Are we a nation of slobs?
You might think so if you were following the conversations on Traveller's Letters page lately. First up, on August 29, Chris Grigsby wrote about visiting executive club lounges in Asia, noting "my fellow Australian middle-aged males seemed oblivious to the dress standard required at such lounges." He went on to comment, "the good old Aussie ... still thinks he is back at a Pattaya Beach bar."
"The truth is," replied David Gerber on September 3, "that if you cast your gaze across the crowds in just about any hotel lobby or airport concourse, pretty much anywhere on the planet, you can always reliably spot an Aussie male ... they are the ones dressed like a five-year-old on a school picnic or zoo visit."
This outraged Richard Friend, who called any talk of dress codes "pretentiousness", arguing "how does it affect them if I'm wearing what is comfortable to me?"
In defence of Australian men, they're not the only national group in love with shorts. American male tourists love showing their knees; the Scandinavians and Germans have a fondness for shorts, socks and sandals. The American also has an inexplicable attachment to baseball and trucker caps, which he wears in every conceivable social situation. Like lice, this non-fashion statement has spread to the heads of men worldwide.
Australian women don't get away scot-free. The micro-mini skirt never went out of style in Australia and it finds itself in airport lounges and in sacred places like Cambodia's Angkor Wat before the Cambodian government announced a recent ban on revealing clothing.
I've noted before how easy it is to spot a young Australian female traveller at an airport. She's the one wearing pastel flannel pyjamas with her pillow slung around her neck. It's cute, but is it suitable travel attire?
Well, in many ways, it is, if comfort is the benchmark. This is the point that Richard Friend is making. Is it anybody's business if I choose to wear Disney pyjamas outside a Grade 5 sleepover? If I choose not to pack a suit when I'm going on holiday? Should what I look like be of concern to anyone else, as long as I'm clean and adhere to certain behavioural rules?
Some dress codes are unavoidable when you travel. Most temples and mosques and many churches require that skin or heads are covered. You won't get in if you're not wearing the prescribed attire. Loose-fitting clothing that covers up the curves of the body is wise in Islamic countries, although tourists are sometimes given a break.
As a group of nine Australian blokes discovered recently in Malaysia, stripping down in public, or wearing culturally offensive images and slogans (on budgie smugglers as well as T-shirts) may get you arrested in certain countries.
Even the London department store Harrods bans "clothing which may reveal intimate parts of the body or which portray offensive pictures or writing".
Rules like these are put into place because those institutions – whether it be a religious one or an iconic department store – have a code of behaviour. Clothing is not just clothing, it can be a potent symbol of respect. Harrods found that those who dressed scantily in the store rarely bought anything but cluttered up the hallways taking selfies and generally behaved like a rabble.
I put the tourists who wear bikinis to Angkor Wat or strip down to bathers emblazoned with the Malaysian flag in the same category as those who climb Uluru despite all the exhortations that it's offensive to our first people.
It's a little less clear when it's simply a matter of personal style.
Australians, men in particular, do seem to have problems adhering to dress codes, implied or overt. Is it our much vaunted national rebelliousness? Is it a love of casual clothing and beach wear that knows no bounds, even when long trousers and a shirt might be more sensible?
Probably a bit of both.
But let's relax. I don't take it as a personal or national affront if Australian men want to wear shorts and thongs in a hotel lobby that isn't a resort. Dressing up is one of life's pleasures, but if that's not your thing, and there's no formal dress code to stop you wearing shorts, then I really don't care. I'm not responsible for you and I'm not embarrassed.
If anyone comments, I just reply, "There goes one of our citizens in his national costume."
See also: Why Australia is the land of the idiot