August 29, 2019

Dressed to Impress: Clothing and Culture

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Dressed to Impress: Clothing and Culture

Posted by: Jacqueline Ahmed , Manager of Training Operations, EMEA and Americas.

During a recent visit to a friend in the Canary Islands, he remarked, “I can spot the British people here at a glance.” I asked him how, and he replied, “By their dress, their style.” This got me thinking about clothing as a cultural phenomenon. Our clothing communicates information about ourselves, our social position and society’s values. The interpretation of styles of dress is inevitably conducted through the lens of our cultural orientation.

What do your clothes say about you?

Our clothing can signify religious beliefs (a nun’s habit, a Hassidic Jew’s apparel, a Muslim abaya), a significant event in our lives (a wedding dress, mourning clothes, prom outfit), or our sense of belonging to a subculture (Scouts uniform, sports team wear), and our activities (work uniform, sportswear).
We can also look at historical trends through the changing views of what is deemed “acceptable” clothing. In some societies, it used to be unthinkable for women to wear trousers, or for people to venture outside without a hat, but over time these social “rules” have changed and both are now common. In other societies, those norms are still in place, and in others still, they never existed in the first instance. Social and cultural values such as modesty and decency are deeply linked with our clothing.
The length of shorts or skirts, ripped jeans, exposure of certain areas of the body…. these are all subject to differing perceptions and judgements by various cultures around the world. Similarly, how clothing is worn is a matter of social norm, e.g., a shirt tucked in or not, removing shoes on entering a house, removing a suit jacket during a meeting. The wearing of certain colours can be laden with meaning too. A colour that is seen as fortuitous in some countries can signify death or bad luck elsewhere. For example, wearing bright colours in a business environment in India is viewed positively, but elsewhere (such as Russia), bright colours may be interpreted as lacking in professionalism and damaging to one’s credibility.
I’m sure most of us have experienced the uncomfortable feeling of being over or underdressed in a social situation. When visiting, living in and working in a foreign country, it is essential to understand dress codes and the norms around clothing in that country. How are you expected to dress for work? Are there any items of clothing that are considered inappropriate or immodest? If invited to someone’s house for dinner, should you dress up, or down? Understanding and adhering to the expectations around clothing can help make a great first impression. Dress codes are often unwritten, but crucial to feeling comfortable in another country.

Settling in successfully in the new location

Clothing is just one of many cultural topics that a Cartus Cross-Cultural Programme can explore with assignees and their families, assisting them to feel confident and comfortable as they settle into life in the host country. In addition to “surface” matters like dress, body language and social etiquette, our programmes also cover the deeper cultural values that underpin them, such as hierarchy, formality and status. This makes Cartus Cross-Cultural Programmes key to assignees’ professional and personal success, and an essential component of any international move.
If you would like more information on cultural issues, supporting relocating families, or any other aspect of relocation, contact us at or visit our Resource Hub on
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