Addicted to novelty since 2001

Stupid Tourists, Or How to Dress Appropriately in Morocco

Caution: travel snobbery and tourist judgment ahead.

So we’ve been living in Essaouira for about three weeks now. It’s a tourist-friendly town on the coast, and we’ve already noticed a slight up-tick in the tourist numbers since first arriving. I’m glad we’ll be leaving before the full weight of the spring tourists descends on these cramped streets.

As you probably know, Morocco is a Muslim nation. It’s quite a liberal one (the most liberal, I’m told), but you still hear the haunting call to prayer five times a day, and there are mosques–with very unassuming doors–on every major street.

As such, men and women dress conservatively. For women, the dress varies from cover-every-but-the-eyes djellabas to conservative, professional attire that covers everything from the neck to the ankles. Here in Essaouira, the rate of women who wear a head scarf covering at least their hair is probably about 75%. In larger cities, that rate would be lower.

Style Tips for the Smart Tourist

Here’s part of what my Lonely Planet Morocco has to say about how to dress:

Your choice of attire still may be perceived as a sign of respect for yourself, your family and your hosts (or lack thereof)…So if you want to make your family look good, and don’t want to miss out on some excellent company–especially among older Moroccans–do make a point to dress modestly.

For men and women alike, this means not wearing shorts and sleeveless tops. Even in trendy nightclubs, clingy clothing, short skirts and low-cut and midriff tops could be construed as, ahem, the oldest kind of professional attire.

That advice is reflected in online forums I’ve read. You’re always going to be recognizably a tourist (more on this in an old post), but it’s easy to respect the local dress code.

And in Essaouira, 19 out of 20 tourists do. Unfortunately, the twentieth always manages to embarrass themselves horribly. It’s not such a big deal for men, but they should leave the shorts on the beach (frankly, that advice ought to apply to the whole globe) and they should not, at any time, wear one of the local’s full length, hooded djellaba. I saw one North American doing that the other day, and he was getting all sorts of smirks from the locals.

Women are more restricted in what they should wear. As such, their fashion faux pas are more egregious. Shorts, short skirts, midriff-baring and low-cut tops, sleeveless shirts–it’s all pretty shameful.

A Few Brain Cells and Jedi Robes

It doesn’t take too many brain cells to:

  • Read a guidebook or travel forum and follow some basic sartorial advice.
  • Look around. See how much skin the locals aren’t showing, and dress accordingly.

Once every couple of days I see a ridiculously-dressed tourist that I just want to smack.

On a related note, the djellaba was almost certainly the inspiration for Jedi robes (and, come to think of it, the Jawa costumes). In fact, I suspect the costumer on the earliest Star Wars movie just bought one off a Berber’s back in Tunisia and threw it on Alec Guinness.

21 Responses to “Stupid Tourists, Or How to Dress Appropriately in Morocco”

  1. donna

    I have to say, I was a bit astonished to see people wearing spaghetti-strap tank tops in Zimbabwe. It just seemed… weird.

    I did have one with me as well, but I wore it UNDER another shirt. There’s no way I would have worn it alone… even if that is virtually what I live in at home.

    And shorts? Yeah. No shorts. I didn’t bring any. (Although my concession to the 40-45 degree heat was to wear a lot of capris…)

    While I might not agree necessarily with having to “cover up”, I also don’t agree with offending the locals. Maybe it’s just me. :)

  2. Kirsten

    I remember passing a high school in Tunisia and seeing the girls in jeans and t-shirts… over long-sleeved black shirts. Our driver was wearing a heavy sweater AND a leather jacket inside a pretty toasty car with no air conditioning. I guess they’re used to it, but it astounds me how a culture in one of the hottest parts of the world decides to make everybody cover up in heavy dark clothing.

    We covered pretty much to the ankles and wrists just to be polite. It’s not that hard to do with long flowy sleeves and skirts that circulate the air. The half-naked visitors don’t realize the sort of attention they might attract, especially if they wander out of the tourist areas…

  3. darren

    I know, I’m walking around in a t-shirt and jeans on the beach, and I’m passing people in sweaters and heavy jackets. Our temperature ranges are just set very differently, I guess. I’m glad I won’t be here when it gets seriously hot.

  4. darren

    TOH: It’s just a kind of gut instinct, I guess. To me, it smells like pretence and cultural appropriation–“I’m wearing your clothes, and therefore I’m like you”. Or, even worse, “I’m wearing your clothes for a lark, and I’m laughing at you”. Even if the intent is legit and respectful, it can easily be misinterpreted.

    On the other hand, if somebody wants to wear a djellaba in Canada (or, heck, anywhere they’re not conventionally worn), go nuts.

  5. The Other Heather

    I guess I’d see it as ‘I’m trying to learn your culture.’ I’d try to cover my head, for example, if I was walking around in an Islamic country…it wouldn’t be strictly required in many places, but I would think that it would be respectful to at least observe the traditions.

    But I haven’t traveled much…so it’s probably a moot point.

  6. Andy K

    What this post is missing are some photos of the offenders. I say shame them.

    Then again, here in Hawaii, I never have my camera when I see the couple in matching Hawaiian print shirts and shorts with white tube socks and brown velcro shoes.

  7. Anthony

    It just takes some common sense and a little research. I agree pictures…we need to embarrass them.

  8. foxnomad

    Dress appropriately is a good one.

    Also, watch your feet in Muslim countries. Don’t put them up, wear them in homes or mosques, or wipe them on fountains, buildings, etc.

    Learn the basic cultural faux pas before you go, most good guide books (and blogs) will give you good advice.

