Traveller fashion: Why do tourists always dress so badly?

"Hey, Australian! G'day mate!"

People always seem so surprised when they hear that. When a complete stranger approaches them on the street in Istanbul, or in Mumbai, or somewhere similar, and clocks them immediately for who they are there's a moment of, "Wow, how did he know?"

How did he know? It's probably your boardshorts. Or your Havaianas. Or your Swans jersey or your branded Kathmandu travel wear. Salespeople see that and they latch onto it – it gives them an in, a conversation starter.

Australian travellers dress in a certain way, and experienced touts can pick it a mile away. Same as they can pick Americans, and English people, and Germans and French and Dutch. And even locals without experience can pick that you're a tourist with barely a second glance. Everyone can.

Part of this is your facial features and skin tone. You'll always stick out in some places. The other part, though, is fashion. It's the clothes you wear. Your overall look. And mostly, it's bad.

Travellers dress badly. It's something I've noticed over the years, one of those things that always remains the same. It doesn't matter if you're in Bali or Boston, Rome or Rio, travellers stick out because they're usually extremely unfashionable.

What gives? Why do people who travel always look so daggy?

It's not just the boardies and thongs, though that's not ideal (depending on your destination). Often it's the hideous travel chic, the zip-off pants and the mozzie-repellent shirts and the professional hiking day-packs. These things are designed for a specific purpose, for wandering mountains or trekking moors – they're not supposed to be worn at a Roman trattoria.

But some travellers get obsessed with lightening their load, with taking carry-on only or the smallest suitcase they can manage, and so travel chic becomes everyday chic – trousers that can double as shorts get the nod; hiking sandals suddenly seem like reasonable things to wear; quick-dry material is chosen over something that actually looks reasonable to wear.

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I'm not saying travellers should always be dressed to the nines. You shouldn't be wandering Bangkok in a shirt and tie. And when you're in transit, travelling long-haul on planes or buses or trains, feel free to dress for comfort only: those things are countries and worlds of their own.

On the ground however, in your destination, what travellers should be doing if they want to be respectful of local culture and they hope to blend in just a tiny bit and reduce the feeling that this place is crawling with tourists, is dress to the standard of the country they're visiting.

That means that if you're in Milan or Paris and all the locals look immaculate, then yeah, you should be making an effort to look good. If you're in Tokyo, you should be neat and stylish. And if you're in, say, Bali or Fiji, and most locals are getting around in shorts and flip-flops, then feel free to do the same.

But even on tropical islands, there are rules. Don't walk around town bare-chested if none of the locals are. Don't wear a bikini top or boardies to a cafe or bar if no one else is doing it (and let's face it, no one else does it, anywhere). Don't assume leggings are acceptable as outerwear if you don't see any of the locals clad in them. And don't wear specialist travel clothes for everyday activities if you wouldn't wear them at home.

Dress to the same standard as the locals. This is the golden rule for travellers wanting to be respectful, and it's a simple one – but it's not, I admit, always easy to follow. Sometimes local dress is uncomfortable or impractical (you're not going to wear a three-piece suit while schlepping around museums and monuments). And by our standards it's sometimes far too hot to dress in the same way as the locals do.

I had this happen to me in Bangladesh, where men always – always – wear long trousers and shoes. Shorts there are for little boys only. Flip-flops are for the men who pedal the cycle-rickshaws. But when I was in Chittagong it was about 40 degrees, and extremely humid, and I couldn't cop it.

So I wore shorts and thongs. People stared at me. Someone asked, according to my friend who lived there, why I'd cut the legs off my trousers. Everyone was very confused by my cycle rickshaw shoes. To them I looked ridiculous.

After a day of being stared at and talked about even more than is usual for a foreigner in Chittagong, I went back to sweating it up in jeans.

This golden rule is, of course, more of an ambition, a handy thing to strive for and to bear in mind as you move around the world. You won't always get your dress standard right, and mostly you'll be forgiven for any mistakes.

But it would be nice to walk down the street every now and then and not hear "G'day".

Do you think travellers dress badly? Should people be trying to dress to local standards, or is it OK to look like a tourist?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Airline demands passenger wearing crop top to 'cover up or get off'

See also: Not worth it: 12 things travellers shouldn't spend money on

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