On a trip to Riyadh last January, I told my Saudi friend Khalid how much I love thobes, the elegant fitted white traditional garb worn by men across the country. While sipping sweet mint tea from sticky etched glasses, I confessed how envious I was that we didn’t have such a traditional garment for men in the U.S., or in Europe, where I live now. Without hesitating, he said, “Let’s go get you one!”
To be honest, it never dawned on me that I could buy a thobe. I had a huge admiration for them, yet I knew very little about what it meant to wear one. “Is it respectful for a foreigner to wear one?” I asked, worried that dressing up might be cultural appropriation. “Of course it’s respectful!” he said, beaming. “Thobes aren’t religious; they’re just what we wear here to stay cool in the desert heat.”
Moments laters, Khalid and I were chest deep in stacks of fabric at a thobe shop in Riyadh’s Al Dirah district. Khalid spoke in Arabic with the shopkeeper and after a few tries, I found one that fit me perfectly. I even bought a ghutrah, the red and white cloth head wrap to keep cool. “You look handsome,” said Khalid. I teasingly agreed with him. Even the otherwise stoic shopkeeper cracked a wide smile when he saw me.
The thobe did keep me cool and allowed me to do so without wearing shorts, which are not advised in many Muslim-majority countries, Saudi Arabia included. I was so pleased with it that I decided to wear it for the rest of the day while touring the city’s UNESCO listed At-Turaif district and stopping for an om ali dessert (a type of Middle Eastern bread pudding) at the legendary Em Sherif cafe. Naturally, I posted a photo of myself wearing it on Instagram and went about my day.
Trouble started to brew that afternoon when I met an American colleague who immediately balked at my sartorial choices. It was his first trip to Saudi, too, so I was vexed by his indignation. “You’re not actually wearing that?” he said, rolling his eyes. Unfortunately, it was a taste of what was to come on social media. I checked my post only to find comments like disrespectful, cultural appropriation, ugly tourist, entitled white American, tone deaf, insensitive. Many of my fellow queer American friends—normally watchdogs of tolerance and inclusivity— wrote even snarkier and even more vitriolic things like, “Good luck not getting beheaded.” “Muslims hate gays.” And: “You are wearing the costume of the people who kill us.”
Where was the line between LBGTQ advocacy and Islamophobia, I wondered? How could I feel so welcomed and encouraged to wear a thobe in Saudi and so vilified online and back in America? More importantly, who was right?
How could I feel so welcomed and encouraged to wear a thobe in Saudi and so vilified online and back in America?? More importantly, who was right?
Many travelers have been in a similar situation, where the rules of a destination conflict with the optics in their home country. Perhaps a local friend suggests we prove our newfound love for a destination in the form of lederhosen or a Korean hanbok. It can all seem so good-natured until someone snaps a photo and interpretations from abroad take you out of the moment and deeper into the quandary. The age of social media has made these tensions feel more urgent.
Women who have been to an Indian wedding, Indian or not, may have worn a sari. Men at a bar mitzvah, Jewish or not, are asked to wear a yarmulke. During ceremonies like these, guests follow protocol set by the hosts. But it’s the moments when, as travelers, we choose to express ourselves through another culture’s apparel that things can get murky. On one end of the spectrum, there’s someone wearing an oversized sombrero or a plaid Maasai shuka to a Halloween party; on the other, there’s someone being invited to wear a kimono in Kyoto. Knowing where that line is can be difficult—and questions about authenticity, agency, and appropriation are bound to arise.
“Curiosity and openness are hallmarks of traveling,” says Thomas P. Farley, a New York-based etiquette expert known as Mister Manners who makes frequent appearances on the Today Show. “If we are unreceptive to new ideas, we may be expanding our geographic horizons but not our mindsets. So before we dive into any local experience, whether with our wardrobe choices or participatory actions, we owe it to the locals to ensure we understand the meanings imbued in their rituals and that we are truly welcome to partake in them.”
Back in Riyadh, the afternoon heat began to hit and I started to feel rattled by the online comments. I’d been getting warm smiles all day long from locals who seemed to appreciate my enthusiasm, so I wasn’t ready to remove my thobe just yet. But I did swap out my starchy ghutrah for a baseball cap, which I’d seen many locals doing.
“A thobe and a baseball hat, huh? You’d fit right in in Jeddah,” said a Saudi native who wished to remain anonymous.
“People are still so confused about the clothing customs in the Middle East,” she continued. “Many think that Saudi women are forced to wear abaya, but as of 2019 they’re no longer required—nor are male chaperones or male drivers. But many of us still wear them occasionally. It’s a matter of personal choice.
“When I dress modestly it’s often to show respect for the traditions to older locals,” she added (she was wearing jeans, heels, and no headscarf to our meeting). “Clothing doesn’t define who we are.”
Later that night, I vented to another Saudi friend about the negative reactions I got on social media from my American friends. “I wish they could see how proud the locals are to see me in a thobe,” I lamented. My friend stopped me immediately, “No, we are not proud that you wear a thobe,” he said. “We are not insulted either. We’re indifferent.”
It’s important to remember that an outsider wearing a traditional garment doesn’t increase its value.
It was an important and nuanced point. My wearing a thobe doesn’t validate thobes. My ego needed to hear that. It’s important to remember that an outsider wearing a traditional garment doesn’t increase its value. For me, wearing a thobe was about looking good and fitting in. I wasn’t trying to pass as Saudi, but I also didn’t want to call attention to myself as a foreigner.
Some locals may have their own issues with traditional dress which can often run deeper than style. Some Saudis may prefer, for example, to wear Western clothes rather than a thobe. “Things are often more complex than we realize,” says Dr. Michael Hill, cultural anthropologist and professor specializing in indigenous and tourism studies at Ecuador’s Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “Indigenous people here in the Andes, for instance, may struggle with whether to wear or eschew traditional clothing, because it can be highly racialized and stigmatized in the dominant society and can lead to discrimination.”
Cultural groups may also be conflicted among themselves regarding outsiders adopting their clothing or style. “Here in Ecuador, I’ve heard different views from Afro-Ecuadorian women concerning the adoption of African-derived hairstyles by outsiders. They vary from approval to intense criticism about the appropriation of braiding by whites or mestizos who may not understand historical and sociocultural contexts, and may not suffer the same levels of everyday racism when they choose to adopt them.”
Can we avoid making insensitive blunders? “When in doubt, ask a local. And another and another,” reminds Mister Manners. “Don’t rely on shopkeepers, who may be motivated to make a sale.”
‘When in doubt, ask a local. And another and another,’ reminds Mister Manners.
Traveling gives us limited windows into cultures—and we travelers, too, often see what we come to see and ignore the complicated stuff.
If you just want to fit in or look good while traveling, remember that optics online count too. Even if your clothing is vetted by multiple people locally, a photo may still be triggering for people elsewhere. It’s an important reminder that while travel may be individually enriching, it’s seldom an individual act.
Adam H. Graham Adam H. Graham is an American journalist and travel writer based in Zürich. He has written for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, BBC and more. Assignments have taken him to over 100 countries to report on travel, sustainability, food, architecture, design, and nature.