  9. sonja

    It seems to me, that you can’t pick on both and be fair. Reading through your post, I have no trouble imagining that a short sleeved, short skirt wouldn’t go over very well. But then to say that you can’t try to wear the local attire (which was what I was imagining would be more comfortable in the heat than long pants and long shirts) because you’ll inevitably do it wrong, leaves me wondering what’s left.

    I would rather know what you should do, then, if you were interested in wearing the local attire. Because on the rare occasions where I have traveled, that certainly would have been my preference.

  10. darren

    Sonja: You make a good point, but my goal isn’t about being fair. It’s about being as respectful as possible to the locals.

    One concern I have with wearing local attire in Muslim countries is that clothes are dictated, informed and motivated by religion. As I indicated earlier, that makes wearing a djellaba a charged and possibly offensive gesture.

    In my experience, the average tourist (and I’d include myself in that group) isn’t informed enough to make smart judgments about the cultural impact of wearing local garments.

    I’d have fewer objections to dressing like the locals if the clothes have less symbolic power. A good example might be wearing a brightly-coloured shirt in a local pattern in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the visitor has to be informed enough to know that certainly colours and patterns will affiliate them with certain political groups. The same goes for Northern Ireland–you want to be a little careful which neighbourhoods you wander through if you’re wearing orange in that country.

  11. Robert

    This goes back to the 70’s but in Morocco, as in almost all places I travel to, I went under the assumption that the local dress was the dress that best fitted the climate. So I went into the local souk, spent about 3/4 hour bargaining for a djellaba (a wonderful experience the details of which I remember to this day) and then proceeded to wear the garment for the rest of my stay in the country. I was aware of no smirking or derogatory glances at any time, and found the garment very confortable and warm. I even wore it in Paris (I wouldn’t do this today however…) but there I did get accosted by a couple of local arab men who objected to me wearing THEIR national clothing. If this happened today, I wouldn’t put up with such comments, but would counter “who do you think that you are to dictate to me what I can or cannot wear?” But of course they do this with their own people too now don’t they…?
    Robert

  12. Sarah

    One problem I’m having in preparing for my family’s trip to Morocco is this – what is the dress code for a thirteen year old girl? Can anyone help?

  13. Kim

    After reading this article, I’m still not clear on what to wear. I’m considering a trip next July which will include Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Research keeps turning up conflicting answers.

    For Spain and Portugal, I had planned on walking sandals, short-sleeve (or 3/4 length sleeve) blouses and knee-length skirts. Pants are *not* a good option for me. Since I’m trying to pack very lightly, I rather bring clothing that (a) will work for all three countries, (b) comfortable in hot, hot weather and (c) will dry quickly when washed and hung overnight.

    So, how short is “too short” for a skirt? How long should sleeves be?

  14. Myra

    As a global traveler, I find it quite funny that the owner of this owner of this site would want to “smack” tourists who wear shorts or sleeveless tops in overwhelmingly Islamic destinations. Speaks to me more of inner frustration than actual facts and years of travel. My husband and I returned from Syria two years ago, before the current increase in tourism. We went to out-of-the-way places and in every area, we both wore t-shirts and shorts. I have received greetings from women wearing robes which covered everything except their eyes, and we have both been treated with kindness by Bedouins, as well as city people. We have been to Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and many Pacific countries — always wearing shorts and t-shirts, sometimes tank tops, and always during the hottest times of the year. I was not grabbed, yelled at or denigrated in any way. We have Muslim friends and guess what? They tell us that our shorts are fine, we would not be molested. They were right! We have never been accosted for our clothing. My advice is to dump the hang-ups and learn to get along with the people on the ground instead of fussing over your clothes. You would be surprised as to how attitudes are more relaxed globally and ignorance is more likely to be found on the pages of this site than on the ground, with the local people!

  15. Claire

    I’ve just been told by a friend who is married to a Moroccan that my daughter, who is going there for two weeks, would be well advised to wear a djellaba since doing so will be taken as a mark of cultural respect. It seems opinions vary.

  16. kate

    i was in vietnam this winter, and dressed appropiatly…with capris, and long skirts. sometimes i’d wear a tank top, but only with a long-sleeve, loose white shirt over it; it was great because I didn’t get sunburn, covered my entire upper body, and, yet, when I was alone in my room, I could just take the white shirt off and be cool and comfy in my tank top.

    anyway, my point was that i saw these embarassing tourists, too. i saw a whole group of american young women in shorts that almost covered their bums, and teeny little tops that showed their bellies and arms and shoulder, etc…

    ….I mean, really. how hard is it to read up a little and realize that this is totally inapprpriate in vietname??!?!

    I was so embarassed when i saw them; even though i’m canadian, not american, but it’s not like vietnamese people can tell us apart.

    the feet thing is true in vietnam, too. its cause their mostly buddists, and the feet are considered a rather unholy body part. if you go there, do not put your feet up on a table, etc. and don’t ever touch anyone on the head, or point at someone either; non-verbal communication is different, too.

  17. anacaona

    I’m going to Jordan for the first time in a few weeks(insh’allah)and I don’t want to look disrespectful. I want to cover myself and my boyfriend says it’s not necesary. Can someone tell me or advise me on what should I do?

  18. Emilie R Brennan

    personally i would never wear anything but pants and long sleeves it can be uncomfortable at times and keeping your skin covered will add to your security

  19. Vlaflip

    Just a question; would mid-calf to ankle-length dresses with a long, flowy vest over it (to cover the arms) and a legging or loose ankle-length pants underneath be considered appropriate enough? And what about cleavage, what is still okay and what is crossing the line? I tend to dress modestly anyway and am very critical of necklines when shopping anyway, but what I consider to be modest may not be what Moroccans consider to be modest.

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