t familiarise yourself with local dress codes before you go.
Unfortunately for western travellers, some of the hottest countries are also those with the strictest expectations around modest dressing. Getting the balance right between comfort and courtesy can require some wardrobe rethinking.
Staying on the right side of the law
In some countries, what you wear isn’t just a matter of sartorial elegance, or even of mild offence and unwanted attention – getting it wrong can put you on the wrong side of the law.
In North Korea and Sudan, for example, women caught wearing trousers can face punishment – such as fines, lashes, or forced labour. And, in Saudi Arabia, women who flash an inch of flesh are breaking the law. Instead, women are expected to wear the niqab and a long coat called an abaya.
Getting religious sensitivity right
Women and the veil is a thorny issue, but if you are a woman travelling to a Muslim country, covering your head is something you need to be prepared to do.
In Iran, for example, the rule that women must cover their heads with a headscarf (and wear floor-length skirt or loose trousers) might not be as strictly enforced with foreigners as it would be with locals, but you will probably find yourself being asked to don the “correct” attire if you aren’t already.
Even in relatively westernised countries such as Morocco and Turkey, carrying a scarf with you wherever you go, can pay dividends – especially if you want to visit traditional or religious tourist sites while you’re there. It’s also advisable for men and women alike to keep knees and shoulders covered.
Suited and booted
Generally, a well-cut suit will pay dividends wherever you are working.
In the heat, switch to a lightweight version of the same theme, e.g. a smart black or navy linen suit – the words “linen suit” don’t have to conjure baggy white affairs à la Martin Bell.
Of course, there are some regional variations: slightly flashier in Latin America and Southern Europe, slightly more conservative in Central Europe, and erring more towards “modest dress” (no low necklines or skirts above the knee) for women in the Far East.
Variations on a theme
Even in near neighbours, there can be local variation.
Indeed, the propensity of Americans to loosen their ties and lose their suit jackets might be a surprise for some European business travellers.
Colour also takes on different significance. The suits worn in Italy, for example, are often more vibrant than those in France. Red is a colour of luck and fortune in China, whereas in Thailand yellow is highly favoured.
But these regional variations can be more than offset by cultural expectations specific to industry sector. The bankers of Wall Street and the City of London, for example, have far more in common with each other than with the laid-back smart casual look adopted in many USA and UK tech firms.
“Go anywhere” travel dressing tips
Looking neat and groomed is always appreciated.
Avoid sandals – they aren’t business attire anywhere; even Australia!
Err on the side of caution and go for “modest” approach to dressing – avoiding low necklines, bare shoulders, and shorts or skirts above the knee.
Women should pack a lightweight scarf and keep it with them at all times – you never know when it can come in handy.
If you’re travelling somewhere warm and have swapped your usual business suit for a lightweight linen suit, you can help the creases to drop out after travelling by hanging it in the bathroom while you take your shower (the steamier the better!).
Do the research before you go; the FCO offers country-by-country advice on its website (check out the local laws and customs section for advice about what to wear), or local inward investment sites can be a source of useful tips. Alternatively, speak with your Travel Counsellor, who will be pleased to help.
Your local colleagues are probably the best sources of information. If in doubt, ask. And follow their lead; if everyone is taking off their shoes before entering a home, it’s a sign that you should too.
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